If 2020 was a banner year for PC hardware, expectations came crashing back down to earth in 2021. The reason? Chip shortages and the supply chain crunch. Simply getting your hands on new hardware proved to be frustratingly difficult for most of the year, and even when you could find something to buy, it often sold for a staggering mark-up.
But that doesn’t mean PC vendors took their foot off the gas. We tested some truly impressive hardware in 2021, including blazing-fast next-gen SSDs and notebooks that run laps around yesteryear’s models. Are you into streaming video? Hardware that helps you look and sound as impressive as possible took major strides forward in 2021. And this year we’re expanding our list of top picks to include the best software available, as what you use all that computing power for is just as vital.
For this list, we asked PCWorld’s tech experts to share their favorite picks in their areas of expertise. Without further ado, this is the best PC hardware and software of 2021 and 2022. Yes, we’re looking forward to next year, because until even newer products begin launching in 2022, many of the wins on this list will remain very relevant, especially with no end to the chip shortage in sight.
Editor’s note: This article originally published on November 3, 2021, but was updated November 15 after the launch of Intel’s 12th-gen “Alder Lake” processors.
Best desktop CPU: Intel 12th-gen “Alder Lake” processors
After several painful, painful rebuilding seasons, Intel is back in championship form once again with its stunning new 12th-gen “Alder Lake” Core series of hybrid CPUs, which pack a mixture of high-performance and high-efficiency cores. Although the flagship Core i9-12900K doesn’t completely dominate AMD’s fabulous Ryzen 9 chips in all things, it offers enough of a performance lead in some very important areas—such content creation apps and (if you squint your eyes enough) gaming—to make Alder Lake the clear winner for those who can afford the entry price of cutting-edge DDR5 memory.
But the real star in Intel’s 12th-gen lineup is the Core i5-12600K, which inflicts so much pain on AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X that a timeout was called while the Ryzen 5 was carried off the field on a stretcher. What 2022 holds isn’t known, but for 2021, there is one dominant pick when it comes to CPUs: Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake processors. —Gordon Mah Ung
PC laptop buyers have an embarrassment of riches to pick from, but for most people, a 360-convertible is the apex machine. Convertibles are basically indistinguishable from traditional clamshell notebooks, but give you all the flexibility of a tablet as well. That means you get touch and even pen support on top of the usual touchpad/keyboard combo.
Our pick for the best thin-and-light laptop easily goes to HP’s wonderful Spectre x360 14, built on Intel’s latest 11th-gen Tiger Lake CPU with Xe graphics. It offers screen options ranging from 1920×1080 IPS to a 3000×2000 OLED display, and with its 66 watt hour battery, you can expect all-day battery performance. Its stylish diamond-cut exterior also tells the world that you actually think differently, too. —Gordon Mah Ung
You know MSI’s GE76 Raider is something special when you have none other than Apple tapping it for comparisons to the hyped-up MacBook Pro with its M1 Max to the GE76. Even better, Apple actually admits that its very best M1 Max MacBook Pro 16 is slower than the Raider in the comparison.
While we don’t think the two laptops are in the same category to even merit the comparison, we’re not surprised Apple focused on MSI’s killer gaming laptop. With its 8-core Intel 11th-gen Core i9-11980HK “Tiger Lake H” processor, Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 GPU pushing a smoking 165 watt TGP rating, and a buttery smooth 360Hz gaming panel, this hefty 6.6 pound laptop packs some serious gaming and productivity firepower. Did we mention all the RGB, too? —Gordon Mah Ung
Corsair’s MP600 Pro XT passed our portals rather late in the year, but we’re glad it showed up. It matches the blazingly fast Seagate FireCuda 530‘s performance, but is slightly less expensive, and more importantly, Corsair’s ultra-fast drive is generally available in both 1TB and 2TB capacities. Seagate’s barn-burner is often in short supply, tipping the scales towards Corsair’s offering in the battle for the best SSD. —Jon Jacobi
It may not be the most exciting choice, but Norton’s long-lived security solution remains our top pick for the best antivirus for Windows. The price is right, at just over $100 for a year of Norton 360 Deluxe covering five devices. The suite offers a good amount of features, and the protection is top-notch. Norton also has a wide variety of products to choose from, including Norton 360 for Gamers, which focuses on gamer-centric features like a game optimizer and a VPN to protect against DDoS attacks, which are sometimes deployed by hackers in certain games. Above all, Norton is one of the more quiet antivirus solutions. It just goes about its business and doesn’t bother you with too many pop-ups and notifications. Norton simply works and does a fantastic job of protecting you. —Ian Paul
Usually, this category is called “Best graphics card,” casting a spotlight on the best discrete desktop video card released over the past 12 months. And sure, several new graphics cards were released in 2021, from 1080p-focused offerings like the Radeon RX 6600 and Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 to heavy-hitting 4K behemoths like the $1,200 GeForce RTX 3080 Ti. But the chip shortage’s effects were felt most acutely in the graphics space, exacerbated by incredible demand from crypto-currency miners who use their graphics cards to mint virtual coins for real-world profits. Understandably—though disappointingly—every new graphics card launched this year hit store shelves with staggering price tags, though they also sold out instantly only to appear on second-hand retailers like Ebay and Craiglist at up to twice the price of those already-inflated MSRPs. Gross.
