The Most Disappointing Gadgets of 2021

The Most Disappointing Gadgets of 2021
Image: Gizmodo,Image: Apple,Image: Razer,Image: Ray-Ban,Image: Amazon

We review a lot of gadgets here at Gizmodo, and honestly, many of them are good. We detailed our favourites here. But we also see a lot of really bad products — some are just plain bad, while others are capable and well-designed but fatally flawed in one way or another (usually when it comes to privacy). Still others were announced this year but not released — and maybe we’ll never actually get a chance to see them in action because they’re so ill-conceived. There are a lot of ways for gadgets to be bad! Here are the gadgets that disappointed us this year.

Microsoft Duo 2

Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Microsoft keeps trying to get this Android phone thing down, but it still hasn’t stuck the landing. Now, three generations in, Samsung’s foldables keep getting better, but Microsoft’s second attempt at a folding phone is still a weird device that no one needs.

Unlike other ambitious foldables that have screens that actually bend, the Surface Duo 2 has two separate screens separated by a hinge. Then there’s a substantial rear camera bump that sticks out and won’t even let you set the phone down flat. It’s not water-resistant, there’s no wireless charging, and you still need two hands to use it even when it’s in “phone” mode.

At the very least, Microsoft has managed to pack flagship-level specs into the device, like two AMOLED displays with 90Hz refresh rates, a Snapdragon 888 chip, and 8GB of RAM. But the primary camera remains subpar with weak image processing, and even with Microsoft’s helpful software features, the Surface Duo 2 is just not what we want from a foldable phone. The $2,319-$2,769 Surface Duo 2 is simply too expensive for a bleeding-edge-level device that’s still working out the kinks. — Florence Ion

Razer Zephyr

Photo: Razer Photo: Razer

It pains me to put on this list a device whose purpose is to protect people from a contagious disease, but Razer’s Zephyr face mask is ambitious to a fault. Revealed at CES 2021 as Project Hazel, the Zephyr is being marketed as a “wearable air purifier,” though it looks more like something a PC enthusiast made as a prop for a dystopian TV series.

Where a cloth mask passively filters air, the Zephyr uses a pair of two-speed fans to cycle air through N95-grade filters housed within the mask. Razer makes some compelling claims about the mask’s effectiveness and solved some of the annoyances with today’s ubiquitous blue-and-white cloths by adding clever features like a translucent mouthpiece, interior lights that highlight the wearer’s mouth, and a flexible silicone seal.

However, when it comes down to it, a mask you’re too embarrassed to wear won’t provide any protection against airborne droplets. The Zephyr is clunky, the lighting is gimmicky, and replacing the filters adds cost on top of the $136 sticker price. It doesn’t help that many reviewers have complained about comfort, annoying fan noise, and poor visibility, not to mention the not-so-friendly looks they received while wearing the Zephyr. We encourage companies to come up with solutions to today’s problems and hope Razer gives this another shot, but the Zephyr, in its current form, isn’t something any of us would willingly wear out in public. — Phillip Tracy

Amazon Astro

Screenshot: Amazon Screenshot: Amazon

Though it wasn’t technically available to buy in 2021, Amazon revealed its tiny, privacy-abolishing robot Astro this year, so it still counts. More or less an Alexa on wheels with cute eyebrows, Astro presented us with an answer to a question we didn’t remember asking: “What if Wall-E were real, evil, and knew how to beatbox?”

Priced at a cool $US1,500—$US1,000 (it isn’t available in Australia, but these prices translate to $2,068-$1,378) for members of Amazon’s Day 1 editions program — Astro is billed and advertised as a domestic assistant. And like any good assistant, Astro gets to work on day one by getting to know you, your house, and your family. The robot begins by “enrolling” the faces and voices of any member of your household who might conceivably give it a command, and then sets out to loosely map the terrain of your home so that it can scoot around without falling down a set of stairs.

Astro also comes fully equipped with what’s known as “Sentry” mode, which enables it to patrol your house for people or events that it doesn’t recognise. Have you seen this episode of Black Mirror before? If not, that’s OK: It’s happening right now, in real time.

For privacy-minded consumers, Amazon touts the fact that Astro is “designed to protect your privacy,” noting that the robot’s microphones, cameras, and sensors can be manually disabled, and that boundary zones can be set so that Astro knows where it’s not allowed to roam. But the reality is that Astro is just another creepy addition to our digital panopticon — an ever-watching, ever-roaming surveillance device that’s designed to memorise and analyse as much of your personal data as possible.

Apple AirTags

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Apple’s AirTags are a good product. They are not on this list because they suck at what they do, which is track things that go missing. They perform their tasks very well. But AirTags are also cheap enough and effective enough, thanks to the ubiquitousness of Apple’s Find My network, that they can be used to track people who don’t realise they’re being tracked, and Apple hasn’t done enough to mitigate that danger.

In the months since AirTags launched, Apple has beefed up AirTags’ anti-stalking features, even releasing an Android app so that non-iPhone users can scan their surroundings for unwanted AirTags. But there was clearly not enough thought put into how people would use this product for nefarious purposes. Women, in particular, are finding unwanted AirTags in their belongings or vehicles on a not-infrequent basis, which means that Apple has made it too easy for shitty people to be shittier. In 2022, we hope tech companies start to think through the ways in which their products and platforms can be used for evil and start there rather than imagining utopias in which everyone behaves. The wait-and-see, head-in-the-sand approach to product development has failed us too many times. — Caitlin McGarry

OnePlus Watch

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

The $221 OnePlus Watch was hands down the worst smartwatch launched in 2021. Rather than run Google’s Wear OS, which would have given it access to the existing Android watch apps available in the Play Store, OnePlus launched the smartwatch with RTOS, the same platform that powers the Amazfit line of wearables. The experience is decidedly not good.

