Product Reviews

All the Gear We Fell In Love With During 2020

In an age of social distancing and digital competition, Hidrate also shows your friends and family’s stats if they own a bottle too, so you can turn drinking water into a rivalry. Yes, the bottles are still expensive, but if you like being able to track your own data, or save the planet from single-use plastic, or if you’re just on a health kick—Harvard University’s School of Public Health says drinking enough water is linked to regulating body temperature, preventing infections, improving sleep quality, and keeping organs functioning properly—a smart water bottle is worth a try. —Saira Mueller

21st-Century Audiovisual Equipment

We all have our blind spots. My kitchen might be equipped with a top-of-the-line Vitamix and Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. But before the pandemic, my spouse and I had the same enormous, heavy, 55-inch Panasonic TV with frizzy, blown-out speakers that we’ve had for the past 10 years. We just didn’t watch TV enough to think about it.

That all changed in March 2020. In April, desperate for some sense that all was not lost, I tentatively started my upgrade by adding a soundbar. The improvement in sound quality made the very hairs on my scalp stand up. A few months later, our A/V tester Parker Hall dropped off a midrange TCL 6 Series television for long-term testing. The difference between the dusty, enormous boulder of our old TV and the light, slim, bright one was obvious even to our 5-year-old. “Why does Paw Patrol look so much better now?” she asked, jumping on the couch in her jammies. If you’ve also forgotten that your television is worth an upgrade, I highly recommend it. —Adrienne So

Desktop Guitar Amps

I never realized how inconvenient guitar amps were until I owned one. Classic tube amps sound amazing, but they’re expensive, they weigh a ton, and they put off enough heat to warm small rooms (and enough sound to rattle a small house).

This year, I discovered the desktop guitar amp. Light, toolbox-sized amps like the Yamaha THR30-II and Positive Grid Spark bring everything you like about a physical amp into the 21st century. With everything from wireless cable technology to onboard processing for convincing effects (sans-pedalboard), these new digital amps finally sound too good to call them toys. Sure, I prefer my hand-wired Fender Bassman in the studio, but for most other applications, I reach for these little guys for the sheer convenience. Both the Spark and THR models come with USB and headphone outputs, as well as Bluetooth, which makes it easy to jam along with songs, record quick demos, or play during quiet hours.

I’m not the only one who has taken to them. I was recently watching a documentary about Taylor Swift’s Folklore, and noticed the songwriter messing with a familiar little Yamaha in an intro segment. If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. —Parker Hall

Ebikes

There was no watershed moment this year at which ebikes leapt forward technologically. It was more of a gradual arrival. Maybe it was that so many were pushed into duty as errand and commuter bikes because of Covid-19, and performed admirably. Or because you can now buy a decent ebike weighing not much over 40 pounds and costing not much over $1,000 that, even after you strip away the hub motor and pedal sensor, is also at its core a decent bike made with solid brand-name components.

I’m a motorcycle guy at heart, so the early days of heavy-ass ebikes touting high speeds (for a bike) and high price tags (for any vehicle) didn’t hold my attention. I wanted them to compete against analog bikes and become a tool of the masses—while not sucking. Ranges will increase, prices will drop, and electronics will move fully in-frame as affordable ebikes get better, but this was the year I stopped telling people to “just wait a little longer” when they ask if they should buy one. —Matt Jancer

A Hot Water Bottle

After moving into a new place last winter, I quickly learned that my apartment’s top-vent wall furnace was good for heating exactly one corner of my living room and no place else. A friend suggested I put a hot water bottle in bed at night to keep me warm, which I thought sounded quaint and not at all effective. I was wrong. For just $13 on Amazon, all the joys of non-modern heating become mine, a thermoplastic bag filled nightly with hot water. As if it weren’t cozy enough already, it even ships with a knitted sweater. (To be clear, the sweater is for the water bottle, not you.) Just know that you can’t put it in the microwave, and scalding hot water isn’t recommended, either. —Lauren Goode

A TV Remote Holder

Pre-pandemic, I tried to avoid watching TV from bed, but this year that rule went out the window. My Fire TV Stick became a self-soothing necessity, but I’d inevitably lose its tiny remote in my nest of blankets. This super-cheap remote holder was an impulse buy, and now it’s strangely indispensable. It can be mounted via screw or adhesive, and it helps me keep track of my remotes so I don’t have to rummage through my candy wrappers bedding in a panic to adjust the volume or skip a YouTube ad. Cheap thrills! —Louryn Strampe

A Document Camera

The Hue HD Pro ($100 on Amazon) is the most useful thing I tested in 2020. If you do any kind of teaching, demonstrating, or peer-reviewing on paper, or anything else that requires both a camera on you, and another on a document, the Hue HD Pro is the device you’ve been looking for. It integrates with Zoom, Skype, Webex, and Microsoft Teams, or you can record via the included software.

 

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