No matter the time of the year, CNN Underscored is always testing a gadget or gizmo. We spend hours testing, and the end result is finding the absolute best in each respective category.
In 2020, we tackled a lot: headphones, true wireless earbuds, smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions and external storage, among several others. With each of these, we work to identify a pool based on new releases, consumer ratings and experts in the field. We then test each product for weeks, sometimes months on end. Each device is put through a series of benchmarks and real-world tests.
Keep reading to see all of the top products in tech from 2020.
Best overall computer monitor: Lenovo L24q-30 Monitor ($169.99, originally $199.99; amazon.com)
After many hours of testing with a multitude of content and workflows, the Lenovo L24q-30 monitor stood out as the best overall option. It doesn’t have the sexiest name, but the 23.8-inch QHD monitor has the chops to handle whatever you need it to, from Word docs to gaming. The Lenovo’s super slim bezels don’t distract the eye from its vibrant panel, and its relatively small footprint will fit into any workspace. A blue light filter also helps decrease eye strain, making it ideal for longer workdays. At $169, down from $199, you won’t score a better option.
Best 4K monitor: Dell UltraSharp 27 ($579.99, originally $719.99; dell.com)
For those constantly working with visual tasks like photo or video editing, Dell’s 27-inch UltraSharp 4K monitor is a no-brainer, bursting with vibrancy and a level of detail that was unmatched by other flat displays we tested. Its nearly bezel-free design makes it an edgeless wonder, putting the screen — and therefore the content you’re working on — front and center. Factor in the full hub of ports included on the back, and the UltraSharp really builds itself up to be a complete package.
Best large display under $1,000: Samsung CJ791 ($699.99; samsung.com)
If you have enough desk real estate, ´›Í affords the most space with a curved, ultra-wide 34-inch display. No matter how many different tasks and apps you’re juggling at once, you can neatly arrange them and spread them out in front of you. It’s an incredibly wide and sharp display that’s great for productivity and gaming alike. Plus, like the UltraSharp from Dell, there are plenty of ports on-board. For all you get with it — an ultra-wide 34-inch workspace, multiple ports and outstanding picture quality — you would expect to pay upwards of $1,000. So for the relatively affordable price of $699, it’s a great upgrade for those looking for the most screen real estate while trying to save a few dollars.
Best overall true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; walmart.com)
Apple’s AirPods Pro ($219, originally $249; walmart.com) hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.
Best true wireless earbuds for working out: Powerbeats Pro ($169, originally $249; amazon.com)
For those looking for earbuds to power their workouts, there’s no better option than the Powerbeats Pro ($169.99, originally $249.95; amazon.com). The ear hooks are malleable and will conform to your ear after just a few wearings, so there’s no worry about these falling off even during the toughest of workouts. Additionally, these have an IPX4 resistance, which means neither rain nor sweat storm will kill these buds’ vibe, and a bass-heavy (but not overly heavy) sound performance to boost your workouts.
Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279; bose.com)
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279.95; bose.com) have all the necessary tropes of true wireless earbuds (no wires, multiple ear tips, a carrying case that doubles as a charger and easy pairing), but they also have an X factor: the Bose legacy. While that does come at a premium, it also comes with the expected balanced sound and class-leading noise cancellation that blocks out way more sound over AirPods Pro.
Most comfortable earbuds: Samsung Galaxy Live ($137, originally $169; amazon.com)
If you value comfort above all else, the funkily designed Galaxy Buds Live are your best bet. These bean-shaped earbuds proved to be significantly more comfortable than traditional buds. They don’t protrude far into the ear like others we tested — instead sitting rather flush with the ear — so there was no added pressure to any part of the ear. Because they don’t seal the ear quite as much as AirPods Pro, though, you do give up a bit in terms of sound quality. But at $169.99 (currently on sale for $137), you’re getting earbuds that, in terms of comfort, you’ll forget are even in your ear, and ones that pack pretty hefty bass in a small package.
External hard drives
Best overall external hard drive: WD My Passport SSD ($89, originally $199; amazon.com)
Starting at $89.99 (down from $119.99) for 512GB of storage, the WD My Passport solid-state drive is not the cheapest external drive on the market. But that somewhat lofty price brings big returns. Files transfer quickly: we were able to back up Word documents in just a few seconds, full photo albums in less than 20 seconds, and even large video files in under a minute. Those are speeds rivaling many devices’ onboard drives. My Passport has enough space to store all your files — packing close to 100,000 photo files, or in our case, two backups of our entire library. All that in a stylish yet rugged package.
