Tom's Hardware Best of 2021 Awards

TH Best of 2021 Awards
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2021 has been another tough year for technology. Manufacturing issues and shipping woes combined with surging demand to made for major shortages, especially in the GPU space. If you were shopping for a graphics card or a new gaming console, this is a particularly depressing time. Even Raspberry Pi, which managed record sales throughout most of the last two years, eventually suffered from some shortage issues and had to raise prices slightly on one popular model. 

Fortunately, the lack of finished components didn’t stop manufacturers from innovating and creating a wave of impressive products. From Intel’s Alder Lake processors — the first major x86 chips with a mix of performance and efficiency cores — to Kingston’s record-breaking KC3000 SSD and Dell’s eye-popping Ultrasharp webcam, these are the best PC hardware and tech products of 2021.

Best CPU - Intel Alder Lake

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The Alder Lake processors provide a much-needed win for Intel as it looks to regain the performance crown from AMD’s Ryzen chips. The new 12th Generation Core “Alder Lake” processors feature the “Intel 7” process, Intel’s first new node for desktop PCs in six years, and also bring a hybrid x86 architecture to the desktop PC for the first time. 

This innovative design features a mixture of Performance cores (P-cores) for latency-sensitive work and Efficiency cores (E-cores) for background and heavily-threaded applications, fueling a big leap in performance. Each new core type also comes with its own vastly improved microarchitecture, while industry-leading connectivity options like PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 round out the platform. Overall, the sum of the parts delivers class-leading performance in gaming, single- and multi-threaded work, giving Intel a nearly clean sweep. 

The Alder Lake-powered Core i5-12600K tops our list of best CPUs for gaming, thanks to its great combination of value and impressive frame rates. If your budget allows, the Core i9-12900K is the chip to get for playing in 4K.

Perhaps Intel’s bare-knuckle approach to pricing is the biggest win, though, as all of its Alder Lake processors outperform higher-priced AMD chips. Some of that pricing advantage is lost on higher motherboard costs due to shortages and the lack of lesser B- and H-series boards, but those issues should wane as availability improves and more affordable chipsets come to market. Intel’s non-K models and lower-tier motherboards arrive early next year, leaving the company well-positioned as a price war with AMD unfolds, which is ultimately a win for everyone.

Best Graphics Card - Nvidia RTX 3060 12GB

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First, let's be clear: We're only looking at new GPUs launched in 2021, and we know that actual GPU prices and availability are all kinds of messed up. But if you could buy a new GPU at close to the suggested price, the GeForce RTX 3060 would be an excellent choice. It packs 12GB of GDDR6, clocked at 15 Gbps no less — which is rather surprising, since Nvidia only uses 14 Gbps GDDR6 in most of the other GTX/RTX cards. Performance lands at roughly the same level as the previous generation RTX 2070, with a theoretical starting price of just $329.

The RTX 3060 also delivers overall better ray tracing performance than its AMD-powered competitors, and with DLSS now used in over 140 games, and with better image quality than its FSR competition, you can improve performance without sacrificing visual fidelity (using the quality mode). Let's just hope the best graphics cards start dropping in price this coming year.

Best SSD - Kingston KC3000

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PCIe Gen4 SSDs aren't new this year, but there's no question that they've been proliferating, with some models even pushing down into mainstream price points. The Kingston KC3000 starts at around $180, and thanks to its Phison PS5018-E18 controller, offers some of the fastest results we've ever measured. In our tests, it frequently outpaced the popular Samsung 980 Pro and WD_Black SN850, both also considered among the best SSDs.

Unlike cheaper SSDs, the KC3000 sticks with TLC NAND, Micron's 176-layer chips in this case. There are 32 chips in total, each working at up to 1600 MTps. In real-world testing, we saw copy speeds of 1.77 GBps and read speeds of over 4 GBps, while synthetic results were close to 7 GBps. That's very close to the limits of the x4 Gen4 interface, so the only way we'll get appreciably faster transfer rates in the future is when the x4 Gen5 SSDs start shipping next year.

Best PC Case - Lian Li PC-O11 Air Mini

Lian Li PC-O11 Air Mini - TH BEst of 2021 Award

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Priced at just $110, Lian Li’s PC-O11 Air Mini includes three PWM fans, bits of pretty aluminum, a glass panel, handsome looks, plentiful IO, a brilliant internal design and full ATX compatibility. It easily earned a spot on our best PC Cases list this year. 

The chassis features an unusual side-by-side chambered design, but building in it is a breeze and its performance is very good by modern standards. With this many features, handsome styling and lots of value for money, the Lian Li PC-O11 Air Mini is a stand-out case in a year of tough competition.

