Just when we thought 2020 was a lot to handle, along came 2021. But you know what? We made it to the finish line, and that deserves a celebration. To honor the companies that have kept us entertained, productive, and even awed throughout the year, we've compiled a list of our favorite products and services this year. From streaming media to Android phones, from smartwatches to tablets, and all the gadgets and gizmos that make our lives easier.
Join us in congratulating our Best of 2021 Android Central Award winners. We're betting that you'll agree with many of these picks as well!
Best Android Phones of 2021
Best Phone Overall
Google Pixel 6 Pro
A triumphant return to the top
Finally, Google made the flagship phone fans have been craving for as long as the Pixel line has been a thing. The Google Pixel 6 Pro builds on the solid foundations of the regular Pixel 6 and adds, among other things, one of the best telephoto cameras around.
The 4X 48-megapixel shooter lets you get closer to your subject or capture faraway vistas more easily than ever before. Meanwhile, Pixel 6 Pro owners will benefit from one of the best displays in an Android phone, along with reliable all-day battery life. And because it's a Pixel, you're covered for five years of security updates from Google.
Runner-up — Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Best Android Phone — Value
Google Pixel 5a
Flagship for less
The Google Pixel 5a is, without a doubt, this year's best budget-friendly Android phone. It demonstrates that you don't have to spend more than $500 on an all-around performer device. For $449, you get 5G support, which means the phone will be able to take advantage of faster network speeds in the coming years. It also sports a sharp 6.3-inch OLED display with HDR support. Google also upgraded its processor to a more-than-decent Snapdragon 765G, the same SoC found in the standard Pixel 5, meaning it games pretty well. Another welcome addition is IP67 dust and water resistance.
What sets the Pixel 5a apart from the competition is its impressive cameras, comprising a 12.2MP primary sensor and a 16MP ultra-wide shooter. The phone's cameras outperform other phones in its price range thanks to Google's software smarts. It may lack some fancy specs, such as a fast refresh rate screen, but the Pixel 5a is a solid option if you want long-lasting battery life, great cameras, and 5G connectivity 5G on the cheap. It also receives software updates on a regular basis.
Runner-up — Redmi Note 10 Pro
Best Android Phone — Camera
Google Pixel 6 Pro
Google's Pixel line has always been about the camera, and the Pixel 6 Pro sets a new bar. It pairs new camera hardware with new software and features to give you the best photos of any Android phone. The icing on the cake is it's fast, thanks to google's new Tensor chip and its built-in AI capabilities.
Runner-up — Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Best Android Phone — Innovation
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3/ Fold 3
When you think of foldable phones, it's almost guaranteed that Samsung's name is the first on your mind. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 look nearly identical to their predecessors on the surface, but a closer inspection reveals a more radical revamp than meets the eye. Both phones are finally water-resistant at an IPX8 level, meaning you can take them deep down in the water for a good while, and they'll still work. No one else has been able to do that in the foldable space, and it shows Samsung's expertise in this field.
If that wasn't enough, new aluminum bodies are sturdier than ever and have passed many a drop test without being destroyed. Samsung even figured out how to make the S Pen work on the Z Fold 3, making it an ideal alternative to the Galaxy Note line in a more notebook-like form factor. Samsung also substantially polished up the software side of things and is already updating these devices to Android 12 in December, making them some of the best phones ever made.
Best Phone Manufacturer
Out of this world
Samsung crushed it in 2021, releasing not only one of the best camera phones in the form of the Galaxy S21 Ultra but also the only foldables worth buying right now. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Flip 3 show the promise of this nascent gadget category. Meanwhile, Samsung extended its lead in Android wearables with the new Wear OS-powered Galaxy Watch 4.
Runner-up — Xiaomi
Most Improved Phone Manufacturer
Google grows up
From the very beginning, Google set out to redefine phone cameras with its Pixel series. And while it did a great job on that front, it couldn't quite figure out the rest of the hardware, with every Pixel launch marred by issues. That's why it's refreshing to see Google finally get it right with the Pixel 6 series. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro hold their own among their flagship rivals not just in terms of the cameras but also in all other areas: they feature gorgeous designs, vibrant screens, the latest internal hardware, and last all day. In short, Google finally figured out how to make a true flagship, and in doing so, it has managed to lift the Pixel series from ignominy.
