TikTok was never going to have an easy year. Thanks to a Chinese parent company and rising global dominance, the app was already facing suspicion and scrutiny. But 2020 was the year everything just kept getting worse.
The US military banned the app. The Senate called it a national security threat. Both political parties issued warnings to staffers. Then, a group of TikTok teens pulled an epic prank on a Donald Trump rally and the president began to take notice.
Trump delivered an ultimatum: sell to a US buyer or be banned in the US for good. Like so many of Trump’s executive orders, it hasn’t exactly played out that way. Microsoft angled for a deal with Bytedance, but the company ultimately settled on an arrangement with Oracle and Walmart (the exact details of which still aren’t clear several months later). There have been multiple lawsuits and Trump’s deadlines have come and gone without an actual ban — at least so far.
But TikTok is hardly unscathed. The legal nightmare ultimately resulted in TikTok’s newly-minted CEO stepping down after just three months on the job (a permanent replacement has yet to be named). It also significantly hurt the company’s ability to hire new talent. Both of which are particularly problematic considering Facebook and Snapchat have both launched their own TikTok-like features.
While none of this seems to have had much effect on the app’s popularity — it was still one of the most popular apps of 2020 — TikTok will no doubt be feeling the pain from 2020 for years to come.
When we reviewed Quibi in April, the mobile video service seemed practically dead on arrival. So it was no surprise when the company announced just six months later that it would be shutting down. Even now, it seems confounding: Quibi was a subscription service that delivered original shows, with seemingly large budgets and major stars like Chrissy Teigen, that would only play on your phone. But there was no way to share any of its content or watch shows on larger screens. And the quality of the shows themselves was middling.
Quibi’s true innovation, if we dare to use that word, was Turnstyle, which allowed you to watch videos in both portrait and landscape modes seamlessly. The service actually delivered two video streams to your device at once, so there was no interruption when you switch orientations. Creators also shot their content with both aspect ratios in mind, so portrait video was actually framed properly.
But while Turnstyle seemed cool, it wasn’t enough to justify paying $5 a month for the privilege of watching Quibi’s shows. At least, not while YouTube has a seemingly unlimited bounty of content for free, and other services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ have content most people actually want to watch. It turns out Quibi was a service meant for nobody except for co-creator Jeffrey Katzenberg himself. And even $1.75 billion in funding couldn’t make it a success.
We have yet to properly test Amazon’s screenless wearable, which launched this year to a ton of criticism, but its premise alone puts it on our list of the worst things this year. I’ll be the first to admit: a wearable that can help measure your body fat appeals to me. I do want a way to understand how my exercise and diet changes have affected my body’s muscular and fat composition.
But it’s the way this thing works and some of its other features that are utterly appalling. After paying $100 for the band, which contains an accelerometer, heart rate monitor, temperature sensor and microphones, you’ll still have to pay $4 a month for additional features like sleep zone and body temperature tracking, body fat analysis and tone of voice sensing.
Maybe you don’t want to shell out for those dystopian-sounding features, in which case you’d be paying $100 for a very basic tracker (and there are plenty of cheaper alternatives). If you do, though, you’ll basically be paying every month for features that you’ll get for free when you buy, say, a Fitbit or Apple Watch. You’ll also be paying for something to police the way you speak. Though Amazon positions the tone-of-voice feature as a way to tell your mood, it’s all too easy for users to start feeling like they’ll need to sound happier to please the system.
Stress and emotional measurement are vague and hard to gauge anyway, but other products that have tried to do similar have used more quantifiable metrics like heart rate or galvanic skin response. The way a person’s speaking voice sounds is too subjective to be consistent and reliable.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still be testing the Halo band and service to see if there is a decent product buried under the mountain of criticism and backlash. But for now it seems like Amazon’s latest wearable was the last thing people needed in an already crushing year.
Console and graphics card pre-orders
This fall, gamers found out what it’s like to be a hypebeast. NVIDIA’s RTX 3000 launch in September was one of the most-anticipated in recent PC gaming history, and, just like the latest pair of Jordans, tens of thousands of people took Ls thanks to limited supply, scalpers using bots and stores crashing due to demand. Literally the next week, Microsoft’s Xbox Series consoles went up for pre-order and, surprise, the same thing happened. Then came the PS5, and more trouble.