Best Motherboard - Gigabyte Z690 Aorus Pro

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Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake CPU platform brought some much-appreciated innovation to the CPU world this year, with an Arm-like mix of power and efficiency cores. With new architectures and processor cores come a new chipset, the Z690. And while the platform is still quite new, Gigabyte’s Z690 Aorus Pro is easily the best motherboard for Z690 we’ve tested this year, and the most impressive overall for the price. 

At $330, the Gigabyte Z690 Aorus Pro is much cheaper than most Z690 flagship boards, but it doesn’t skimp on features. The Aorus Pro brings 13 USB ports, 90A VRMs, four M.2 sockets, DDR5 support, 2.5 Gb Ethernet, and Wi-Fi 6. If you need things like 6E wireless and Thunderbolt 4, then you’ll have to pay (much) more for something else, but if not, the Z690 is your best choice.

Best Gaming Monitor - MSI Optix MPG321UR-QD

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Sitting at the top of our list of best 4K gaming monitors, MSI’s Optix MPG321UR-QD is an overachiever even amongst its peers. The 32-inch monitor uses quantum dot technology to cover, in our tests, 117 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut while belting out more than 600 nits of brightness in HDR mode. Compatible with FreeSync or G-Sync, the ultra HD display operates at a speedy 144 Hz.

From its saturated colors, to its factory calibration, to its competent overdrive and excellent HDR performance, MSI's offering has it all. Port selection is also plentiful with two HDMI 2.1, one DisplayPort 1.4a and even USB-C input. You'll also find a handful of USB ports for your peripherals. With a street price of around $900 and a generous 3-year warranty, the MSI MPG321UR-QD should be on the shortlist for gamers seeking a spectacular 4K gaming centerpiece.

Best Keyboard - Akko 3098B

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The Akko 3098B’s retrotastic, curved ASA keycaps not only improve the typing experience but also make you feel like you’re an old-school hacker. The Black & Gold color scheme we tested is conservative enough for any grownup’s office, but has plenty of unique flair and an RGB party when you turn its backlight on. The 96-percent layout allows you to keep your numpad while taking up significantly less desk space than a full-size keyboard would.

But the Akko 3098B is more than just input eye-candy. One of the best wireless keyboards, the 3098B  is a typist’s dream and comes packed with features such as hot-swappable switches, N-key rollover, extra keycaps that let you customize your look and five different ways to connect. 

The keyboard comes with a 2.4-GHz wireless dongle for lag-free gaming and the option to connect via USB-C or Bluetooth 5.0 with three different profiles. You can switch between devices in less than a second so if you want to use this with your desktop, laptop, tablet and Raspberry Pi all at once, you can.

Best Mouse - Razer Basilisk V3

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The best gaming mouse you can buy right now, Razer's Basilisk V3 further hones Razer’s already proven Basilisk design, this time innovates with a new scroll wheel design that, like many other advanced gaming mice, can either scroll infinitely or in ratcheted increments. What sets the Basilisk V3’s wheel, officially called the “Hyperscroll Tilt Wheel”, apart is that it can intelligently detect whether to scroll infinitely or in increments based on how fast you’re scrolling with it. This is a feature we haven’t seen before on a gaming mouse, and worked surprisingly well in our testing. It’s great if you’re the type of person who forgets to make use of features that require manual activation, plus it frees up a button for mapping to other actions.

Other changes in the Basilisk V3 include updated optical mechanical switches that have a more tactile feel, although they also feel heavier to press down than the switches they’re replacing. Still, when combined with the comfortable design, 13 programmable buttons (including the 5x scroll wheel), 26,000 DPI max sensitivity and whopping 11 RGB zones, this mouse delivers a lot of value. Even better is that it’s $10 cheaper than its predecessor, making it surprisingly affordable for a performance-oriented Razer peripheral.

Best Headset - Creative SXFI Air Gamer

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A gaming-focused update to the Creative SFXI Air, the Creative XFI Air Gamer headset adds two additional mics and carries over the unique microSD card slot from the original, which lets it play music without any connection whatsoever. It also has a new “Super X-Fi Battle Mode” that gives you precise positional audio in-game, which is a sorely needed improvement over the last model.

Setup is, unfortunately, still a bit of a pain, since it needs you to use a smartphone and scan your head and ear shape. This results in audio tailored specifically to you, which surprisingly enough rang true when we tested it across different people. Still, it’s a bit odd to need a helper to set up a new pair of headphones.

Regardless, with a comfortable feel, the ability to simultaneously listen to multiple sources, plenty of microphone and connectivity options and high quality audio across games, movies and music, this pair of cans is one of the best gaming headsets. And while it’s got a premium price at $150, it offers a lot more functionality than similarly-priced competitors do.

Best Raspberry Pi Product - Raspberry Pi Pico 

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During the decade that it's existed, Raspberry Pi has changed the face of computing and the maker movement, but the organization behind everyone’s favorite single-board computer has never been as disruptive as it has been in 2021. This year, the company released its first-ever piece of custom silicon, the RP2040, a 133 MHz, dual-core SoC which now powers an entire ecosystem of microcontrollers that compete with the output from industry heavyweights like Arduino and NXP.