Runner-up — Xiaomi
Tablet, Smartwatch & Fitness Tracker
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE
That's more like it
Android isn't known for having competitive tablets, particularly when compared to the likes of the iPad, but Samsung has managed to give us an impressive entry with the Galaxy Tab S7 FE. It has a fantastic design, flagship specs, and with One UI on top, it connects seamlessly to your Samsung Galaxy smartphones. When compared to the more pricey Tab S7, it features many of the same specs with a bit of a downgrade to the processor, but you still get great battery life, great audio, 5G support, and an S Pen. What more could you ask for in a powerful yet affordable tablet?
Runner-up — Samsung Galaxy Tab A7
Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 series
Wear it's at
There was a lot of anticipation surrounding the release of the Galaxy Watch 4 Series for many reasons. Most of all, users were eager to see how Wear OS would fit into the picture. While there were mixed opinions, many people were beyond please with the new watches.
In addition to smooth performance, there were plenty of new features. For instance, the 3-in-1 BioActive sensor can measure your heart rate, blood pressure, ECG, and Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA). With the Galaxy Watch 4 running on Wear OS, users have access to a wider selection of apps, too. Other features include optional LTE models, automatic activity/sleep tracking, voice assistant support (though Google Assistant still hasn't arrived yet), and NFC payments. If you want a well-rounded smartwatch with advanced health-tracking and speedy performance, you can't go wrong with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Series.
Runner-up — Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 Ultra
Best Fitness Tracker
Fitbit Charge 5
The Fitbit Charge 5 is a fitness tracker packed to the brim with useful features. Unlike previous models, it offers a stunning AMOLED display. You also get a more stylish design this time around. These updates are impressive, but it's what's inside that users will appreciate most.
Some of the usual standard features are here, including GPS, heart-rate monitoring, activity/sleep tracking, and blood oxygen monitoring. Now, users will have access to more advanced health tracking with ECG and EDA. In addition, with Fitbit Premium, users can take advantage of the new Daily Readiness Score feature that helps them determine if they're ready for an intense workout or if they should focus on recovery. For a fitness tracker, the Fitbit Charge 5 goes the extra mile in providing users with actionable data that helps them improve their routines.
Runner-up — Xiaomi Mi Band 6
Acer Chromebook Spin 713
2021 brought us many great Chromebooks this year, but the Acer Chromebook Spin 713 continues to stand far above the rest. Even though it was a minimal update, the 2021 model of the Acer Chromebook Spin 713 brought us Thunderbolt 4 support, 11th Gen Intel Evo processors, and double the storage while keeping its sturdy build quality and that gorgeous 2K touchscreen with 400 nits brightness for outdoor visibility.
While it may have started at $700, Best Buy's near-constant $629 or $579 deals have made the Spin 713 a no-brainer. For anyone looking for a long-lasting, powerful Chromebook that can handle Linux, rendering of games, video, or CAD data, while avoiding the $1000 price tags of 2K Windows and MacBooks, the Acer Chromebook Spin 713 is precisely what you need.
Runner-up — HP Chromebook X2 11
Best Chromebook — Value
Acer Chromebook Spin 514
You spin me round
The Acer Chromebook Spin 514 spun its way into our hearts with its phenomenal price-to-spec ratio and gorgeous form factor. The Ryzen-powered Chromebook delivers banging performance for the price bracket it sits in. You get so much screen real-estate, and there's plenty of ports and storage onboard. The maxed-out option allows you to go for SSD storage and a generous 16GB of RAM.
One thing's for sure; there's no other Chromebook in the market that brings these many features and so much power in such a sleek and affordable package. Moreover, it's scheduled to receive auto-updates until June 2029, cementing itself as a spectacular bargain. The Acer Spin 514 isn't just the best 14-inch Chromebook, but it's also the Chromebook offering the best value of the year.
Runner-up — Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5
Smart home & gadgets
Best Wi-Fi Router — Mesh
ASUS ZenWifi ET8
Spread the love
There's no shortage of Wi-Fi 6E routers right now, but if you want a comprehensive mesh solution that will deliver fast Wi-Fi speeds throughout your house, the ASUS ZenWifi ET8 should be at the top of your list. The standout feature is that it works with the 6GHz band, with wider 160MHz channels that can easily handle a lot of bandwidth.
