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Tech’s biggest winners in 2020

2020 has felt like an eternity, but the year is finally coming to a close. Despite everything we’ve all been through, though, there were a few bright spots in the world of tech. Console makers blessed us with mouthwatering next-gen hardware, while Apple wowed the industry with the prowess of its own M1 CPU. Google also delivered an excellent phone for just $350, demonstrating an ability to not just read the room, but also to think of a world beyond a well-heeled tech-savvy audience.

There are also companies that flourished during the global lockdown, and though truth continued to be contested throughout the US elections, we thankfully saw social media step up their efforts to combat misinformation. Clearly, staying home gave some of us the freedom to make great products and fight for good.

Apple’s M1 chipset

Apple’s M1 system on a chip (SOC) may be tiny, but its impact on the computing industry will be felt for years to come. The first of Apple’s silicon to reach Macs, the M1 is a powerhouse, with 8 CPU cores and up to 8 GPU cores. It’s an evolution of Apple’s A-series chips for the iPhone and iPad, but looking at the benchmarks, you’d never mistake it for a mere mobile chip. Both the M1-equipped MacBook Air and MacBook Pro blew away comparable Intel or AMD-based PCs in the Geekbench 5 benchmark. The Air was particularly impressive, since it wields so much power without even needing a fan.

With the M1, Apple is betting on itself in a major way. The company no longer needs to wait for an Intel refresh before it can announce new computers. Now, Apple is working on its own demanding scheduling. The M1’s sheer performance and efficiency is a major black eye for both Intel and AMD, who’ve been battling it out for PC dominance for years. And it proves that ARM-based chips, which previously were relegated to phones and tablets, can actually be capable enough for laptops and small desktops like the Mac Mini.

Really, you could say the M1 makes the entire PC industry look bad. While we’ve seen a handful of ARM-based Windows PCs on the market, we wouldn’t dare recommend any of them, due to Microsoft’s poor support for x86 emulation, and x64 emulation remains a work in progress. Basically, you can’t trust ARM-based Windows computers to run older apps. Meanwhile, Apple’s emulatio for Intel apps, Rosetta 2, works seamlessly with the vast majority of apps we’ve tried. And in many cases, they even run faster than on Intel or AMD based PCs. Talk about embarrassing.

Gaming consoles

ne recent Saturday night, I was playing Control on my Xbox Series S and simultaneously listening to podcasts on the console’s Spotify app, pointedly not going out to the bars yet again, and I found myself thinking, “Thank f— for video games.” It’s not the first time that thought has crossed my mind, but amid a lingering pandemic and months of stay-at-home orders, it’s become a common refrain. Luckily this year, there’s a lineup of stellar video game consoles on the market, including shiny new offerings from Microsoft and Sony, and a familiar treasure from Nintendo.

First, that new new. Microsoft and Sony kicked off the ninth console generation this year with the Xbox Series X and Series S, and the PlayStation 5 and its all-digital counterpart. All of them are fantastic. Of course, there are benefits and disadvantages with each console, but there’s something here for every kind of player. The Xbox Series S, for instance, is a relatively cheap entry point for the latest generation, offering significantly upgraded guts over the Xbox One and a beefy library of digital games through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. The Xbox Series X, meanwhile, features top-of-the-line hardware capable of playing games in 4K and 60fps (and beyond), and it runs like a dream.

Both new Xboxes have Quick Resume, which allows players to swap among multiple games on the fly, without having to close down or re-load anything. The consoles also connect to Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa home networks for voice-controlled features. This comes in particularly handy when the uncontrollable urge to scream at something — anything — bubbles up from the deepest recesses of your soul.

Though the PlayStation 5 may look like a gaudy rendering of a futuristic skyscraper, it’s truly an ultra-powerful console with impressive output. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for instance, is crisp and incredibly smooth on PS5, with literally zero loading screens. Plus, the new DualSense controller is nothing short of a revelation. Every inch of the gamepad features precise haptic feedback, and notably, the trigger buttons are adjustable. Developers are able to add or remove tension from the triggers as they wish, increasing immersion and unlocking a world of new gameplay mechanics. The PS5 feels like the future.

And then there’s the Switch. Nintendo operates in its own universe, regularly releasing underpowered yet innovative gaming consoles, and the Switch is no different. Both the Switch and Switch Lite have a lineup of adorable and adventure-focused games that have helped plenty of folks through the pandemic, especially considering the portable nature of both consoles. In March, too Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released and deserves a special shout-out for keeping the peace in plenty of households.

When it comes to video games consoles in 2020, there are no losers. Even the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hardware families have received a steady stream of high-quality games and media this year, when we truly needed it the most.

NVIDIA RTX 3080

In a year jam-packed with impressive gaming hardware, NVIDIA’s RTX 3080, and its 3000-series cards as a whole, stood out. For $699, the RTX 3080 delivers fast 4K gaming support and far better ray tracing performance than NVIDIA’s cards from last year (which we still loved at the time). And while it’s certainly expensive, it’s actually a pretty great deal compared to the company’s last round of cards. It genuinely blows away the RTX 2080 Ti, which originally sold for $999.

Powered by NVIDIA’s new Ampere architecture, the RTX 3080 proves that NVIDIA still manages to innovate, even when it already dominates the high-end GPU market. And it shows that the company’s bet on ray tracing is finally paying off. NVIDIA clearly has a lead on AMD, which just launched its own new GPU architecture with ray tracing, RDNA2. And while that hardware has the advantage of being in all next-generation consoles, PC gamers will still get the best ray tracing performance with NVIDIA cards.

If you don’t want to drop $699 on a single video card, NVIDIA also has other options: the $499 RTX 3070 delivers pretty much the same performance as the 2080 Ti, making it an incredible value. And the recently announced RTX 3060 Ti is still pretty capable for $399. The biggest problem facing NVIDIA, and most other PC hardware makers, is availability. It’s tough to find its latest gear in stock, both because manufacturing has slowed down and eager scalpers are quick to scoop them up. But for the lucky gamer that can get their hands on one, any of NVIDIA’s RTX 3000 cards will be a gaming treat.

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