So, this year we’re switching gears. The best gaming option for most people with modest budgets isn’t a graphics card at all, but the GPU cores integrated into AMD’s game-ready Ryzen 5000G APUs, which remain in stock in both DIY form and inside numerous prebuilt systems. “You can build a Ryzen 5 5700G machine today and get outstanding CPU performance along with OK gaming performance,” we said in our review. Yes, you’ll need to dial down some graphics options for the best performance, but you’ll be able to play esports games and even triple-A titles at a decent clip at 720p or 1080p resolution. At $259 for the Ryzen 5 5600G and $369 for the Ryzen 7 5700G, they aren’t exactly cheap, especially since you’ll also need a motherboard to plop them into. But remember that you’re getting both a CPU and a doable GPU stand-in for the price. And, hey, they’re actually in stock. —Brad Chacos
Best Thunderbolt Dock: Plugable’s Plugable TBT3-UDZ
Plugable’s TBT3-UDZ is simply the very best Thunderbolt dock we’ve seen, ever. Plugable intrinsically understands that Thunderbolt docks are about displays (two 4K60 displays, specifically) and provides two HDMI and two DisplayPort ports to accommodate whatever you have on your desk. There’s boatloads of other ports, too, and 96 watts of charging power to top it all off. I absolutely love this thing.
The catch? It’s extremely hard to find. While this model is clearly the best Thunderbolt dock, the Plugable TBT3-UDC3 is smaller, cheaper, and slightly more available. If you find one, buy it. Now. —Mark Hachman
Arguably the most important piece of streaming hardware is a great microphone. This year, PC component maker NZXT brought the company’s first microphone to market with the $130 NZXT Capsule, which is dead simple to use and sounds fantastic. The Capsule is packed with killer specs, sports a fairly large condenser capsule, and is plug-and-play over an included USB-C cable. The sound profile is on the warmer side, with plenty of deep vocal reproduction for booming voices, and clean and even highs for clarity. One of the best features of this mic is the included detachable stand. It’s large, heavy, super solid, and something I could actually recommend someone using (which isn’t always the case with these type of desktop mics). To top it off, the design is uniquely NZXT, with trademark grided holes on the back and a two-toned white version that makes it very stylish despite its larger size. —Adam Patrick Murray
There is simply no excuse for being lazy about passwords—not when a password manager makes using best practices so easy. LastPass is the gold standard when it comes to this essential role. Install the browser plugin, and LastPass serves as a combination password generator, password vault, and form filler, saving you the trouble of memorizing and manually entering any of your often-used credentials or personal information. A Secure Notes feature lets you store sensitive information, like bank account numbers, associated with the various sites you visit.
The free version is limited to one device type—PC or mobile. The Premium tier ($3 a month) supports unlimited devices and offers dark-web monitoring for vulnerabilities and emergency access to your account. See our full review of LastPass, as well as our roundup of all password managers. —Katherine Stevenson
Best laptop CPUs
It’s been a banner year for laptop buyers shopping for powerful CPUs thanks to intense—and we mean intense—competition between AMD and Intel. We first saw the year kick off with AMD’s Ryzen 5000 H-class gaming processors arriving to smash a folding chair on Intel’s elderly 10th-gen H-class CPUs. AMD then followed up with its Ryzen 5000 U-class or low-power consumption chips, which battled Intel’s 11th-gen “Tiger Lake U chips” to a stand still.
Intel’s 11th-gen Core chips hold the high-ground on lightly threaded tasks and performance while on battery, with Ryzen 5000 U beating Intel’s processors in multi-threaded tasks.
And just when it looked easy to declare AMD’s Ryzen 5000 H-class the winner, Intel hit back with 11th-gen “Tiger Lake H” CPUs that just slightly edge the Ryzen 5000 H chips.
So what’s the winner? There are really two classes of laptops today—really thin and light, and really fast.
For the really thin and light category, we’d be torn between Ryzen and Core i7, but the 11th-gen Core came out last year. That leaves AMD’s impressive Ryzen 5000 chips as the best CPU for thin and light laptops in 2021. It’s an easy one to argue since you’re getting an unheard-of eight cores of performance in laptops weighing less than 3 lbs.
