There were plenty of predictable new tech things in 2021, like the latest iPhones or laptops. These are some of the weird, fun, or just useful things we tried out and actually recommend — from e-bikes to a cheapo phone stand, guitar pedals, and even a ’70s-style role-playing game.
These items were independently selected by staff and except where noted, they spent their own money on it. Just so you know, may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page if you decide to shop from them. Oh, and FYI — prices are accurate and items in stock as of the time of publication.
AirPods Max — $549 at Apple
Look, Apple’s AirPods Max are some expensive headphones — like months’-worth-of-groceries expensive (Apple loaned a pair to review.) And let’s be honest, your current earbuds probably sound pretty great and have more daily use cases. But if you feel you need over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max are a really good choice. They pump out clear, gloriously rich sound with solid separation. I am no audiophile, so I’ll not belabor this with “omg a unique magnesium cone!” minutiae. What I will say is that these headphones adeptly handled everything I threw at them, from the most annoyingly quiet Sufjan Stevens to colon-rupturing Swedish math metal. And they nailed the low note on Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump,” which is the bass metric all headphones should be judged on. Beyond this, they’re thoughtfully designed, though their precious little charging purse is a bit much. So, yeah, if you’re intent on purchasing some high-end headphones, you’re not going to go wrong with these. But also: Groceries are a fun thing to have. —John Paczkowski
Casper Glow Light — $116 at Casper
It’s a very nice ambient light. You spin it to make it brighter or dimmer, which is both fun and handy. I use it as a bedside light and also as mood lighting in the living room when I watch TV at night. Then I can shut everything off and go to the bathroom or back to bed using just this light, which makes me feel like I’m in an old-timey movie using a candlestick. Convenient and pleasant! —Shannon Keating
Apple AirTags for my TV remote and rubber remote case — AirTags: $29 for one or $99 for four at Apple. Case: $7.99 at Amazon.
The remote is by far the worst part of the older-model Apple TVs. It’s somehow super slippery in your hand and so light it feels hard to control. It’s super thin and small, the perfect size for losing between couch cushions. The newest 4K Apple TVs come with an improved remote, which is sold separately for $59, but that’s way more than I want to spend.
So instead I put one of these rubber covers on my current remote. It makes it grippy and easy to hold, and the bright color is easy to find, which was great until my toddler decided it is her most coveted toy. Finding the remote very quickly became a daily, sometimes hourly issue. Either my daughter had run off with it, or an adult had hidden it from her to prevent that from happening.
So I AirTagged the remote. The case has a special slot to accommodate Apple’s little item-tracking device. The “Precision Finding” feature in the iPhone’s Find My app makes it easy to find lost things like TV remotes with a visual tracking feature that approximates how far away an item is. And the extra weight the AirTag adds to the remote feels nice in the hand. If you’re only ever going to track a TV remote, you might consider Tile’s cheaper tracking device, but if you’re an iPhone person prone to misplacing more than one item (I wanted one for my keychain as well as my husband’s keys and one to stick in our car for the times I forgot where I parked), then the AirTag four-pack makes a lot of sense (Apple loaned me AirTags for review, but I liked them enough I bought my own.) —Katie Notopoulos
Janome 2212 sewing machine — $199 at Amazon
At some point last winter, I developed an itch for making things with my hands. I dreamed of becoming a DIY person, and that dream wore out my credit card. I bought paint, canvases, 10 balls of yarn, knitting needles, embroidery hoops, a hot glue gun that’s still sitting in my drawer, unopened. And in my frenzy, I also got a sewing machine, a Janome 2212 that Google led me to believe was “an easy sewing machine for beginners.”
To my great surprise, it was not easy. Sewing machines have too many knobs and too many labels, too many sections to thread your string through and around, and yet are so finicky that you have to wonder why we’ve gone to the moon but can’t make a simpler, more efficient machine for sewing. It’s a messy and frustrating hobby, and it will fill up your room with scrap fabric and half-finished projects. I’ve lost entire days using this thing. I’ve made dresses, I’ve altered sweaters, and I’ve watched hours of YouTube tutorials explaining what the hell a French seam is and how to sew a zipper on. You have to follow instructions and be patient, two qualities I don’t care for. None of the clothes I’ve made have ever come out well; there’s always a loose thread somewhere and wonky stitching. But it’s also, somehow, meditative, and when you’re out in a dress you made and someone asks where it’s from, you get to say, “Thanks, I made it. Just don’t look too closely.” —Clarissa-Jan Lim
RadRover 6 Plus electric bike — $1,999 at Rad Power Bikes
I can’t afford the RadRover 6 Plus electric bike, but I was lucky enough to try it (Rad Power Bikes loaned a bike to review) and, yes, I liked it. Loved it, actually. And I say that as someone who has never quite understood the electric bike phenomenon. But after this bike took me to a favorite fishing hole at 22 mph and then off-roaded me up a poorly maintained trail right to the water without requiring really anything of me or my rickety knee, I get it. I am not a bike expert. My last bike was stolen, and the one before that was a trashed Huffy Thunder Road. But I found the RadRover to be pretty amazing, though it is quite heavy and built like a small motorcycle. Great ride, good battery life, and very easy to use — even for e-bike Luddites like me. —John Paczkowski
Plasma Coil guitar pedal — $350 from Third Man
