Best, or worst?
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To say 2021 was an eventful year would, as was the case last year, be an understatement. The continued COVID-19 pandemic, the sluggish economy it has created and how we’ve all responded to it have made this year’s news cycle fast, brutal and short.

As is the case when a lot is happening, not all of it is bad. The eight news items covered in this best tech of 2021 list include gadgets and goings-on that were exciting in a good way, so no — there won’t be any mention of the chip shortage after this sentence.

The Apple M1 has a banner year

Apple started selling M1 computers in late 2020, but 2021 was the year the M1, and its successor the M1X, captured headlines and wowed users.

Apple’s in-house M1 chips were huge performance boosters for its machines, and as of late 2021 can be found in its desktops, laptops and even the iPad Pro, bringing desktop-level performance to Apple’s top-end tablet.

The latest M1 chips, the M1X, is reportedly twice as fast at GPU tasks and three times faster performing machine learning operations than its predecessor. There’s still several years between now and when Apple finally phases out its use of Intel processors, but the stellar performance of its initial silicon offerings indicate nothing but good things in store.

Google announces its own silicon, too

Not to be outdone, Google recently announced the Pixel 6 series, which will come with the company’s first in-house SoC, the Google Tensor chip.

Unlike the M1 series, Google designed the Tensor chip, named for its TensorFlow ML platform, from the ground up for its Pixel series smartphones. In particular, Google’s aim with the Tensor chip was to bring its next-level machine learning capabilities to its mobile devices without needing to send data off to the cloud for processing.

SEE: Artificial Intelligence Ethics Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Like the latest version of the iPhone, which brought speech recognition to the on-device chip, the Tensor chip boosts performance by eliminating the need to transmit data. Along with on-device speech recognition, the Tensor chip is able to perform AI photo touch-ups and corrections just like those Google is able to do on a full-scale TensorFlow setup.

Basically, if you’ve been impressed by what Apple has done with its own in-house silicon, but aren’t an Apple user, this is the chip to be excited about.

Commercial space flight becomes a part of life

The early part of 2021 was full of headlines about the billionaire space race that pitted Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos against each other in a bid for who would reach (near to) the stars first. Fast forward several months, and Bezos’ Blue Origin is regularly ferrying the wealthy and influential to the edge of space in its reusable rocket.

Commercial space flight news reached its apex when William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain James T. Kirk, reached space with Blue Origin on October. At 90, Shatner became the oldest person ever to go to space, but his going does something else entirely for public perception of space travel: It signals that it’s here, even if it’s still slightly out of reach for most of us.

NFTs demonstrate more blockchain applications

There’s a good argument to be made for leaving NFTs off this list: What practical good do incredibly overpriced digital paintings and collectibles, whose ownership rights you’re not even technically buying along with the NFT, generate for the world?

Well, the NFTs themselves may not generate any actual value aside from the ludicrous prices they can fetch, but NFTs warrant a mention as one of the best pieces of tech of the year for showing us yet again what blockchains could be used for; in this case, establishing ownership of non-fungible assets.

The concept of a blockchain is still relatively new and, in many cases, difficult to comprehend. That’s led the world to treating it like a toy, but playing around with speculative cryptocurrencies and digital non-fungible assets paves the way for practical uses like smart contracts that can transfer ownership, better chains of custody and supply chain management.

Pholding phones are phinally pheasible

Samsung released the third generation of its Galaxy Z Fold and Z Flip, its two folding smartphones. As reviewed by TR editor-in-chief Bill Detwiler and myself, the third generation of these devices are the first ones that feel like something more than a concept.

Both devices are much improved over their predecessors, both in terms of the devices themselves and their ability to fold. Beyond usability, both Bill and I enjoyed using them thoroughly, with the verdict being that we’d gladly use a folding phone if there was an Apple version.

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The Fold 3 and Flip 3 indicate that folding phones came into their own in 2021. Now we just have to wait to see which other OEMs decide to hop on the bandwagon.

The crypto market attracts regulators

There’s a political philosophy at the core of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology: It’s decentralized and resistant to rules and regulations. Unfortunately, a non-hierarchically and centrally managed means of exchange is antithetical to the current global economy, so it makes sense that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would attract regulators as they grow in influence.

China banned cryptocurrency mining this year, and while U.S. regulators have been vacillating on their desire to bring the crypto market to heel, it’s unlikely it will continue to be allowed to run rampant as an unregulated speculative market, especially with such drastic swings in value possible.

SEE: Metaverse cheat sheet: Everything you need to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Regulation in the crypto market, while it may not be wanted, may be what it needs to make cryptocurrencies a practical possibility. Current energy usage, excessive fees and rampant scams make Bitcoin anything but useful as a currency right now. Some new legal standards surrounding the market will be anything but bad in the long run.

Right to repair makes breakthroughs

There’s been a long-standing struggle between OEMs and device owners for the right to repair their hardware at home or via a third party tech, and 2021 is the year when things finally started moving. Device owners have been the ones benefiting from new regulations, like those in Europe that mandate all electronic devices be repairable for 10 years.

Apple put the right to repair fight back in the headlines in November when it announced that it would start selling device parts directly to consumers who want to repair their own iPhones. Apple plans to extend the program to other devices in the future, and though it didn’t say so, it’s likely that the EU’s repairability laws were a major impetus for the change.

With Apple, one of right to repair’s staunchest opponents, giving in, it’s only a matter of time before more tech from more companies is easily repaired from the comfort of home — great news for those who are technically proficient enough to save the money and go the DIY route.

Electric vehicle purchases surge

Predictions in early 2021 forecasted a 71% increase in electric vehicle purchases over the course of the year. By October, an 88% increase was actually reported, putting EV market growth beyond expectations.

All that growth means that EVs still only account for around 2.7% of the entire automotive market, so there’s a lot of room to grow. With additional infrastructure requirements and additional incentives from the Biden administration, there’s never been a better time to buy an EV. We’ve even entered an age where you can find used electric cars. The future really is now, and more affordable than ever.

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