The premium pick: SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD ($229; adorama.com)
At the higher end of the spectrum is the SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD ($229.99), which was way out in front of the testing pool in terms of read and write speeds. Backup and open times were half that of our overall pick, as we were able to copy a modest 4K video file in just 12 seconds and 15 RAW images in 10 seconds, and opening a Final Cut Pro file with 4K video took just about 10 seconds. The 512GB version has enough storage to hold more than 128,000 12-megapixel photos or 1,000 minutes of 4K content. The durable build (with protection from drops of 6.5 feet) is perfect for on-the-go use. It may come at a premium, but for those searching for a top-of-the-line hard drive, the SanDisk will not disappoint.
Best Apple laptop: Apple MacBook Air ($999; amazon.com)
The MacBook Air with an M1 chip inside supercharges Apple’s entry-level machine. You’ll have no problem completing nearly any task, from web browsing to 4K video exporting — with room for everything else in between. Better yet, the M1 chip generates less heat while providing more power — so much so that Apple removed the fan from the MacBook Air. This latest-generation Air won’t get significantly hot during demanding tasks, either. You’ll be controlling the experience with a large trackpad and a punchy keyboard. And if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, it will work perfectly with other devices such as iPhones and AirPods while staying in sync with them.
Best Windows laptop: Dell XPS 13 ($999; dell.com)
The Dell XPS 13 is our pick for the best Windows laptop, thanks to its stunningly slim design, fast 11th-gen Intel power and one of the most crisp and immersive screens available on a notebook. It blazed past most other popular Windows 10 machines in our performance tests and held its own against the latest MacBook Air. The new XPS 13’s keyboard is a joy to type on for hours at a time, thanks to ample travel, and its dependable battery life will get you through a workday. But perhaps its biggest selling point is its four-sided InfinityEdge display, which has almost no bezel to get in the way of important work documents — or your favorite shows and movies.
Best video editing laptop: Apple 13-Inch MacBook Pro ($1,299; amazon.com)
While we previously declared the 16-inch MacBook Pro the best for video editing, we’re making a switch. And it’s one that can potentially save aspiring filmmakers and pros quite a bit. The 13-inch MacBook Pro ($1,299 starting, down from the starting $2,399 of the 16-inch) is now our pick for video editing — and it’s all thanks to the M1 chip inside. It gives you a long runway that can handle nearly any intense creative task and get it done in record time. We’re talking 4K and 8K video exports while you’re rushing to meet a deadline. You’d be hard-pressed to make the 13-inch MacBook Pro show a spinning pinwheel. The coolest thing? The battery lasts for days, and you won’t see enormous percentage drops after each export.
Best business laptop: Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon ($949; lenovo.com)
Enterprise users will feel right at home with our top pick for business laptops: the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. It’s astonishingly lightweight, the keyboard exudes confidence for number crunchers and it has enough ports to connect whatever you want to it. The X1 Carbon’s performance was in the middle of the pack, but its battery life was unmatched by any laptop we tested. It’s sure to last through a full day of work and then some. It has a standard HD display, however, and it just doesn’t look as vibrant as the MacBook or Surface Laptop when placed next to them. With long battery life and a history of enterprise success, in a housing that’s extremely portable, we gave it a nod as our best business laptop.
Best overall noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349; amazon.com)
Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound (they top our list of best over-ear headphones to boot), but Sony also upgraded the newer generation of our previous runner-up with phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.
Runner-up: Beats Solo Pro ($229, originally $299; amazon.com)
The Beats Solo Pros don’t fall that far behind the WH-100XM4s. While they still can block out a majority of sound and perform great in the noisiest of environments, the XM4s ultimately came out on top, thanks to their superior seal. The Solo Pros inherently let in more noise (e.g., loud conversations and background sounds), as their ear cups rest on your ears rather than create a seal around them. Still, at $299.99 (and currently on sale for $229), these on-ear cans have a ton to offer and will get the cancellation job done for a majority of people.