Though you will now find RP2040 chips in dozens of third-party products, the $4 Raspberry Pi Pico is the board that started it all when it was released last January. It comes complete with 26 GPIO pins, three ADCs, two SPI interfaces, two I2C interfaces, two UART connections and up to 8 PIO (programmable interface) connections.

The $4 Raspberry Pi Pico is not a Linux computer, but thanks to some clever engineering the RP2040 can emulate retro computers, drive HDMI displays and be trained with machine learning models for AI projects. This is the first silicon from Raspberry Pi, but given the success of the Raspberry Pi Pico and the many RP2040 based alternatives, it will not be its last.

Best Laptop - MacBook Pro 16-inch

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While there were a number of innovative Windows laptops this year in a variety of form factors that sparked our interests, what really got us talking was Apple's new MacBook Pros. The M1 Pro and M1 Max silicon (we tested the latter in the 16-inch MacBook Pro) took Apple's homegrown M1 and supercharged it, bumping the CPU up to 10 cores and, in the case of the M1 Max, going all the way up to 32 GPU cores.

Apple also showed humility with this laptop, going back to basics by making it thicker in a purpose-driven design allowing for better cooling and the ports pros have been demanding back, including HDMI and a full-sized SD card reader. The end result is one of the best premium laptops you can buy.

The MacBook Pro's Liquid Retina XDR display is a stunner that gets nice and bright with mini LED backlighting. There's a 1080p webcam — a much needed upgrade — but it has resulted in an iPhone-style notch in the display. We ultimately got over it, but understand why it's divisive.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro's speakers are also the best we've heard on a laptop, with bass that every other laptop vendor should be envious of.

So sure, the new chips are super powerful and super efficient. But almost everything else in these laptops has been elevated (including the prices, which are higher) for true creative professionals. 

Best Gaming Laptop - MSI GE76 Raider

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The MSI GE76 Raider is all about power. One of the best gaming laptops, it delivers incredibly strong performance, thanks to components going up to an Intel Core i9-11980HK CPU and Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 graphics.

We were also impressed with the 360 Hz display aimed at esports players, though you won't be able to run more intense games at those frame rates. The 17.3-inch panel also proved bright, and its size allows for this system to serve as a bit of a desktop replacement for those who don't have room for a traditional desktop or monitor.

This system also has a 1080p webcam, which MSI offered in the Raider before many productivity laptops caught up. Putting gaming performance aside, we were impressed with the Raider's very fast SSD speeds and entranced by its RGB light bar (which you can turn off if bright colors aren't your thing).

The tradeoff is that the GE76 Raider is huge. It's meant for power, and that means room for the components to breathe. But for the true enthusiast who wants to squeeze every frame they can onto the biggest, fastest screen they can get, the Raider shows off, as long as you're willing to pay the premium price for it. 

Best 3D Printer - Voxelab Aries

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The Voxelab Aries is the best 3D printer for beginners, kids and families. With practically no installation required and an easy semi-automated calibration process, getting started with this FDM printer takes no time at all. Its partially enclosed frame is sturdy and very helpful for families with small children who might be tempted to stick their fingers into the build area and get hurt.

The Aries also features Wi-Fi connectivity which makes it faster to transfer files and control print jobs remotely. Even more advanced users will appreciate a feature which saves your work in the event of a power outage and resumes printing once the electricity comes back on. 

At 200 x 200 x 200 mm, the build volume is large enough for serious models. Best of all, the Voxelab Aries delivers high-quality prints and its included slicer software is dead-simple to use.

Best Webcam - Dell Ultrasharp Webcam

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The Dell Ultrasharp Webcam is probably the closest a webcam can come to looking like what you see in a mirror without breaking the $200 price point. Rather than focusing on fancy back-of-the-box features like a ring light or light sensor, the Dell Ultrasharp simply packs a high quality, 4K, HDR-capable sensor that can also shoot in 1080p @ 60 fps. 

Yes, it makes some sacrifices — there’s no built-in microphone here. But webcam microphones are rarely high quality regardless, and we usually suggest you opt for one of the best headsets instead. The visuals are stunning, though, and outpace every other model on our list of best webcams

The included software gives you access to AI auto-framing, manual focus and three different field-of-view options. If you can supply your own mic, this is easily the most premium, robust webcam you can get right now without delving into professional level gear like DSLRs.

Best CPU Cooler - Cooler MasterAir MA624

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With the MasterAir MA624, Cooler Master has delivered on its namesake, offering up an excellent big air cooler that performs on par with the best CPU coolers we’ve tested. While it doesn’t glitter with RGB lighting, it shines as an effective near-silent thermal solution for some of the most potent desktop CPUs from both Intel and AMD — as long as you don’t count Threadripper.