Granted, there’s every chance the consoles would’ve sold out anyway — major retailers like Amazon clearly took more orders than they had stock, which led to more disappointment than was necessary — but the number of people I know personally who have had to pay upwards of $700 on sites like StockX to ensure their kids get a PS5 for Christmas is unreasonable.
Even those that successfully ordered the hardware they wanted saw some shipping problems. In the UK, a number of Amazon customers found themselves unboxing cat food or NERF guns instead of PlayStation 5s after a spate of thefts. In the US, there are reports of people who ordered Xboxes and PS5s that still haven’t shown up — our senior mobile editor Chris Velazco’s console has been stuck in FedEx limbo for weeks.
Qualcomm’s non-smartphone Snapdragon chips
It’s not that Qualcomm did a bad job with its Snapdragon Wear 4100 and the Snapdragon 8cx 2 this year. It’s not even that these are chipsets for products that have been struggling to find good software to run on for years. The main reason Qualcomm’s non-smartphone chipsets are one of the losers of 2020 is that Apple showed them up so badly with its M1 CPU, blowing away Intel rivals on benchmarks and delivering excellent performance even with emulation working in the background.
Qualcomm is in a tricky position. It could make the most powerful ARM-based processor for laptops ever and Snapdragon PCs could still fail because Windows on ARM is plagued with issues. And it’s not entirely Qualcomm’s fault. But the chip maker did deliver two weird and lackluster non-smartphone Snapdragon cards this year. The Wear 4100, for example, is meant for smartwatches and can support 16-megapixel cameras, for some reason. Did I miss a memo? Are wrist-snapped selfies coming back? Why, Qualcomm. Why?
Then there’s the Snapdragon 8cx 2, which doesn’t offer any actual speed or performance upgrades over last year’s 8cx. Its main hook is improved AI processing, in addition to supporting higher-res webcams and streaming to dual 4K monitors. But even the latest, most highly-specced laptops, not to mention Snapdragon PCs, come with at best 1080p webcams. Sure, a sharper sensor would be nice for my future Zoom calls, but this update on Qualcomm’s part seemed more idealistic than practical.
Of course, beyond a certain point it gets harder to deliver truly groundbreaking architectural and speed improvements. But Qualcomm needs to work harder with its partners to explore future developments that can advance wearables and Snapdragon PCs, instead of giving us unnecessary features again.
Stadia is almost good. It’s a working cloud-gaming service with more than 100 titles in its library, and support for Chromecast Ultras, Chrome web browsers and about 50 Android phones, with iOS functionality incoming. With the proper internet speeds, Stadia runs most games just fine, and this year, it even rolled out 4K streaming on the web.
The problem is, Google promised all of these functions and more at launch, over one year ago. Stadia still doesn’t have many of the social and YouTube-oriented features that developers described, and the service caps mobile streams at 1080p, despite targeting 4K on all platforms out of the gate. While its game library has expanded over the past year, many of the titles on Stadia are fairly outdated or low-profile, meaning most folks have likely played them already. Plus, the service’s user interface is a nightmare.
All of this, and Stadia isn’t even priced competitively — it costs $100 for a Premiere Edition Bundle, which includes the gamepad and Chromecast Ultra dongle that’s required for streaming games on the TV. Games are priced individually in the Stadia store, and discounts are few and far between. There’s an option to pay $10 a month for Stadia Pro, which unlocks the ability to stream games in 4K, with HDR and surround sound, and offers some free and discounted games each month. Compared with Microsoft’s xCloud, which is included in the stellar Game Pass Ultimate package for $15 a month, or GeForce Now, a PC streaming service that costs $5 a month, Stadia doesn’t make much sense.
As it stands, Stadia can’t compete with the other cloud-gaming services on the market, not to mention other, traditional gaming platforms.
ThinkPad X1 Fold
Last year, we all got swept up in foldable hype. Few gadgets in 2019 were actually usable since companies like Samsung and Motorola had to sort out some durability issues that caused their devices to straight up break. This year, though, companies came through with foldable phones that were actually well made and exciting to use. It makes sense that foldable fever would also start sweeping across the PC industry. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold is the first 13-inch Windows device with a foldable display, and it’s surprisingly sturdy.
But despite its decent hardware, the ThinkPad X1 Fold actually convinced me that until Microsoft gets its act together and makes Windows much more usable on tablets, foldable PCs just will not work.
Part of the issue has to do with how Lenovo packaged the X1 Fold. The fact that there’s even a configuration without the companion keyboard means you’re supposed to be able to use the device as a Windows tablet that bends. And we all know how that story goes by now. Repeat after me: Windows is not a touch-friendly OS!