Best budget noise-canceling headphones: Anker Soundcore Life Q20 ($59.99; amazon.com)
The Soundcore Life Q20s came through as our best budget option. At just $60, these offer surprisingly powerful noise-canceling ability that competes with much pricier devices, plus terrific comfort and sound quality to boot.
Best overall on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($199; amazon.com)
The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.
Runner-up: Bowers & Wilkins PX5 ($294; amazon.com)
For an additional $100, the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s also have terrific sound quality and particularly shine with their deep, satisfying bass. But, most importantly, they also include strong noise-canceling abilities, a feature absent in our overall pick. They’re made of quality materials and have a respectable battery life, and the only factor that kept them from creeping up into our top spot was their somewhat lofty price of $298.98.
Best sound and most comfortable: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8i ($373, originally $400; amazon.com)
We wouldn’t normally highlight headphones with such an exorbitant price, but the $400 Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8is sport some unusually luxurious touches that we wanted to point out for those willing to splurge. Among them: a cowhide headband and cozy lambskin ear cups along with superlative sound quality and ANC. If your budget allows, these are worth considering.
Best overall over-ear headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349; amazon.com)
Sony’s WH-1000XM4s — the 2020 successors to our previous top pick, the XM3s — proved to be the best over-ear cans. Simply put: They completely outperformed the rest of our testing pool in terms of sound quality, comfort, battery life and noise cancellation. What’s more, these feature a custom processor and algorithm that work in real time to upscale the audio, significantly improving the crispness of any given track. At $349.99, they’re a big investment, but one that will last for years to come.
Runner-up and best for working out: Jabra Elite 85h ($231, originally $249; amazon.com)
For running, working out and just getting in the zone, our runner up, the Jabra Elite 85h, will hit all the right notes. Though they’re on the bulkier side, they have a great control scheme for exercise, featuring large, easy-to-locate buttons on the right cup. They also hold well on your head, which we confirmed during a 45-minute run — there was no slippage or shifting of the headphones.
Most comfortable: Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700 ($339, originally $379; bose.com)
If you need headphones that can be worn on long walks, intercontinental flights or just around the house, the Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700 are our go-to for comfort. There’s some serious memory foam plush in both the ear cups and top headband. Imagine tucking your head into two mini mattresses that delightfully conform to your ears.
Budget buy: JBL Live 650BTNC ($154, originally $224; jbl.com)
Lastly, at the relatively affordable price of $199.95 (on-sale now for $154), JBL’s Live 650TNC shined as our value pick. They may not be the flashiest, but these headphones actually matched the Jabra Elite 85h in terms of sound quality and scored just below them on features. The JBL cans held our attention with clear playback of vocals (no artifacts like crackling), punchy drums and an impressive three-dimensional soundstage.
Best overall smartwatch: Apple Watch Series 6 ($389, originally $399; amazon.com)
The Apple Watch Series 6 isn’t just the best smartwatch for the iPhone; it’s the best smartwatch period. It offers the ability to take calls, quickly respond to messages and have plenty of apps on your wrist. Apple opted to keep the now classic design, and it comes in new finishes. The S6 processor inside is the fastest in any smartwatch. And then there are the health features: The watch not only tracks countless activities but can also take an electrocardiogram (ECG), measure heart rate, track blood oxygen levels and detect if you’ve fallen. At $389, it’s not the cheapest, but it’s more than worth it.
Best Android smartwatch: Galaxy Watch 3 ($299; samsung.com)
Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 is starting to follow the lines of the Apple Watch by offering some features that require a Galaxy smartphone. Even so, it still integrates with nearly all Android devices, and it offers native support for tasks like messaging and triaging your inbox. The Watch 3 also features a rotating circular bezel that’s used for navigation of the interface. Health features are on board here as well: ECG, heart rate, activity tracking and SpO2 stand out.
Best budget smartwatch: Apple Watch SE ($269, originally $279; amazon.com)
Our value pick this time around is the $279 midrange Apple Watch SE. For $80 more than the Series 3, you get the modern Apple Watch design with a larger screen and better hardware inside. It’s powered by the S5 processor, which premiered for $399 in the Series 5, so it runs watchOS 7 like a champ. It’s lacking the always-on display and core health features like ECG and blood oxygen readings, but at the end of the day, it’s a great entry point to the smartwatch world.
