With the coronavirus pandemic raging on, you might have expected consumer electronics companies to hunker down and avoid taking any big swings. Instead, they seem to have risen to the occasion, releasing all kinds of new products that have turned out to be pretty useful for those of us holed up at home. Remote work, for instance, is a lot easier when we’ve got affordable, powerful computers at our disposal, and the revolution in home fitness tech has led to exciting new offerings just as we’re trying to avoid the gym. Meanwhile, wilder ideas such as foldable phones give us something to look forward to once we are all out and about again.
For addressing more of our fumbled-phone anxieties
For most new versions of Gorilla Glass, Corning focuses on hardening the material against drops so that devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Note series don’t shatter when they hit the pavement. But with last year’s Gorilla Glass Victus, Corning paid attention to surface scratches as well, claiming twice the scratch resistance of its previous display glass while also improving drop resistance at the same time. It’s an important upgrade, because even if you barely notice those little scratches, they weaken the glass and increase the odds of a big break from future drops. Apple’s iPhone 12 launch also highlighted Corning’s invention of the world’s first transparent, color-free glass ceramic, which is known as Ceramic Shield. It incorporates ceramic crystals within the glass. Reviewers concluded that the screen was “virtually indestructible” in drop tests. Revenue for Corning’s Specialty Materials division was $570 million in the third quarter of 2020, and its efforts are bringing us that much closer to a future where a clunky case and screen protector are no longer necessary.
For always staying a step ahead
Unlike most of the companies on this list, Apple deserves credit not just for one big innovation but for a series of bold bets. It’s assaulting the PC business on two fronts, first with Macs powered by Apple silicon, and second by adding mouse and trackpad support to the iPad. Its AirPods Pro preemptively fended off a wave of would-be rivals by fitting noise cancellation into a slick package, and the Apple Watch Series 6 just builds on an already-untouchable lead in smartwatch tech with blood oxygen sensors and a brighter, always-on display. Apple even found time to take on the burgeoning mid-range smartphone business with the iPhone SE, a $399 phone with camera quality and processing power on par with some of its recent flagships. Tech pundits sometimes say that Apple lost its innovative touch without Steve Jobs, but nearly a decade after his death, there’s a mountain of evidence showing otherwise.
3. Raspberry Pi Foundation
For building a better DIY computer platform
For the past nine years, Raspberry Pi programmable mini-computers have helped hobbyist hackers put together neat tech projects on the cheap, from DIY robots to network-wide ad blockers. But the Raspberry Pi 400 doesn’t just feel like a hobby project. In a throwback to early home computers like the Commodore 64, it’s a $100 computer crammed into a compact keyboard, running a simple-to-use desktop version of Linux. People were already snapping up Raspberry Pis at record rates during the start of the pandemic and using them as cheap PCs. The new version leans further into the idea, though its hackable nature still serves as a gateway to the kind of DIY projects that make Raspberry Pi unique.
4. Samsung Electronics
For thinking different about phones and earbuds
When Samsung‘s original Galaxy Fold launched in 2019, it quickly became a laughingstock for a litany of design defects, raising the question of whether its first foldable phone would be a one-off experiment. But Samsung didn’t give up on the idea of a phone that could transform into a tablet, and last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 was a significant step forward. The second time around, Samsung added a sturdier hinge, a larger outer screen, more durable display glass, and better software for multitasking, resulting in widespread acclaim from gadget reviewers. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is still an expensive phone at $2,000, but it feels like a real product instead of a prototype, and it makes the strongest case yet that foldable phones have a bright future. Samsung also went against the grain with its Galaxy Buds Live earbuds, which neither hang next to your earlobes nor fit inside your ear canal. By resting instead alongside the counter of your outer ear, the bean-shaped buds feel lighter and less obtrusive without sacrificing great sound.
