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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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2021 Favorites: Hardware

As we reach the end of the year, it’s time for us to share some of the stuff that we liked this year. Here are our picks for our favorite hardware of the year. Some are obvious… some less so.

24-inch iMac

The iMac kept the same design for most of the 2010s. It was a design built for processors and disk drives of a very different era, and with each late-2010s revision, I kept waiting for it to be replaced. But the old design soldiered on.

It took the transition to Apple silicon to finally force Apple’s hand and release the 24-inch iMac, an entirely new computer for the era of SSDs and power-efficient Apple-built processors.

But while the 24-inch iMac more or less performed like the other M1-based Macs that preceded it, those other systems were visually unchanged from their Intel versions. The new iMac is visibly different, offered in six eye-popping colors (plus good ol’ silver) that suggest this iMac is meant to stand out, not blend in. It’s the first iMac with bright colors since the original G3 models.

The tiny details also suggest a new direction for Mac desktop hardware design, from the magnetic power cord to the detached power supply (with optional Ethernet jack) to the color-matched braided accessory cables. The iMac has a new lease on life for the 2020s.—Jason Snell

14-inch MacBook Pro

After a rough five or so years for Apple’s laptop designs, is all forgiven? The new MacBook Pro models introduced two new processors that provide Mac Pro-level performance, and that’s incredibly exciting. But while MacBook Pro users need processing power to do their jobs, what makes them happy is often the day-to-day stuff around the edges.

The keyboard was addressed beginning in late 2019. But the rest of it… The new MacBook Pro brings back an SD card slot and an HDMI port and a MagSafe charging connector. Pro laptops are tools—they need to be fast and flexible, and the new MacBook Pro obliges.

Then there’s the screen, which so often gets missed, either because everyone’s focused on that M1 Pro/Max processor, or because it’s got a camera notch in it. But the screen might be the most impressive feature of the whole laptop, thanks to its bright, high-dynamic-range mini-LED backlighting and its ProMotion high refresh rate.

After years of misunderstanding what its pro laptop users really want, Apple proved this year that the company gets it. It found the plot. We might not forget, but forgive? I think it’s time.—J.S.

ScanSnap ix1600

A scanner might seem like the height of late 20th century technology, but this is not your parents’ janky flatbed model. No, the ScanSnap ix1600, like much of the rest of Fujitsu’s well-regarded product line, is designed for one thing and one thing only: consuming documents at an amazing pace. A couple days ago I popped in 30 pages of car maintenance records and it not only chewed through them, but used optical character recognition to digitize all the text, creating a massive PDF with searchable contents. The kicker? It took less than a minute.

At $399, the ScanSnap isn’t cheap, but as someone who has boxes of old paper documents that need digitizing and shredding, it’d be a steal at twice the price. It’s fast, efficient, works wirelessly, and even folds up to not take up too much space.

Sure, the ScanSnap software is a little bit on the cumbersome side, but once you’ve set up the shortcuts to quickly scan to the folder of your choice, you rarely have to spend much time futzing with it. I’ve had it just drop those files into iCloud, where they’re saved and easy for me to find. Other than the occasional paper feed issue (easily fixed), I’ve found the ScanSnap experience good enough that I almost want to spend time feeding documents in.

Almost.—Dan Moren

iPad mini

The 2021 iPad mini is a little miracle. It’s a thoroughly modern iPad, integrating loads of iPad Pro technology into a very small body.

While it is a smaller iPad, it’s not a lesser iPad. I was able to edit a podcast with eight separate audio tracks using Ferrite Recording Studio and an Apple Pencil, and it didn’t skip a beat.

Most people probably won’t use the iPad mini to write using an external keyboard or edit a podcast or video. Fortunately, its small size makes it a much more manageable device for using Safari or various reading apps or social media or email. It does it all—and fits in all sorts of use cases that might cramp the style of larger iPads.—J.S.

Kobo Libra

Kobo Libra 2

As a writer, I unsurprisingly read quite a bit. Over the last couple years, I’ve increasingly shifted to ebooks, thanks in large part to the instant gratification aspect. While I’ve owned a few different Kindles, I found myself wondering what else was out there, so when Jason wrote up the first-generation Kobo Libra, it seemed like a good time to take a step into a larger world.

I like everything about the Libra, from its variable backlighting (including the very handy gesture of swiping up and down on the left side of the screen to adjust the intensity) to its waterproof nature. The latest Paperwhite has adopted many of these features, but the Libra still comes out ahead, thanks to its superior typography, better library integration, and yes, physical page-turning buttons. My 10th-generation Kindle Paperwhite looks positively antiquated by comparison.

At $180, the latest version of the Libra is a little more expensive than the Paperwhite (though if you opt for the ad-free version of the Paperwhite, not that much more), but it’s still $80 cheaper than the only Amazon option with physical page-turn buttons, the high-end Kindle Oasis.

The Libra has become my go-to e-reader, but it’s not just about all those features: for me, the Libra gets closer than any Kindle has to make me feel like I’m reading a real book. And you can’t put a price tag on that.—D.M.

Stream Deck

I was absolutely a Stream Deck skeptic when I first heard about it. I have a keyboard, full of keys and modifiers! Why do I need more keys when I already have an impossible number of combinations ready to be assigned to macros, obscure commands, whatever.

But I’ve come around. The Stream Deck is transformative because it’s got a programmable LCD display under its keys, allowing you to program actions and visually represent them with an icon. And if you need more buttons, just add more pages, or set a page full of buttons to appear automatically in particular apps.

What makes Stream Deck take flight is that it’s got fantastic app integration. Owing to its origins as a game streamer utility, it’s well integrated with OBS, Streamlabs, Wirecast, and Ecamm Live. But the game-changer for me was its two integrations with Keyboard Maestro. Once Keyboard Maestro is involved, you can wire up almost anything on your Mac to a custom button with an icon.

How fast did I turn around on Stream Deck? After buying a six-button $80 Stream Deck Mini and using it for a few months, I upgraded to the $150 15-button Stream Deck. (I got it used, from my friend Stephen Hackett… because he upgraded to the $250 32-button Stream Deck XL.)

Sure, you could assign an automation to command-control-shift-1. Or you could pop it on a Stream Deck button with a memorable icon behind it. It’s better.—J.S.

Sonos Arc

For a long time, my home theater audio setup relied upon the same stereo receiver and bookshelf speakers that my dad gave me back in the mid-90s. This year, however, I decided to make the switch and replace that venerable equipment with a Sonos Arc sound bar.

The Arc was my choice for a few reasons: its sound was well-regarded, it supports the ARC protocol that lets me reduce the number of remotes floating around, and it works with both AirPlay and my other existing Sonos speakers, including the two Play:1s that I repurposed as rear surround speakers. The result has been a tremendous upgrade to my home theater that brings real presence to TV, movies, and games.

The Arc isn’t cheap: at $899, you’re best off using a discount code or waiting until it goes on sale. It’s also quite large, so make sure you have room for it. (From what I’ve heard, the second-generation Sonos Beam, the company’s less expensive soundbar, has many of the same features and is much more compact, for about half the price.) But it’s hard to argue that you don’t get some bang—and some bass—for your buck.—D.M.

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