By Brian X. Chen, The New York Times Co.
To put it lightly, 2020 was rough. More than ever, we turned to our personal tech this year to help find respite, stay healthy and remain connected with the people we care about.
Video chat apps, like Webex and Google Meet, became crucial work tools. After gyms shut down, virtual workout apps like Peloton transformed into must-have products. Electric bikes and scooters, once a source of frustration, found their moment when people sought alternatives to public transportation and ride hailing.
Still, there was plenty of tech that let us down.
Some of Amazon’s gadgets, like its Ring surveillance cameras, proved more creepy than useful. Delivery apps with hidden markups continued to drive up the prices of takeout orders. A new type of smartphone with a foldable screen was a gimmick. And, at least for now, so was 5G, the next-generation cellular technology that doesn’t live up to its hype of delivering incredibly fast speeds.
For the past few years, I’ve reviewed the tech that vastly improved and the tech that still needed fixing. Here were the highs and lows in 2020.
Tech that was fixed
“Can you hear me now?”
Before the pandemic, plenty of us loathed taking meetings over video calls. Video and audio quality was often grainy and delayed, and plenty of people did not know to mute their microphones when they weren’t speaking.
Then in the early stages of the pandemic, Zoom made headlines, for reasons good and bad. Hundreds of millions of us, desperate to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, signed up for the videoconferencing service to virtualize our office meetings, classrooms, happy hours and yoga sessions. But as Zoom surged in popularity, we noticed many cracks in security, which allowed trolls to “Zoombomb,” or gain unauthorized access, to people’s video sessions, among other flaws.
There was a silver lining to Zoom’s failures: It created the need for stronger alternatives.
Over the past year, many videoconferencing apps have significantly improved. Google made major upgrades to Meet, enabling video chats with hundreds of participants; Microsoft and Cisco are also overhauling their video chat products, Teams and Webex. Zoom, which is still under scrutiny, has fixed some of its security issues.
At this rate, many of us will probably continue using videoconferencing for many of our tasks even after life returns somewhat to normal.
While wearable gadgets like Fitbits and Apple Watch have been popular for years, many of their applications are still nascent. Counting footsteps gets tedious. Sleep tracking with wearables is inaccurate, and the data can add to your anxieties and keep you up at night. It’s also unclear whether the blood-oxygen-monitoring feature on the new Apple Watch will be useful.
But with our gyms shut down, we were forced to find ways to stay in shape at home.
Peloton, which is known for selling expensive exercise bicycles and treadmills, got mainstream attention. Its guided workout videos, which don’t require Peloton hardware, are so well produced that they are a strong substitute for a real-life trainer. Apple this month released a copycat: Fitness+, a subscription service that is exclusive to Apple Watch owners, with videos just as high quality as Peloton’s.
This year marked a turning point for health tech: We are getting access to products that can actually make us healthier. That’s not gimmicky.
Before 2020, electric scooters often provoked animosity. Tech companies like Bird flooded city streets with e-scooters that people could rent via apps. But cities weren’t prepared with regulations for the two-wheelers. As a result, many people rode and parked them illegally on sidewalks, endangering pedestrians and people with disabilities.
This year, things changed. In some states, like California and New York, regulations are now in place to make the scooters safe to ride. And after government officials discouraged commuters from taking public transportation to work earlier in the pandemic, electric bicycles and scooters found their moment. Many of us have discovered that electric two-wheelers are a joy to ride and friendly to the environment. Most important, they keep people out of cars.
The only downside is that high-quality e-bikes have been in such high demand that you were lucky if you were able to find one in stock.
Tech that needed fixing
Creepy Amazon gadgets
You would think that an artificially intelligent drone that flies around your house to record video is something out of an Orwellian sci-fi movie. But Amazon introduced it as a real product, which says a lot about its product philosophy. The tech isn’t necessarily bad at what it does, but it lacks empathy.
The drone isn’t expected to be released until 2021, but we can see the creepy factor in some of Amazon’s gadgets this year. Most famously, Ring, the Amazon-owned company that makes surveillance cameras including internet-connected doorbells, came under fire for several scandals, including one that involved four employees who inappropriately watched customers’ videos.
More recently, Amazon released Halo, its fitness-tracking bracelet, which took creepy to a new level. It has a tiny microphone that listens in on your conversations to tell you how your mood sounds to other people. (For me, the Halo reported that I was disgusted and irritated when I talked to my wife about what a bad idea the product was.) It also has an app that snaps photos of your half-naked body to measure your body fat, which I found to be a very negative motivational tool to get more fit.
Amazon has done better before. Its Kindle continues to be the most delightful product for reading digital books. Let’s hope its new gadgets are part of a temporary experiment, not a lasting trend.
On the one hand, delivery apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates are convenient to use, and we leaned on them heavily this year. On the other hand, many of the apps surprise us with hidden service charges.
In an analysis this year, I discovered that most delivery apps tried to hide markups by cramming their service fees and tax into a single line item. The prices of many menu items were also inflated inside apps compared with the restaurant’s prices. In the most egregious example, I found that the price of ordering two Subway sandwiches from Uber Eats was $25.25, which was 91% higher than what you would pay at the restaurant.
In the end, you are better off ordering takeout the old-fashioned way: picking up the phone and calling the restaurant directly.
This year, phone makers like Samsung, Motorola and Huawei promoted so-called foldable smartphones that can be folded or unfolded to decrease or increase their screen size.
For that benefit, you get these trade-offs: The devices cost more than $1,300, the screen technology is fragile and the hinges used for folding will eventually break. Over time, foldable phones also get tedious to use: Before you can use the phone, you have to unfold it and scan your fingerprint or face.
Foldables are a reinvention of an old idea. They function like the clamshell phones from the 1990s and early aughts. But has anyone asked for clamshell cellphones to make a comeback? I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone.
Have you heard that 5G is superfast? Probably, because phone carriers have spent millions of dollars marketing the next-generation wireless technology.
Unfortunately, the reality of 5G is more complicated. The technology can be faster than its predecessor, 4G, but with lots of caveats.
There are two main flavors of 5G: a version that is extremely fast — zippy enough to download a movie in a few seconds — and another that is only incrementally faster than 4G.
For the past two years, phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon have boasted about ultrafast speeds. But they have been less transparent about the technical limitations. The fast version of 5G travels short distances and has trouble penetrating walls. So for the foreseeable future, we will get such a connection only in outdoor areas like parks, not inside our offices or homes.
For now, the less-exciting flavor of 5G is the one we will get in most parts of the country, and it’s inconsistent. In my tests, 5G was two times as fast as 4G at best. More often, 5G was just as fast as 4G — and sometimes it was slower.
New cellular technologies always take time to mature, but the carriers have overpromised what the technology will deliver today. Let’s hope it gets better in 2021.
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