So in addition to the X1 Fold’s whopping $2,600 starting price, you’ll also have to shell out $230 for Lenovo’s companion keyboard that sits in between the two halves of the screen. With it, the Fold is slightly more interesting as a mini laptop. But, as is the case with most first-gen products, the X1 Fold is riddled with infuriating glitches that make it impossible for me to recommend anyone spend their hard-earned money on it. While I have and will continue to applaud Lenovo for its efforts to innovate, sadly the X1 Fold turned out to be one of the most frustrating devices of the year.
The end of free, unlimited Google Photos
I was at Google I/O in 2015 when Google Photos was announced, and right from the get-go, it seemed too good to be true. Born from the ashes of Google+, Photos promised unlimited, high-quality picture uploads for free, and it delivered on that promise like a goddamn champion for the last five years. Because of that, I — and many others like me — spent that time pitching the service to our friends, family, and anyone who didn’t want to worry about cumbersome or costly photo backups. But you know what they say about all good things.
In November, Google announced those unlimited, free uploads would be discontinued as of 2021, citing a growing demand for storage — after all, the company says there’s something like 4 trillion images and videos in Google Photos already, with another 28 billion added every week. There’s a faint silver lining here, though: Anything you upload before then won’t be counted against the 15GB of data that comes with every Google account, so it might not be a bad idea to upload all your old photos in bulk over the coming months.
Obviously, a deal this good could never last forever. The economics just don’t make sense at this scale, especially when you consider the staggering rate at which people seem to be moving their files to the cloud. It’s also worth noting that many of the people we’ve recommended Google Photos to won’t be impacted by this policy change for a while — Google estimates that about 80 percent of its users will be able to store up to “three more years worth of memories” before having to worry about paying for anything. Personally, this doesn’t change my fondness for Google Photos at all, and I firmly believe a service this valuable is worth paying for, but man — we had it great for a while there, didn’t we?
Microsoft Surface Duo
Like the ThinkPad X1 Fold, Microsoft’s Surface Duo was a victim of glitches. The dual screen Android device was a promising marriage of Windows productivity and the plethora of Android apps, bundled in a resurrected form factor.
Kudos must be given to Microsoft for the Surface Duo’s impressive hardware. It’s the first dual-screen device that’s so thin and beautiful. The device’s smooth 360-degree hinge allowed it to be used in a variety of mixed like book, tent and laptop. But as is the case with so many dual screen devices before it, the Duo struggled to truly shine.
One reason is the fact that despite Microsoft’s efforts at providing bug fixes and software updates, the Duo suffered from a ton of glitches. The keyboard wouldn’t work right in all the modes available, the camera app didn’t always know which side of the screen to show up on. But even after some of these were ironed out, the Duo’s greatest problem remained: an identity crisis.
Though it runs Android and you can use it to make calls, the Surface Duo is not a phone. It just doesn’t do phone things very well. It’s not great as a fullscreen tablet either, thanks to the hinge in the middle eating up words and buttons. Its best modes are book or tent, which allows for immersive content consumption or distractedly keeping an eye on your Twitter feed respectively. But that’s not enough to justify telling people to spend $1,400 on it.
As a first-generation product, the Duo was expectedly glitchy, and I look forward to Microsoft fixing that. But what the company really needs to work on is making the Duo good at all the things it’s meant to do, not just decent at some.
Truth on social media
Though social media companies like Facebook and Twitter did make more of an effort to better label misleading posts this year, the concept of truth online completely crumbled in 2020. Hoaxes were more rampant than usual, and with everyone cooped up at home people were far more susceptible to lies being spread in their circles.
Conspiracy theories about 5G having started the coronavirus pandemic led to vandalism in the UK, while for the longest time Donald Trump and his supporters refused to concede the election. Worst of all were the so-called cures for COVID-19 that spread like wildfire at a time when people were terrified for their lives, including unproven drugs and ingesting bleach. As the world was trying to avoid a real disease, unverified theories were putting people’s lives in danger for a truly stupid reason.
While it’s heartening to see companies like Adobe, Twitter and the New York Times band together to tackle this issue (making their Content Authenticity Initiative one of our winners this year), it’s still important to admit that facts didn’t seem to matter in 2020. Once we acknowledge that, though, hopefully we can refocus on finding a solution and encouraging logical thinking.