Though you undoubtedly know Jack White best for his guitar work in bands like the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, he’s doing some equally amazing things with Third Man Records, an independent label and, most importantly for the purposes of this review, a purveyor of a guitar pedal called the Plasma Coil. This is an apt name for a pedal that distorts the notes you play on a guitar by expressing them as a electrical discharges *you can see* courtesy a xenon gas–filled tube. Designed by Gamechanger Audio, the Plasma Coil literally amplifies audio signals to 3,500 volts. It sounds as badass as it looks — like a 50-pound wasp nest. It’s pretty much lightning in a box and an absolute blast to play. And if you dig the Plasma Coil, it’s worth noting that a few of Third Man’s other pedals are equally impressive, including the Bumble Buzz, (a sick fuzz box) and the Triplegraph (a digital octave pedal with individual octave-up and octave-down channels that make your guitar sound like a noise in a science fiction movie). —John Paczkowski
The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition role-playing game — $119 at Amazon
Since I was (a) locked down at home and (b) no longer commuting, I had extra hours and nostalgia for the role-playing game of my adolescence — a criminally simple and fun one called the Fantasy Trip. Popular for its single-player adventures back in the 1970s and perfect for the pandemic era, the game was revived two years ago by its original designer in a legacy edition. A throwback to the mayhem-flavored era of pen-and-paper games, the easy but elegant rules allow for intriguing match-ups against monsters represented by cardboard square game pieces that evoke the era when light beer was new. Anyone who’s bored stiff at the thought of learning the latest gaudy Dungeons & Dragons rules but wants to bump off a band of bugbears, or who’s middle-aged enough to try to entice (force) your kids to do so with easy-to-learn rules, might give it a shot. I managed after a few tries to get my band of paper bravoes through a death test dungeon after a few weekends of on-and-off playing, and it has been a solace on rainy weekends ever since. In a nice mixture of old and new, I now play it over Roll20.net with an old high school buddy now living in Germany. —Dan Vergano
Lamicall metal phone stand — $9.99 at Amazon
In 2021, this became an essential part of my workstation. It allows my phone to act as a second screen (technically a third screen, since I already use a laptop plus a monitor). I previously had a flat wood stand that held the phone in a way that completely covered its speakers and microphone, making it impossible for video calling. This metal style also allows you to charge while on the stand. —Katie Notopoulos
Anker Nebula Cosmos 4K projector — $699 at Amazon
Who needs a TV when any flat surface in your home is a screen? Anker’s Cosmos projector is remarkably good at playing movies on bare white walls with a clarity of picture and sound that will satisfy most everyone but AV aficionados. With Dolby Digital Plus 360° theatrical audio and a sharp 1080p resolution, a 900 ANSI Lumen autofocus display that can be recalibrated almost instantly and sharpened with the press of a button, the Cosmos solidly and accurately plays everything from home movies on a bedroom wall to Aliens on a bedsheet in your backyard. It runs Google’s Android TV, so it supports Netflix, YouTube, and a host of other apps right out of the box (Anker loaned a projector to review.)—John Paczkowski
LectroFan white noise machine — $45 at Amazon
Four mammals live in my home, and we all need our beauty rest. The busy New York City block we live on poses challenges: barflies late at night, trash trucks first thing in the morning, and every other imaginable city noise in the hours between. That’s why we swear by white noise machines. My wife and I share one. My 18-month-old falls asleep to one. Even my dog, my sweet, neurotic Chihuahua-dachshund, has a white noise machine on top of his crate. He gets scared, OK? —Joe Bernstein
Facebook Portal Go — $199 at Portal
Yes, there’s an irony that despite everything that Cayuga Media has reported about Facebook over the past few years, I am recommending a Facebook product. If you want to feel truly pure about not supporting Meta, Facebook’s new parent company, well, go ahead and delete your Instagram account. It probably makes more money off showing you ads than the company would off a hardware purchase. I’ll wait.
The truth is, the Portal is a great video chatting device. The smart camera follows you around the room and can accommodate more than one face at a time. It’s great for connecting distant grandparents and small kids, particularly the rechargeable Portal Go, which can be carried from room to room. My kid loves taking Grandma out into the yard to show off his toys and adventures.
When I first tested the Go (Facebook loaned a Portal to review), my one big complaint was that there was no way to fully disable the “Watch Together” function during a call, which can be an issue if you want to control the videos your kids watch. Meta’s head of VR and Portal promised to fix this. So starting in December, you can block Watch Together completely during calls. —Katie Notopoulos
Vilo mesh Wi-Fi routers — $70 for three at Amazon
You may have heard of this “mesh Wi-Fi” thing from your friends who have bigger houses and more tech smarts than you. The Vilo is the mesh router for everyone else. The idea is that instead of one crappy router you stash under your bed, you evenly space three futuristic white bricks throughout your house. As you walk from room to room, you’ll always have a clear, strong Wi-Fi connection. Why would someone who lives in a small Brooklyn apartment need three Wi-Fi routers? The obvious answer is: Why the hell not? Vilos are about $70 for three and surprisingly attractive for a router. By comparison, a fancy mesh system from Google is $349. Wirecutter’s “budget pick” is still $130. I loathe spending money, but these guys just make sense. —Scott Pham
Opening illustration by Raymond Biesinger for Cayuga Media