The ZenWifi ET8 is also packed with features, including a 2.5Gbps WAN port alongside three gigabit Ethernet ports, extensive software customization, and USB 3.1 connectivity. While there aren't many devices with Wi-Fi 6E at the moment, if you're looking to pick up a future-proof router, there is a lot to like in the ZenWifi ET8. The throughput, along with the feature-set and ASUS's extensible AiMesh 2.0 mesh system, makes the ZenWifi ET8 the obvious choice for a whole-home Wi-Fi 6E mesh solution.
Runner-up — Netgear Orbi RBK852
Best Smart Lights
A bright spot
While you can choose from a staggering variety of smart lights on the market today, it takes something special to take the top spot in the category of best smart lights — and Govee did just that in 2021. Govee released several exciting products this year, from the Lyra Corner Floor Lamp to the unique Glide Wall Lights, but it was the Govee Immersion TV backlight that truly stood out.
These camera-controlled LED light strips genuinely add another dimension to nearly anything that's being watched on your televisions. Pair that with a great price, ease of use, and integration with Google Assitant and Amazon Alexa, and you get the impressive Govee Immersion TV backlight.
Best Wireless Headphones
It's hard to argue with the full gamut of features and performance that you get every time you put the Sony WH-1000XM4 around your ears. These over-ear headphones offer the best active noise cancelation (ANC) currently available, along with superb sound that you can tailor in the Sony Headphones app, and 360 Reality Audio for virtual surround sound. Improved call quality and excellent battery life round out an impressive piece of kit.
Best Wireless Earbuds
Sony's noise-canceling tech is some of the best in the industry, but it really reached the next level with the WF-1000XM4. The name may sound like a fax machine, but these truly wireless headphones look elegant with their matte black and copper design, and they sound even better. The case is more compact than previous generations and even charges with the same Qi wireless charger you use with your Android phone.
The exceptional drivers have plenty of punch that isn't held back by Bluetooth thanks to Sony's sound processing that keeps sound detail high with high-resolution audio. Plus, the headphones can get better over time as the software learns your environment and adjusts the noise canceling to work well whether you want to block out everything or have a conversation.
Runner-up — Jabra Elite 7 Pro
Best Streaming Device
NVIDIA Shield TV
There are some great streaming devices to pick from in 2021, which isn't something that could be said just a few years back. It was great to see Google get back in the streaming hardware game with the Chromecast with Google TV.
As good as the device is, it wasn't enough to edge out the perennial champ, the NVIDIA Shield TV. NVIDIA has been leading the charge for Google's television software for the last six years and the AI upscaling features that have been implemented and rock-solid performance in the NVIDIA Shield TV makes it the best of 2021.
Best Android/Google TV
Sony Bravia XR
Sight for sore eyes
One of the first TV makers to have Google TV built-in, Sony marries the impressive hardware its known for with Google's exceptional smart TV experience. With the 4K OLED, you get crisp visuals with deep blacks. You also get HDR for supported content, and access to Google Assistant makes it easier than ever to jump into your favorite apps and shows. Plus, the 120Hz refresh rate and HDMI 2.1 make this an ideal TV set for gaming with the PS5.
Best Security Camera
Arlo Essential Video Doorbell
Arlo's Essential Video Doorbell edges out the competition when it comes to easy security for your doorstep. You'll love the sleek form factor that's smaller than the competition from Ring and Nest when it's time to install it, and once it's in place, you'll find some great features. We especially love its superior night vision capabilities, better object detection when compared to the competition, and the option for local storage if you don't want to spend money on expensive cloud storage.
Runner-up — Nest Wireless Doorbell
Best Smart Speaker
Sound that fits in
Google's second-gen Nest Audio is a significant step-up over the Google Home, featuring a revamped design and much improved audio performance. In fact, it offers comparable sound quality to some of the best regular-sized smart speakers on the market.
In addition to delivering excellent sound quality, the Nest Audio also has an eye-catching design with rounded edges that allows it to gel well with your home décor. And while it isn't small by any means, its slim profile means that it doesn't take up too much space.
What also sets the Nest Audio apart from its rivals is its dedicated machine learning chip that touts one TeraOPS of processing power. Thanks to the chip, Google Assistant on the Nest Audio can respond to your commands faster than other smart speakers.