In our review period for the watch, OnePlus only offered beta versions of the Watch’s marquee features, seriously hampering that initial experience. Sleep-tracking, fitness-tracking, and even heart rate-monitoring were inaccurate, rendering the gargantuan 46mm wearable almost useless. Even after an update, the OnePlus Watch remains buggy and doesn’t offer the sort of experience you’d expect even from even a more budget-friendly smartwatch. This one is a skip. — Florence Ion

Tesla Bot

Screenshot: Tesla/YouTube Screenshot: Tesla/YouTube

Sure, the Tesla Bot isn’t a real product yet (nor will it ever be), but Tesla CEO Elon Musk did announce it this year, so it definitely counts for the purposes of this list. Musk, Time magazine’s Person of the Year (sigh), took the wraps off his idea for a robot prototype he’s planning to build next year by hiring a real person to pretend to be a robot. Watch here.

It makes sense that Musk would want to replace human workers with robot ones. The company has a lengthy track record of complaints lobbied against it for its poor working conditions, workplace harassment, and even physical injuries. Why not replace your employees with robots who can’t feel, don’t complain, and won’t file an OSHA complaint about a work-related injury?

Of course, this is all just vaporware. But billionaires with bad ideas are still dangerous, even if their “robots” are just humans in skintight suits. — Florence Ion

NFTs

Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui, Getty Images Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui, Getty Images

NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — are not gadgets or even physical objects that you can hold. But they are tech you can buy and they suck, and that’s what makes them perfect for this list. NFTs dominated technology conversations this year, and yet they feel like a big joke that everyone who’s ever existed on Planet Earth is somehow on the outside of.

Let’s say you decide to spend your money on an NFT of a piece of digital artwork. But you don’t actually own the art, you just own what is essentially the deed to the art. Anyone can right-click on that artwork and save it, so the deed you own is essentially a speculative asset that’s not worth anything. Except it’s worth… $300,000? Hmm… back to square one.

In 2021, brands made it clear: They do not, under any circumstances, care if crypto art is a bubble that’s built to burst, or if the energy use required to mine many popular cryptocurrencies is horrible for the planet. If people will spend money on it, the brands said, we’re all in. To wit, brands like Taco Bell, Applebee’s, and Adidas all recently announced that they’d entered the NFT game, and former First Lady Melania Trump just announced that she’s selling an NFT of a watercolor painting of her eyes. Influencers have also shamelessly entered the game, with celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Grimes, and Ellen Degeneres all hustling to make big sales in the NFT trade. NFTs may seem like a scam to the untrained eye, but rich people are getting even richer on them. When has that ever not worked out!Brianna Provenzano

Flat Cat

Gif: Matthias Kubisch/YouTube, Other Gif: Matthias Kubisch/YouTube, Other

If you don’t want all the stress and responsibility that comes with owning a real pet, but also don’t want to drop thousands on a lifelike robotic alternative (such as Boston Dynamics’ Spot), you might have to settle for a $US1,200 ($1,654) crowdfunded companion called the Flat Cat, which looks like zombie roadkill. As the name implies, the robot is reminiscent of a furry feline that’s had an unfortunate run-in with a vehicle’s tires, leaving it flat as a pancake but no less “alive” and active.

The Flat Cat moves around not unlike a tapeworm, compressing and expanding its body to move across floors and furniture instead of your intestines. It’s also designed to respond to human interactions like being picked up or having its fur stroked. When left alone it will also roll around and contort its body in an attempt to convince you it’s as adorable and playful as a puppy or a kitten. There is some undeniable charm in the robot, and its furry outer coat encourages interaction the same way kids are tempted to poke at a furry caterpillar inching along the ground, but the Flat Cat will never curl up on your lap, sip a bowl of warm milk, or use your laptop keyboard as a bed. — Andrew Liszewski

Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories

Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo

Ray-Ban Stories is Facebook’s first attempt at a pair of smart glasses, and the company now known as Meta is clearly gearing up for whatever the metaverse ends up being with this wearable. But a pair of glasses that can record people surreptitiously is not exactly what anyone wants, as Google Glass already proved. Ray-Ban Stories look great and work even better. That’s what makes them bad.

Launched as an answer to the “smart” glasses released by its competitors in recent years, including Google Glass and Snap’s Spectacles, the Stories look basically identical to a stylish pair of Ray-Bans, save for a tiny button on the right-hand arm that allows you to capture photos and videos of whatever it is that you’re facing.

Partnering with a cool brand was a good get — particularly for a notoriously dorky brand like Facebook — precisely because it masks the very uncool potential of these glasses to be used for nefarious purposes. Would you get on the subway and hold your phone up to somebody’s face so that they knew you were recording them? Probably not, because they’d feel so uncomfortable. And yet, this is the brave new world we’re hurtling toward: a cold, unfeeling virtual reality that alienates us from our most human impulses while simultaneously funnelling our data back to Facebook — sorry — Meta. — Brianna Provenzano

(Dis)honorable Mention: Peloton Tread+

Photo: Michael Loccisano, Getty Images Photo: Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

Peloton’s Tread+ is a gigantic, expensive treadmill that debuted back in 2019, but 2021 was its biggest year. Peloton rebranded the Tread+ (which launched as Tread) in order to release a new, cheaper, smaller treadmill, also called Tread. But before it could get its new treadmill out the door, Peloton had to recall the Tread+ this summer due to reports of injuries and the death of a child.

The company didn’t handle the incidents well initially, attributing them to user error rather than acknowledging that the Tread+, which has a unique slat design rather than a traditional belt like other home treadmills, made injury more likely. Under pressure from federal regulators, the company recalled the Tread+ and has not yet fixed or rereleased the treadmill. But hey, 2022 is here now. — Caitlin McGarry