Best smart speaker overall: 4th-Gen Echo ($69, originally $99; amazon.com)
Amazon’s fourth-gen Echo is the biggest redesign to the original smart speaker. While keeping the same $99 price tag, Amazon swapped the tall cylinder design for a spherical one. Not only does this give it a more appealing aesthetic than most competing speakers, but the form factor also aids in delivering richer and clearer sound with ample access to Alexa smarts. With more room for the sound to bounce around internally, the fourth-gen Echo Dot pushes out a soundstage that’s unmatched at its price point. Alexa is constantly getting smarter and giving you more control over your information as well.
Runner-up: HomePod Mini ($99; bestbuy.com)
Matching the Echo stride for stride (even outpacing it in certain areas), Apple’s HomePod Mini ($99) is our runner-up due to one big caveat: You need an Apple device to use it. If you aren’t in the Apple ecosystem, it doesn’t make sense. But for those who are, it’s a no-brainer. It acts as a home hub for HomeKit devices, seamlessly integrates with Apple’s ecosystem, allows easy handoffs between devices and enables the ability to use services like iMessage and FaceTime with just your voice. For its minuscule size, it delivers the best sound in its class — and at times sounds better than the Echo.
Best sound under $200: Sonos One ($199; sonos.com)
If sound quality is the be-all and end-all for you (and you’re budget-conscious), the Sonos One ($199) is kind of the Goldilocks of smart speakers. It’s not exorbitantly expensive yet it still packs the critical hardware (two amplifiers, a woofer and a tweeter) to deliver robust sound. Instead of sound hitting you from only one angle, the Sonos One pushes sound out in every direction with a crispness that shines through in each note (low, mid and highs) while delivering booming bass.
Best budget smart speaker: 4th-Gen Echo Dot ($29, was $49; amazon.com)
The fourth-gen Echo Dot ($49.99), which is basically the mini version of our best overall pick, folds pretty much everything we love about the Echo (save for a few elements) into a pint-size, wallet-friendly package. For 2020, the Dot also went spherical. And, like the Echo, it’s a reliable smart speaker with access to Alexa and solid sound (especially when you consider its size).
Best overall tablet: 8th-Generation iPad ($299, originally $329; amazon.com)
Like the seventh-gen model before it, the eighth-generation iPad quickly stood out as the best overall option during our testing. With it, you can send emails, chat in a group FaceTime and multitask between two apps without so much as a hiccup. This do-it-all tablet screams efficiency, allowing users to seamlessly transition from work-centric tasks (like creating a presentation or working in spreadsheets) to boredom-busting activities (think crisp, TV-like Netflix binges). It’s all thanks to the A12 Bionic chip inside, and iPadOS runs swimmingly. Better yet, you can pair it with the Apple Pencil for note-taking, and an attachable keyboard can make this device suitable for work. And at $329.99, it’s friendlier on your wallet than most tablets this powerful.
Best performance: iPad Pro ($789; amazon.com)
If you’re looking for a tablet that makes you forget you even own a laptop, the 2020 iPad Pro is the one for you. Simply put, it’s the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested. The Pro can handle the same tasks as the eighth-generation iPad, but with its added horsepower, you can toss in even larger tasks, like a massive Photoshop export with dozens of layers — something that would send most tablets to the spinning wheel of death. The iPad Pro’s vibrant display, paired with four incredibly loud speakers, makes it a true entertainment hub as well. The only reason it didn’t take the No. 1 spot is because its $799 price tag puts it a little out of reach for the average tablet shopper.
Best Android tablet: Galaxy Tab S7 ($549, originally $649; amazon.com)
Android fans already know their options are limited when it comes to tablets, but that hasn’t deterred Samsung from releasing updates to its tablet lineup on a yearly cycle. In this limited space, though, the Tab S7 at $649.99 (currently on sale $549) is the clear winner. It offers long battery life and enough power to keep up with whatever you can throw at it. Android apps as a whole leave a lot to be desired when used on a tablet, but with Samsung DeX, you can turn the tablet into a laptop-like device, complete with trackpad support and windowed Android apps.
The budget pick: Fire HD 8 Plus ($109; amazon.com)