Runner-up — Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen)
Best Phone Case Manufacturer
Saving phones everywhere
Otterbox has been around for two decades now, an unspoken testament to the company's capability to push out one great product after another. The case maker excels at creating durable, waterproof, and shock-resistant cases that can withstand the forces of nature like no other. This year saw the brand launch a slew of fantastic cases for all the best Android phones as well as next-gen consoles and accessories. From flagships like the Pixel 6 series to mid-rangers like the Moto G Power, Otterbox's 2021 lineup was inclusive of all budgets.
Minimalist designs, shimmery finishes, rugged materials; we got everything we wanted. Whether you want something lightweight and colorful or you prefer something dark and robust, the 2021 cases have it all. Otterbox didn't compromise the looks or the quality, making it the best phone case manufacturer of the year.
Runner-up — VRS Design
Best Phone Case Series
Caseology Nano Pop
Affordable, protective, cool
While the Caseology Nano Pop might have technically debuted with the iPhone 12 last fall, it didn't make the jump to Android cases until late January with the Galaxy S21 series. Rocking bold two-tone palettes and excellent grip, my S21 still wears its Nano Pop case today, even after testing heavy-duty, wallet, and thin cases from all kinds of manufacturers. It's a slim size, still has air cushioning to help protect against shatters, and the colors help your phone stand out even from across the room.
Best of all, while most new case series tend to cost $30-$60, the Nano Pop is $16 or less for each of the Samsung phones it's available for. My only regret is that we haven't seen it for the Pixel 6 or 6 Pro because if ever there was a phone for bold case colors, it's this year's Pixel flagship. I'm partial to the Light Violet colorway, but the Blueberry Navy has a nice Michigan/Golden State/LA Rams look to it for any team with navy blue and gold.
Runner-up — UAG Scout
Apps & Services
Best VPN — Overall
Atlas VPN is based in the U.S., with servers in dozens of countries for a fairly wide reach to anonymize your Internet traffic and get around some geo-blocked content. It won't give non-U.S. residents American Netflix, but it should remove barriers to get to other streaming services. For transparency's sake, Atlas is a subsidiary of NordVPN, only that it's easier to use and applies to both desktop and mobile devices.
Runner-up — Surfshark
Best VPN — Android
Protect your content
Whether you're looking to safeguard your privacy or want to get around geo-restrictions, there's no denying that VPNs are an important part of the internet ecosystem. And there's no brand that has driven this point home more than NordVPN. Yes, it has flashy ads and billboards everywhere, but that's because the core product is one of the best around.
NordVPN lets you easily encrypt your internet connection whenever you're on the go, and with fast servers in just about every region, your anonymity online is assured. Yes, it follows the latest security protocols and protects your data from malicious websites, but NordVPN wins out as the best VPN for your phone because it is easy to use. Just connect to a region, and it does the rest — ensuring your details are safeguarded. Privacy is no longer a right; we have to work for it in this day and age, and NordVPN makes that just a little bit easier.
Runner-up — Mullvad
Best Streaming Video Service
The happiest place in streaming
Since its launch in 2019, Disney+ has established itself as the streaming platform to beat. Starting at just $8 per month, Disney+ is the go-to service for both new and classic Disney and Pixar content. It's also the must-have streaming platform for fans of Disney-owned brands like Marvel Studios, Star Wars, National Geographic, and 20th Century Studios.
Disney+ added a ton of loyal subscribers in 2021 thanks to the exclusive release of films like Jungle Cruise and Cruella and the option to bundle the service with Hulu and ESPN+. While Netflix earned our pick as best runner-up thanks to its consistent output of original series in 2021, Disney+'s ever-growing lineup of upcoming projects has us calling it the Best Streaming Video Service of 2021.
Runner-up — Netflix
Best Streaming Audio Service
The world's jukebox
Spotify remains the world's most popular music streaming service, thanks to its easy-to-use UI and nifty personalization features. What also makes Spotify so popular is that it's available on all major platforms and a wide range of smart devices.
The music streaming service gained a number of new features this year, all aimed at further improving the user experience on its platform. A few of those features, such as live lyrics, are available to both free and premium users.
Spotify also continued to make huge investments in podcasts this year, which has allowed it to become the No.1 podcast platform in the U.S. It is predicted that Spotify's U.S. podcast listeners could reach 43.6 million by 2025.
