Whatever else you might say about 2020, it’s been a banner year for PC hardware. For enthusiasts, AMD claimed the desktop CPU performance crown from Intel for the first time in over decade. Both Nvidia and AMD released blazing-fast next-gen graphics cards. For mainstream users, laptops got faster and cheaper, and so did phones. Meanwhile, speedy SSDs finally started hitting mainstream prices after years of being out of reach for most buyers.
It’s a shame so many of these innovations remain hard to find on the actual street, as the pandemic led to unprecedented demand for tech products. Shopping for a webcam this summer was pure hell (but it’s easier to find a webcam now, at least).
In a year filled with greatness, which gear reigned supreme? We asked PCWorld’s tech experts to share their favorite hardware picks in their areas of expertise. For a more enthusiast-focused look at this year’s most compelling new releases, check out our Full Nerd podcast’s debate over the best PC hardware and software of 2020.
Hearty congratulations to all the winners. Without further ado...
Best graphics card: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti
Both AMD and Nvidia kicked off new generations of graphics cards with next-gen GPUs inside during the latter half of 2020. They’re universally good... and universally hard to find. Only one feels virtually flawless for what it’s trying to do, however: Nvidia’s $400 GeForce RTX 3060 Ti.
The RTX 3060 Ti delivers fantastic 1440p or high-refresh-rate 1080p gaming performance, even with all the eye candy cranked to 11. Its 8GB of onboard memory is perfect for those resolutions. The second-gen ray tracing hardware inside makes it possible to play games with the strenuous lighting effects enabled, especially when paired with Nvidia’s killer AI-infused DLSS 2.0 technology. We’ve tested several models and they’re all impressive. This is a fantastic graphics card. —Brad Chacos
Best budget laptop: Lenovo Yoga C740
The Lenovo Yoga C740-15IML is affordable for most people (currently $790 on Lenovo.com) and one of the most impressive 2-in-1 laptops we’ve seen in its price range. Weighing just three pounds and jammed with nifty features, the slim, sturdily built Yoga C740 packs in plenty of productivity pep, and it can last the whole day without its AC adapter.
A bright, Dolby Vision-enabled display plus Dolby Atmos sound provide plenty of eye and ear candy. A physical camera shutter and a fingerprint reader help to bolster security. In our review, we wrote, “In a world where high-end laptops no one can afford get all the attention, and budget laptops can be a bucket of compromises, it’s nice to see a mid-priced laptop that has so much going for it.” —Melissa Riofrio
Best on-the-go gaming laptop: Asus ROG Zephyrus G14
The Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 shows you just how much performance can be jammed into a small laptop. How small? With its 14-inch screen and a curb weight of 3.5 pounds, the ROG Zephyrus G14 gives you 8 cores of Ryzen 9 4900HS performance and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q GPU for a surprisingly affordable price.
Its one glaring mistake was being designed in the days when people didn’t need Zoom—Asus left off the webcam. Doh! —Gordon Mah Ung
Best storage: SK Hynix SSDs
The SK Hynix Gold S31 (currently $105 on Amazon) technically came out at the end of 2019, but the Gold P31 NVMe drive (currently $135 on Amazon) came out this year. The drives’ blend of amazing performance and ludicrous value instantly vaulted them to the top of our best SSD lists, usurping drives like the Samsung 860 Evo that had dominated for years prior. They’re never the absolute fastest option, but they’re impressively close, and a lot cheaper than the SSDs they hang with in our performance charts. —Brad Chacos
Best budget Android phone: Pixel 4a 5G
It’s almost unfair at this point, but as long as Google keeps making Pixel ‘a’ phones, they’ll be the best budget phones you can buy. This year there are two models—the Pixel 4a for $349 and the Pixel 4a 5G for $499—but the difference is more than just the 5G modem. You get a larger screen, an extra ultrawide camera, and a faster processor with the 4a 5G—and for $150 more, it’s a no-brainer upgrade. Like the previous generation’s 3a, the 4a 5G has a plastic back and lacks wireless charging. On the other hand it offers an increasingly rare headphone jack, three years of Android updates, and an excellent design that looks as great as it feels to hold. All for just $100 more than the $399 iPhone SE. —Michael Simon
Best overall Android phone: Samsung Galaxy S20
If you want to spend $1,400 on a flagship phone, Samsung will happily sell you a Galaxy S20 Ultra, but for the rest of us, the Galaxy S20 is more than enough phone for “only” $1,000. If sports a manageable 6.2-inch display on the front and an excellent triple camera on the back (12MP wide lens, 12MP ultra wide, and 64MP telephoto lens with 30X Space Zoom)—along with a fantastic design, speedy processor, and lots of storage.
But what makes the Galaxy S20 even better than tough competitors like the OnePlus 8 Pro is Samsung’s commitment to Android updates. Samsung is promising three “generations” of updates to all of its flagship phones: OneUI 3 now, OneUI4 in 2022, and OneUI 5 in 2023 before you’re ready to trade it in. No other Android phone this side of the Pixel can say the same. —Michael Simon
Best gaming innovation: Nvidia DLSS 2.0
This was a year full of significant gaming innovations. AMD’s Smart Access Memory provides a speed boost to modern Radeon graphics cards paired with modern Ryzen processors. AMD SmartShift and Nvidia’s rival Dynamic Boost help the CPU and GPU share power in gaming laptops, giving you more performance where it’s needed, when it’s needed. But Nvidia’s AI-infused DLSS 2.0 is vastly improved over the initial implementation and a true game-changer in titles that support it (currently about 30).
DLSS 2.0 is black magic.. It can literally make the difference between having ray-traced games run fine or run at 15 frames per second in especially intensive games like Cyberpunk 2077, Minecraft RTX, Control, and Watch Dogs Legion. It can provide massive frame rate boosts in compatible games even with ray tracing disabled. Games like Death Stranding and F1 2020 began adding DLSS 2.0 even though they don’t support ray tracing solely for that extra performance boost.
I hope to see much more support for DLSS 2.0 in 2020. It’s worth noting that Radeon GPUs have no answer for it currently. AMD’s mysterious “FidelityFX Super Resolution” alternative is expected to be revealed sometime in 2021, but right now, DLSS 2.0 is the key advantage for GeForce GPUs. —Brad Chacos
Best thin-and-light laptop CPU: Intel 11th-gen Tiger Lake
Typically, we’d anoint one laptop CPU the winner and be done with it, but modern laptops are so varied in use and size that it would simply be wrong to do that right now.
The best thin-and-light laptop CPU right now is Intel’s 11th-gen Tiger Lake series of CPUs, with the Core i7-1185G7 at the top. While it doesn’t quite offer the multi-core performance of AMD’s equally impressive Ryzen 4000 chips, we think that the tasks most people run on such laptops favor the 11th-gen chip’s excellent performance in single-threaded and lightly threaded tasks. —Gordon Mah Ung
Best high-performance laptop CPU: AMD Ryzen 4000
The year kicked off with a bang with AMD’s Ryzen 4000 “Renoir” chips, which simply trashed all of Intel’s high-performance CPUs. The secret sauce is Ryzen 4000’s 7nm manufacturing process, which meant vendors could get 8-core Ryzen CPUs into thinner, lighter laptops that could never have accommodated Intel’s bigger 14nm chips. —Gordon Mah Ung
Best desktop CPU: AMD Ryzen 5000
AMD’s spectacular Ryzen 5000 series is unquestionably the best desktop CPU we’ve seen. The updated Ryzen simply has it all, from phenomenal single-core performance to awesome multi-core performance. Yes, the price has gone up too, but when you’re the best, you can demand it. —Gordon Mah Ung