CNET’s 2020 Innovation Award winners made things better during a rugged year

During a pandemic year marked by mounting economic and emotional challenges, the latest advances in technology helped us stay employed, continue the education of our children, comfort loved ones, and reimagine our ideas about community. In CNET’s second annual Innovation Awards, we wanted to recognize a handful of advances that changed things for the better in a difficult year.

We’ve already named our best products of 2020, based on the Editors’ Choice selections of CNET reviewers. Those are the products we most recommend people buy across the biggest and most interesting categories in consumer tech.

But there are a few things that didn’t make that list that are also worth highlighting this year. We’re talking about the stuff that made a difference. That stuff that gave us new breakthroughs. Not all of these belong to products that CNET recommends for everyone. But, they all moved the technology world forward in powerful ways.

And as CNET has expanded the scope of what we cover — into science, health and personal finance — we’ve also expanded the realm of what we consider for Innovation Awards. That brings us to this year’s winners, the first of which we’re all counting on to help us find our way out of the current global crisis. 

1. Breakthrough mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic caught our bodies and our communities by surprise in early 2020. It wreaked havoc on lungs and hearts, and health professionals quickly realized that the virus was even more contagious and more deadly than the flu — which quietly kills over half a million people each year. That was partly because COVID-19 has a longer incubation period and so an infected person can spread it to others for up to a couple weeks (the flu only does so for one to four days). The solution quickly became clear: We needed a vaccine.

The problem is that vaccines can take a long time to develop — some need more than a decade. We didn’t have that luxury with COVID-19, which was shutting down communities across the world. So, in 10 months, researchers from Pfizer and Moderna made a new kind of vaccine based on synthetic messenger RNA. It’s not only 95% effective, but it’s such a breakthrough that it could lead to treatments of inherited diseases like cancer and allergies. It also has the potential to lead to more rapid treatments for the next pandemic. Read Jackson Ryan’s story on how it could change vaccines forever.

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COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer.


Getty

2. Eero Pro 6 and Asus ZenWifi AX 

With more people working from home and a lot more students being educated from the kitchen table — often at the same time and in the same household — plenty of us ran into the limits of our internet connections and our Wi-Fi routers in 2020. Our networks were not made to handle two or three Zoom meetings running at the same time from the same living space.

The arrival of the first Wi-Fi 6 routers offered hope to solve the problem. While these new routers still cost hundreds of dollars and aren’t quite ready for mainstream wallets yet, two of them offer a glimpse of the future of home Wi-Fi. And, it’s a lot faster and more efficient. We’re talking about the mesh routers Eero Pro 6 and Asus ZenWifi AX. Ry Crist explains how these two both use a tri-band design to deliver big improvements.

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Asus ZenWiFi AX


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

3. Apple M1 chip 

For over a decade there’s been talk about the Arm processors that power phones and tablets eventually being powerful enough to run laptops. The main benefit is that the battery life on Arm chips is so much better and most people would love to have laptops with that kind of staying power. Microsoft has been trying to make it work with Windows for the past 10 years. But, the chips always felt sluggish and software incompatibilities have usually doomed the whole experiment.

Enter Apple in 2020. Its home-grown Arm chips in iPhones and iPads have been blowing away benchmarks for the past several years and 2020 finally brought the first systems powered by an Apple silicon chip called the M1. Apple has pulled off a nearly impossible feat — systems with great battery life, full-throttle performance and wide app compatibility so that virtually all existing software runs great on the new chips. All of this was a welcome arrival in a year when more workers and students are at home glued to their laptops. It’s a development that could lead to a lot of future laptops being faster, longer-powered and perhaps even a little less expensive. Read Dan Ackerman’s full review of the MacBook Air 2020 M1 for a look at how well the first iteration of Apple’s chip already runs.

Apple boasts its M1 processor has the best performance per watt of power consumed, a key factor for long battery life.

Apple boasts its M1 processor has the best performance per watt of power consumed, a key factor for long battery life.


Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

4. Orchid VPN 

With people doing a lot more online in 2020 — from shopping to learning to socializing to organizing — the internet privacy and security problems we’ve been sweeping under the rug for over 20 years are starting to show. Phishing scams, malware, identity theft and other forms of attacks are getting more clever and artful. That’s bad for people in the US, but it’s even worse if you’re living under a repressive regime and you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument about the future.

What can average citizens use to protect themselves? VPNs, which CNET writes a lot about. But even the best VPNs have their weaknesses. In 2020, a new decentralized Blockchain-powered VPN called Orchid is changing the balance of power to give the little people some more control. (Blockchain is the technology and the secret sauce behind the popular cryptocurrency Bitcoin.) Orchid’s not ready for the masses to use yet, but it could pave the way for better consumer protection. Read Rae Hodge’s breakdown of why Orchid represents a clear leap forward for VPN, privacy and security.

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Orchid VPN


Orchid

5. PlayStation 5 DualSense controller

Our final CNET Innovation Award winner didn’t cure a public health crisis or save us from overreaching government agencies, but it has helped a lot of people smile more and forget some of their burdens, if only temporarily. It’s brought an unexpected freshness and delight to next-generation video game consoles, which are mostly about speed, power and photorealism. 

We’re talking about the new PlayStation 5 DualSense controller, paired with the game Astro’s Playroom that comes preinstalled on PS5 systems. The controller features a new combination of haptics and sound that takes in-game effects to next-level immersiveness. It transcends what you expect a game controller to be able to do, and it feels like the future. Read Scott Stein’s feature story on why Sony put a lot of the magic of the PS5 into this new controller.

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PlayStation 5 DualSense controller


Dan Ackerman/CNET

Honorable mentions

Vizio Elevate Soundbar: A soundbar can be one of the best ways to amp up your home entertainment, and the most innovative new soundbar of the year is the Vizio Elevate, which rotates automatically for better surround sound. It’s a little pricey for now, but it could be a trend-setter.

Lenovo X1 Fold: Folding screen smartphones were a hot commodity last year, but faded in interest. In the next year, the technology could make a comeback in folding screen laptops and the Lenovo’s X1 Fold is the first one out of the gate. With solid build quality and practical touches like the magnetic bluetooth keyboard, the X1 fold has the looks of an upstart form factor that others could copy.

Oculus Quest 2: Last year’s first-gen Oculus Quest was the only product to earn both CNET Editors’ Choice and Innovation Awards. The second version is even better and cheaper and might have pulled off the double win again, if it weren’t for the fact that Facebook now forces Oculus users to use a Facebook account to play — and for no good reason.

Apple’s ‘Spatial Audio’ for AirPods: In another case of Apple perfecting an idea that other companies have been trying to master for years, Spatial Audio for AirPods Pro (and the new AirPods Max) converts 5.1-channel, 7.1-channel or Dolby Atmos audio into virtual surround sound. It’s eerie how you move your head and the sound shifts to adjust to the way you’re facing. You usually have to pay a lot of money for the kind of cinematic sound system that this software can offer.

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