Runner-up — Tidal
Best Live TV Service
See it all
Streaming services have changed the way we watch television, but not all options offer live TV. YouTube TV has done a fantastic job of combining the familiarity of live TV with the modern conveniences we expect of a streaming service. By combining excellent cloud DVR and over 85 live TV channels, it has a little something for everyone. Not to mention the availability of local channels so that you can follow what is happening in your area. Its ease of use and fantastic features make YouTube TV the best live TV service for 2021.
Runner-up — Hulu TV
Best New Android App
Jot it down
If you're someone who regularly finds themselves juggling between recipe bookmarks, scribbled handwritten notes around the house, and untold reminders of where to find things or what needs to be done next, Bundled Notes will quickly become your new favorite app. As the name suggests, notes can be bundled into groups, with each note and group given a category, tag, and several other attributes that make them easy to find and sort. Colors add a lovely visual flair to the experience, and powerful features like Kanban boards, custom to-do actions, and easy rich text formatting make this the absolute best note-taking app you'll find anywhere. You had no idea you needed a new note-taking app until you try Bundled Notes!
Best New Android Game
Join the crowd
Pokemon Unite is the biggest change to hit Pokemon since Pokemon GO blew the world away in 2016. The augmented reality at the forefront of GO was a massive leap forward in the Pokemon franchise. Still, from a tonal perspective, Pokemon Unite has done the most to shake up the deeply embedded conventions that have been staples of the franchise for so long.
Pokemon Unite dares to combine the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre with the same cuddly, cute, and crazy Poke-friends we've come to know and love over the years. It's a fascinating concept that puts you in direct control of a Pokemon rather than being relegated to controlling the trainer. Teaming up with others, you face off in 5v5 strategic battles where you need to balance out your team's offensive, defensive, and support capabilities to win. There are only about 20 Pokemon represented in the game so far, but more will continue to be added as Unite grows. Needless the say, we can't wait to see how Unite continues to expand into 2022!
Best PS5 Single Player Game
Fun on the run
Deathloop sprang onto the scene with a killer 1960s retro aesthetic and a mystery that would make anyone intrigued. Hungover and stuck on the island of Blackreef, Colt is having a really, really bad day. Bad goes to worse when he realizes he's caught in a timeloop, doomed to repeat the same day over and over. The only way to escape is to kill the eight Visionaries running everything in just 24 hours. Oh, and he's being hunted down by one of the best assassins out there, who seems to share a past with him. Did I mention they also have supernatural abilities?
Arkane developed an outstanding game worthy of being the best on PS5 this year. Combining an interesting and compelling story along with emergent gameplay that keeps things fresh, Deathloop is a murder puzzle for the ages. Whether you try to stealthily take out your targets or go in guns blazing, you'll have a blast exploring the island and finally breaking that damn loop.
Runner-up — Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Best Quest Single Player Game
Resident Evil 4 VR
Capcom has ported Resident Evil 4 to a dozen consoles over the years, but it's Resident Evil 4 VR that truly injected the T-Virus into the game's veins and brought it back to life. Converted from third- to first-person, RE4 VR lets you aim weapons with motion controls, pick up ammo, reload weapons by hand, and use other mechanics that weren't present in the original game.
The Oculus Quest 2 received some excellent new games this year, but Resident Evil tops the list. Stepping into Leon Kennedy's shoes is more frightening than ever as chainsaw-wielding monsters swarm you, but the revamped controls make you feel like you're living through an action movie by the skin of your teeth. It controls amazingly well and has many more hours of gameplay than most VR games. It makes me optimistic to discover what other classic games could have a second life in virtual reality.
Best Oculus Multiplayer Game
It's just you
2021 saw plenty of new releases for the Quest 2, in particular, but none could come close to matching the experience that Population: One continues to deliver. This year saw four huge updates to the game; three seasons worth of content, tons of special events timed with holidays and seasons, and a brand new training park area and social hub.
There's nothing quite like climbing a castle with your own two hands, flying over to the wild west to grab crystals or Halloween candy baskets to earn special skins and costumes, and dropping enemy teams all along the way. It's a game that was made for VR from the start and continues to get better over time, making this the absolute best multiplayer experience you'll find on the Quest 2 this year.
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