The holidays are often a time to reflect and take stock. 2021 doesn’t allow that, though, because there is none. Honestly—have you been out to the shop lately? Empty shelves everywhere. I had to make do with my second-favourite unsweetened oat-based milk. And try getting decent fresh pesto around here!
It’s the same situation with PC hardware, only to a much less facetious degree. Graphics card shortage stories have been doing the rounds for as long as Bitcoin has been so valuable. But in 2021, the crypto miners have tag-teamed with global supply line breakdowns because of the pandemic. As a result, GPU prices have skyrocketed due to scarcity. That’s especially true of Nvidia’s RTX 3x cards (codenamed “Hens’ Teeth”). Chances are if you were gearing up to upgrading that veteran GTX 970 in 2019, you’ve either had to overpay, wait a long time for shipping, or do without a new card.
Still—there is substantial good news out there. A lot of PC hardware has actually been plentiful this year—everything except graphics cards. And there have even been ways around that. So, before our brains forget how to process positive information completely, let’s remember the components whose quality and volume were worth celebrating in 2021.
Alan gave an emphatic 95% to the WD Black SN850 1TB in January, and it remains our best overall SSD pick. “If we had to recommend a next-gen SSD right now,” says Alan, “there’s only one clear option, and that’s the WD SN850. It’s simply the best drive you can buy today.”
We already know that SSDs bring massive performance gains over mechanical drives or even older-gen flash storage that’s nearing its read/write lifespan. But it’s a low-key kind of performance gain, one we tend to sleep on in search of marginal FPS increases. With GPUs all but off the table, this has been the year to invest in an upgrade that shears boot times, game loads, and video/audio editing workstation tasks.
Your old mate Phil likes to hop on a bike from time to time, and over in the cycling world, they’ve got a similar component shortage. You just can’t get groupsets at the moment—much less the specific rear cassette with a nice climbing ring. But there’s a solution: Buy a new bike.
Bike manufacturers get first dibs on components from the likes of Shimano, and so it goes with PC and laptop builders. So if you really want to get a new graphics card, buy the one that comes with a laptop attached to it. It’s not the most cost-effective approach on paper, but neither is it outright nonsense. Nvidia’s Ampere mobile GPUs have bridged the gap to desktop performance, and they’re comparatively easy to find and order.
Headsets & microphones
This year saw EPOS stamp more of its own design philosophy on the Sennheiser headset range it recently took stewardship of. The highlight is its H6Pro, a rare opportunity to shout about how good open-backed headphones can be.
Razer’s recently revamped headset range remained available in decent numbers throughout the year, including our best wired headset pick, the Blackshark V2. You can’t really equate the plugging in of a new set of cans to moving up a GPU generation and watching previously unplayable games come to life in ray-traced splendour, even if you’re the kind of tedious audiophile who still claims they can hear the difference between 320kbps and FLAC. What it does offer, though, is easier communication, more comfort, and better overall experience every time you sit down at the RGB palace of wonders.
In the world of dedicated mics, we’ve seen Roccat’s curious but feature-rich Kone attempt to meld mic capsule and mixer in one compact unit, a full refresh of Razer’s line, and a new high-end dual output solution from Shure, the MV7. We liked it a lot.
Keyboards & mice
Mountain continues to offer a promising line of keyboards with a fresh modular approach throughout 2021. Going tenkeyless or not is suddenly no longer a paralysing decision that takes so long your online basket times out.
Logitech’s G915 Lightspeed offers the best of both tactile worlds: the clickety-clack of a mechanical board with a low profile action similar to Mac and Microsoft Surface input devices. And it’s wireless, too.
Mice got really good at being wireless in 2021. Unless you’re competing in games for a living, you don’t need to worry about latency or dropout anymore. Another thing you didn’t need to worry about? Finding any keyboard and/or mouse you wanted in stock.
It’s the upgrade we love to neglect. For most of the last decade, we’ve had good reason to, too: IPS panels got a bit better, G-Sync and FreeSync looked a bit smoother, and as sharp as native 4K looked in 2014, good luck actually running a game at that resolution.
Flash-forward a bit to 2021, and monitors carrying the holy trinity of specs —4K, 144Hz, and IPS—are available at a reasonable price, like Gigabyte’s M32U-EK. We’ve even seen OLED panels quietly creep on the market, and if you think an extra 7FPS from an RTX 3x card is a game-changer, see how your eyes react to a new environment you’re actually viewing those frames on.