2021 has been a year of highs and lows for new tech, but I’m going to focus on the upbeat side of things here and take a look at all the tech I’m really happy to have purchased since last January. It’s an eclectic lot, but there’s something for everyone here if you’re looking to spend those Christmas gift cards. Also, to my knowledge, the products featured here are all readily available and aren’t suffering from backorders or scalping (as of this writing).
Flying drones is a true passion of mine. Filming and photographing the world from an aerial perspective is always exciting, and I’ve captured some incredible images and videos over the years shooting with them. The Air 2S from DJI takes the imaging capabilities of my previous favorite drone, the Mavic 2 Pro, and stuffs them into an ultra-portable package at a bargain price point.
Though you may be tempted by the amazing new top-of-the-line Mavic 3, it costs twice what the Air 2S does. Unless you need the admittedly jaw-dropping capabilities of the Mavic 3, the Air 2S is much more approachable and yields great results.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
Even as a serious photographer who owns serious camera gear, a phone camera is an invaluable tool for capturing fleeting, unexpected moments. A smartphone is a device that’s practically glued to my hip or my hands every waking hour of the day, and I’ve found it holds true that the best camera is the one you have with you. With this in mind, I broke the piggy bank to get myself a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, which has arguably the best camera of any phone on the market today, and the photos I’ve captured with it justify that investment.
Between the ultra-wide, wide, short telephoto, and long telephoto cameras, it’s incredibly versatile, with all but the long telephoto camera producing fantastic image quality. While it’s definitely not as good as the rest, the long telephoto camera is still really useful if I want to snap a wildlife shot but don’t have a gigantic camera/lens setup with me. Aside from photography, the S21 Ultra has enough RAM and processing power to handle my inability to close Chrome tabs, and my tendency to have numerous apps running at the same time.
It’s not all roses and sunshine, as I talk about in my list of the tech I wish I hadn’t bought in 2021 – the screen is easily scratched. Also, the USB-C port wears out very quickly with only moderate use. For this reason, I’m very conflicted in my feelings towards the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, and am both glad I bought it, and wish that I had not bought it at the same time.
I listen to a lot of audiobooks and music – some days I’ll rip through 5-10 hours (or more) of audio content. Whether I’m writing, editing photos or videos, or doing chores around the farm or house, I’ll either be listening to a sci-fi novel or blasting punk rock. As you’d imagine, having the right earbuds is extremely important to me, and this year I think I found the ideal in-ear headphones with the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2. They have everything I want: They’re unobtrusive, fit securely enough for any activity, are extremely comfortable, and have great sound quality.
What’s surprising is how relatively affordable the Galaxy Buds 2 are. They’re a truly terrific value for the money. I’ve used earbuds that are twice or even three times the price of the Buds 2, and I would choose the Buds 2 over them.
This one’s a bit more niche, and will only be of interest to electric guitar enthusiasts, but it’s so cool I just have to talk about it here. The Triplegraph is a guitar effects pedal designed by Coppersound Pedals in collaboration with Jack White, and it is a beautiful object to behold. Its surface is a combination of stylish design and rugged, durable materials designed to facilitate working musicians in the studio and onstage. The Triplegraph features three large switches similar to what you’d use to send a telegraph message back in the olden days.
The left and right side telegraph switches pitch the signal from your guitar up or down an octave and can be set to either momentary or latched modes. The middle switch performs several different functions. It can be used to cut the signal completely for a stuttering effect, it can be used to isolate the pitch-shifted signal from your guitar, or you can plug a different effects pedal into the Triplegraph in a loop configuration to be activated when the center telegraph switch is pressed. It creates incredible, creative opportunities for musicians, and is also tremendously fun and a beautiful object to own.
Another music-related item, the Fender Mustang Micro is a tiny guitar amp about the size of a large key fob. Your sound is then output via an AUX jack to headphones or speakers, making it ideal for practicing quietly or on the go. It’s loaded with customizable effects and can connect via BlueTooth to your phone to stream music to the amp so that you can easily practice with a jam track.