For fixing wireless charging’s biggest annoyance
Most wireless charging stations have one issue in common: You have to place your phone precisely over the spot where the charging coil lies, otherwise it might charge poorly—or not at all. Aira has solved the problem with its FreePower tech, which uses an array of coils and intelligent software to direct power toward the spot where a device is sitting. This allows Aira to charge multiple gadgets at the same time, no matter how they’re positioned. While Aira has partnered with the gadget brand Nomad to sell a charger directly to consumers, it’s also working with equipment manufacturers to build the tech into cars, desks, nightstands, cafe countertops, and beyond. (Motherson, a major automotive supplier, recently became a strategic investor.) The result could be ubiquitous wireless charging that works the way it was always supposed to.
For bringing personal weight training home in a private way
Would you spend thousands of dollars to avoid having some musclebound dude criticize your weightlifting technique at the gym? Tempo is betting you might. With colorful weights and infrared sensors, the $2,000 weight-training system creates a 3D model of your body for counting reps and analyzing your form. That information feeds into Tempo’s live and on-demand classes (which cost an additional $39 per month), where you might get pointers on better ways to lift even without any cameras peering into your exercise space. Yes, on some level this could be considered a Peloton for weights, but Tempo is delivering the benefits of personal weight training without the self-consciousness could have value long after the pandemic is over. Tempo expects to have a run rate of $100 million in its first year on the market.
For giving the laptop market some much-needed competition
Buying a laptop used to mean suffering through weak performance and worse battery life. That changed with the launch of AMD‘s Ryzen 4000 mobile processors, which deliver stellar battery life and surprisingly solid gaming performance even on mid-range laptops like Lenovo’s IdeaPad Flex 5 and HP’s Envy x360. By undercutting rivals on price without sacrificing performance, AMD introduced a jolt of competition to the laptop market, right at a time when more people needed laptops for working or learning from home. The company is reaping the benefits as well: A report last fall by Mercury Research found that AMD’s processor market share is the highest it’s been since 2007.
For rethinking how streaming TV should work
Apple CEO Tim Cook once said that “the future of TV is apps,” but Google has a fundamentally different idea: Instead of emphasizing separate apps, its Chromecast with Google TV streaming device puts content first, with a single menu that pulls in movies and shows from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney Plus, and more. While other companies have tried to build similar guides, Google’s is the most confident and cohesive yet, and it’s not limited to Google hardware. The same universal streaming guide will also make its way to smart TVs and other streaming devices this year, potentially creating a sea change in how we navigate an ever-growing number of streaming services.
9. Wyze Labs
For making smart gadgets more affordable
Over the past year, Wyze Labs has been flooding the zone with cheap connected gadgets, including a $20 security camera, a $50 sprinkler controller, a $200 room-mapping robot vacuum, and a $20 smartwatch. The key to these seemingly unbelievable prices? Instead of designing the hardware itself, Wyze licenses existing products from an overseas supplier (some of which, for instance, bear a strong resemblance to those sold by Chinese megabrand Xiaomi), then builds custom firmware and mobile apps to appeal to Western consumers. The result is a sprawling array of products, which it’s now starting to monetize through subscription services such as home monitoring and smart lawn irrigation. It’s a gutsy strategy, but it’s also a breath of fresh air at at time when most tech product ecosystems are dominated by tech giants.
For turning a hit phone accessory into an ecosystem
As a wildly-popular grip that attaches to the back of your phone, PopSockets was bound to attract cheap imitations and outright knockoffs. But instead of just standing idly by, PopSockets got to work on building a better product line. Last year, the company released a wireless charger that fits around its PopGrips, along with matching sets of press-on nails and even a PopSockets bottle opener. It also expanded its foray into PopGrips that double as lip balm containers, partnering on versions with Burt’s Bees inside. Meanwhile, CEO David Barnett found time to crusade against Big Tech, decrying Amazon’s bullying tactics as a retailer in testimony before Congress. Makers of copycat phone grips will have a hard time imitating all that.