In the need-for-speed category, it’s a very close race, but we give the nod to Intel’s 11th-gen Tiger Lake H for two reasons. First, it has the slight edge in performance, giving you a full x16 lanes of PCIe Gen 4, plus support for PCIe Gen 4 SSDs. It’s simply a richer, fuller feature set than AMD’s Ryzen H-class chips. The other reason is the elephant in the room: You don’t buy a laptop CPU without the rest of laptop around it, and Intel’s Tiger Lake H is simply paired with more laptops with faster hardware than their AMD counterparts. —Gordon Mah Ung
There’s a reason Acronis True Image (recently renamed Cyber Protect Home Office) has remained our top pick for Windows backup software for years now. It offers all the functionality you would expect: full, incremental, and differential backup options—not just from your PC, but also your phone and any remote shared networks—to just about any destination of your choosing, including removable media. Acronis essentially has it all. Backups in our tests were performed quickly and without incident, making this the kind of comprehensive, easy-to-use, worry-free experience you want from a backup program.
As the program’s new name suggests, it offers more than just backups. Acronis throws in malware and ransomware protection, too. And if you opt for the Advanced or Premium tiers, you can expect bundled cloud storage and blockchain certification of files as part of the mix, respectively. Read our full review. —Katherine Stevenson
Best USB-C dongle: Anker PowerExpand+ 7-in-1 USB C Hub Adapter
Ordering a USB-C hub is a little bit like order from an a la carte menu: These slow-speed cousins of Thunderbolt docks are far cheaper and far more ubiquitous, but offer a ton of expansion ports for laptops. Anker’s $35 7-in-1 hub offers everything but Ethernet connectivity, but the upgraded 8-in-1 model with Ethernet costs $90, which seems extreme. Go with the $35 model instead. -Mark Hachman
Best dash cam: Garmin Dash Cam 57 or Nextbase 422GW
This year’s best dash cam is a pick’em between Garmin’s compact, low-profile, set-it-and-forget-it Dash Cam 57 and the ultra-versatile Nextbase 422GW. The Garmin is our choice for most people simply because it’s easy to use, has all the features that folks typically need, and hides nicely behind your rearview mirror. We also love the clever magnetic mount.
On the other hand, the 422GW is dual-channel cam, offering a modular interior view, a rear window view, and—uniquely—telephoto rearview secondary cameras. Both come in at around $230, but the 422GW’s modules cost extra. Quite a bit extra, at $100 apiece. So what kind of dash cam do you need? This year, both picks will have you covered. —Jon Jacobi
Choosing the best VPN is a tough job. Do you prioritize privacy and anonymity, or do you pick something that comes loaded with features? For our money, privacy is still the top consideration when it comes to VPNs, which is why we highly recommend Mullvad. Its speeds are within our top 10, and of all the no-logs VPNs out there, Mullvad has the best approach by far, saving as little information about its customers as possible. Pricing is also good, and the app is easy to use. If features are your main concern, however, then we’d recommend either NordVPN or ExpressVPN. Both have top notch speeds like Mullvad, and both support Netflix overseas viewing. Privacy is good with these services, but it simply isn’t up to the standard of Mullvad. —Ian Paul
Top streamers use mirrorless cameras connected to their PCs, but those setups can be both expensive and finicky. Enter streaming hardware specialist Elgato, which released its first webcam in 2021, seeking to bring top-of-the-line camera specs and deep controls down to affordable webcam prices. It succeeded.
At $200, the Elgato Facecam was made with streamers and experienced camera users in mind, delivering a unique webcam that rivals the best. Elgato focused on the basics with this device and augmented them will killer software that feels right at home for people who know camera lingo like ISO and color temperatures. While the 1080p 60FPS signal sounds generic on paper, the image is nothing but. The Facecam packs a high-end Sony sensor connected via an uncompressed signal for low latency and minimal artificing to whatever streaming program you use. It’s a premium webcam experience that isn’t quite perfect, but brings the right things to the table. The Elgato Facecam should push the industry further. —Adam Patrick Murray
The EPOS name may be fairly new to the headset game, but the tech and engineering minds behind them aren’t. The EPOS H6Pro is a spiritual successor to the Sennheiser GSP600/500, a gaming headset that had an uncomfortable and off-putting design for some people. Luckily the H6Pro focuses on the basics. The sleek low-profile design is lightweight for less stress during long gaming sessions, and the audio quality is superb. On top of that, EPOS offers an open-backed version of the H6Pro, which produces even better audio quality due to its design and is my preferred headset configuration for work/play. There aren’t enough open-backed gaming headphones out there so I’m very excited to have such a great option with this line.
Pricing is a bit steep at $179, considering the headset features an analog-only connection that is meant to be paired with a nice DAC, but if you put audio quality above feature sets then the H6Pro is a must-try. —Adam Patrick Murray
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