This last feature is important because it essentially turns the Mustang Micro into a pocket-sized Bluetooth audio adapter. If you don’t have Bluetooth speakers available, just plug in the Mustang Micro and you’re ready to go. The only quibble I have with it is that it doesn’t work with Piezo pickups, which is a bit of a bummer for acoustic guitarists.
The Koss Porta Pro is the perfect example of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. These ultra-compact and lightweight wired headphones haven’t changed in decades, and that’s just fine by me. They provide excellent sound quality and are both remarkably comfortable and surprisingly durable, as well as dirt cheap. I actually bought them to go with the Mustang Micro for on-the-go guitar practice, but since then I’ve found myself also using them just to listen to music or with my Nintendo Switch Lite. Tech products tend to be fleeting and quickly outdated, but the Porta Pro has outlived the Sony Walkman it was built to compliment.
A teleconverter to extend the range of a telephoto lens isn’t terribly exciting, even to the professional photographers who buy them, but the Nikon Z 2x Teleconverter (TC) is something of an exception. Normally, a 2x teleconverter (the greatest magnification available) reduces the lens’s image quality to a fairly significant extent. However, Nikon’s new teleconverters challenge that long-standing problem by largely maintaining the image quality you would get from the lens without a teleconverter.
The lens will still be made darker due to the inescapable laws of physics, but being able to throw a teleconverter onto my Nikkor Z 70-200mm f2.8 S lens and turn it into a 140-400mm f5.6 lens without compromising too much on image quality is absolutely fantastic.
This is my most recent tech acquisition, bought on a Black Friday Sale. I’ve become quite enamored of the Apple iPad Mini 6 since purchasing it. I’m using the iPad Mini primarily as a monitor for drone flying, but it’s such a remarkably powerful and responsive device that I’ve found myself putting down my smartphone for the greater screen real estate more regularly than I initially anticipated.
I haven’t been a particular fan of larger tablets in the past, but I’m finding that with my first iPad Mini, its form factor is just about ideal. It’s perfect for things like drone flying, editing photos on the go, or for controlling a variety of other devices, from cameras to smart home products.
You might wonder why I’d buy more than one drone in a year, and no, I didn’t crash the first one. While the DJI Air 2S is an awesome tool for photography, it’s also pretty much just a highly functional aerial imaging tool. The DJI FPV Drone, on the other hand, is basically just a very expensive toy, and I absolutely love it. If you’re like me and have long wanted to get into the high octane world of flying in first-person view (FPV), but have found the extremely steep learning curve of the DIY FPV drone too daunting, then the DJI FPV Drone is the perfect entry point into this exciting new hobby.
The DJI FPV Drone is a chunky beast that makes a suitably angry roar as it wakes from its slumber. The kit includes everything you need to get started — controller, headset, and the drone itself. The drone includes a normal mode that limits the speed and helps you avoid obstacles. There’s also a sport mode with a higher speed limit and no obstacle avoidance, but some smart features to help keep you from spinning out of control. Finally, there’s the full manual mode which gives you complete control over the drone. Novice pilots would be best advised to spend some time flying in the included simulator before attempting to fly the drone manually.
Ultimately, the DJI FPV Drone is just an absolute blast to fly. My one major complaint would be that the camera leaves something to be desired, but it’s adequate for piloting the drone and grabbing a few cool shots. This drone is certainly the most exciting toy to hit the market in 2021.
Picking a single favorite gadget from those I bought this year would be nearly impossible. They’re all quite amazing in different ways. The DJI Air 2S has been incredibly useful, the Coppersound Triplegraph is unbelievably cool, and the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 have kept my ears filled with music and audiobooks for literally hundreds of hours.
- Tech I wish I hadn’t bought in 2021
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- Through endurance, we conquer: Why I’m going to miss an in-person CES this year