Our tech columnist tracks the key consumer tech trends of the year, and what 2022 promises.
I started and ended last year’s roundup optimistically, by saying “the pandemic year is drawing to a close”, not fully realising that 2021 would be an even worse year pandemic-wise. Therefore, without any further commentary on the pandemic, let me take a look back at the hits and misses of the Indian gadget world in the year gone by, and a hint of what we can expect in 2022.
While there were many interesting developments in personal technology, I am going to focus on three phenomena that seem to me to have been the most interesting of the year.
Fortunes shuffling among the BBK brands
Most users haven’t heard of BBK, because they are a holding company, but the phone brands they own – Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, Realme and Iqoo – together sell more units than any other company in the world. While Xiaomi is the No. 1 phone brand worldwide and in India, they still fall well short of the combined might of the BBK brands.
From the time it launched, OnePlus has been top dog among these. Their “flagship killer” phones had the most premium hardware with the best specs, sported a very stock-like Android OS which was well loved among enthusiasts as well as the general public, and had the cachet one gets from being sold in the US and European markets.
Ever since charismatic co-founder Carl Pei left OnePlus in late 2020, things have moved in a different direction for OnePlus. The hardware is still great, but they have ditched the stock-like OxygenOS and instead adopted Oppo’s ColorOS codebase, with the resulting software being described by GSMArena as a “trainwreck” in terms of design, and extremely buggy to boot.
I’ve been something of a OnePlus loyalist since the OnePlus One came out, and I got one down from the US six months before it launched in India. But these trends are concerning, to say the least, and I have to wonder if my next phone will still be a OnePlus.
But in better news elsewhere, BBK brand Vivo has really stepped into its role as a serious flagship camera phone maker, with its X60 Pro+ being described by the venerable DPReview as “the best smartphone out there for photographers”. I am in the process of reviewing its successor, the X70 Pro+, and without revealing too much I can say this is a very very capable device. Add to this Oppo’s exciting foldable flagship, the Find N (sadly only released in China), and it’s clear that OnePlus is no longer the favourite child in the BBK family.
The OnePlus 10 should launch in a few months and may change things around. But as things stand, this may be that rare time when the best BBK phone that you can buy on the market is not a OnePlus, and that is saying a lot.
Xiaomi and Realme redefine the value laptop segment
This year we started reviewing devices and two of the earliest reviews were those of the Mi Notebook Ultra and the Realme Notebook Slim. While the Chinese phone makers had revolutionised the smartphone segment all the way back in 2014 when Xiaomi launched, delivering never-seen-before build quality and performance at relatively affordable prices, they hadn’t done much in the laptop space. Huawei had desultorily launched an Honor laptop that didn’t sell very much, and Xiaomi’s initial laptop models were hamstrung by their lack of webcams.
All this changed in 2021 when both Xiaomi and Realme launched a line of exceptionally well built and well specced laptops at competitive prices. Both these laptops offered high quality screens, solid aluminium build, good keyboards and trackpads and great performance at price points where the legacy laptop makers would sacrifice one or more of these elements. Especially getting a 300+ nits screen with 100 percent sRGB coverage was unheard of at or below Rs 50,000.
Of course, Asus now has shaken things up with their K15 OLED line-up, but apart from the stellar display, the rest of the build and specs are not particularly exciting. What I do hope to see is other laptop makers being forced to offer better build and better screens in their mid-range laptops to compete with the Chinese heavyweights.
Apple offering better value than ever before
You typically don’t associate Apple with value. They’ve always positioned themselves as a premium brand, with premium prices to match, but a clutch of factors has meant that in 2021, both in the world of phones and laptops, Apple presented perhaps the best value they have delivered in a long time.
The first of these factors is, of course, Apple Silicon. With the M1 chip powering the Mac Mini and the Macbook Air, and the former being very competitively priced and the latter being offered at substantial discounts (as low at Rs 75,000 and sometimes even lower), anyone looking for a powerful desktop or a premium laptop had a great alternative to the similarly priced Windows machines, with better performance than the competition. Of course, Apple also launched the eye-wateringly expensive Macbook Pros, but that’s a whole other story.
When it comes to phones, Apple offered more aggressive discounts than they ever have on their iPhone line-up. Especially during the festival sales, the iPhone 12 line-up was available at very competitive prices, with the 12 Mini coming in at Rs 44,000. With its performance and photography chops, it easily presented better value than similarly priced Android counterparts, especially because OnePlus has dropped the ball and the latest Pixels have not made an appearance in India.
It’s also worth mentioning that iPads continue to deliver the best value in tablet-land, with the basic sub-Rs 30,000 iPad being the best tablet for most people. Apple products are still not anywhere near affordable, but this is perhaps the first time they’ve made a serious play for the mid-premium segment and their increasing sales numbers are a testament to this strategy.
There’s much to look forward to in 2022, gadgets-wise. Will OnePlus shake off their torpor and get back to battling it out with the best in the business? Will Vivo build on their camera phone chops? Will Google’s next set of flagship Pixels finally land in India? Will Intel’s Alder Lake laptop chips put up a fight against Apple Silicon? I can’t wait to find out all this, but most of all I can’t wait for this pandemic to at least wane in power, so that we don’t have to deal with one more year of loss, both personal and financial.
Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.