It’s a new year and that means it’s time to learn a bunch of new tech buzzwords.
2020 may have ended up being a disaster that most of the world would just as soon forget Eternal Sunshine-style if it could, but hey, maybe 2021 will be better. Even if it’s not, technology will continue to push forward with new ways to watch, listen to, and download content because, well, that’s what it always does.
It’s impossible to tell what, exactly, 2021 will bring to the table, but it’s safe to say you’ll be hearing these words or phrases plenty going forward. Better get used to them now.
This year figures to be a big one for display technology in particular, as you’ll see periodically throughout this list. The HD era is reaching its end, with 4K TVs replacing 1080p sets on store shelves and even entry-level streaming hardware embracing the jump to ultra high-definition video. Unfortunately for the less tech-savvy among us, there’s yet another number to look out for when buying a new TV: the refresh rate.
Put simply, the refresh rate is how many times a TV (or any other display) can refresh, or blink, in a second. It’s measured in Hertz and most conventional hardware up until now has topped out at 60Hz. That includes many lower-priced 4K TVs and even the latest iPhones, though flagships from companies like Samsung have gone up to 120Hz in recent years.
A higher refresh rate generally means a smoother-looking experience. This is going to be especially relevant in 2021 because the two new game consoles that just launched — the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — both support 120Hz gaming as long as the games themselves are built that way. If you try to enable 120Hz mode for a game on a 60Hz TV, you’ll just get ugly visual glitches. So when it comes time to upgrade your display, make sure to double-check the refresh rate before you buy.
Our next term goes hand-in-hand with 120Hz displays. You know HDMI ports — those things you use to plug pretty much any modern device into a TV to display an HD image? There’s a new type of HDMI port called HDMI 2.1 that transmits data much more quickly than the kind you likely have on your TV now.
Why is this useful? In order to display videos or games at 4K and 120Hz, you need that much power. A regular, old HDMI port can do one or the other, but not both. And don’t even think about 8K on an old HDMI port. You need 2.1 to make that happen at all.
This is going to be most relevant to people who purchase either of the new gaming consoles, to be clear. Aside from having an HDMI 2.1 port on your TV (which is unlikely, unless you’ve recently bought a high-end TV), you’ll also need an HDMI 2.1 cable. The good news is that both the PS5 and Xbox Series X include one in the box. Neither the ports nor the cables look much different from older HDMI hardware, but the boost in performance is a big one.
The conclusion to the display and gaming segment of this list is ray tracing. The first full year of a new console generation means it’s time to get up to speed on some arcane technical terms, and ray tracing is the least self-explanatory of the bunch. It’s also perhaps the coolest.
You don’t need a special TV, port, or cable to see it. Both of the new consoles and many high-end PC graphics cards support it right out of the box. But what is it? In layman’s terms, ray tracing is a way for the console or PC hardware itself to make lights, shadows, and reflections look more realistic than ever. You may not think that sounds like a big deal, but the developers we spoke to last year were pretty excited about it.
We’ve only gotten a small taste of what’s to come with the PS5 and Xbox Series X launch lineups, and it’s hard not to be excited. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, in particular, makes great use of ray tracing, with some of the best-looking reflections in video game history. Expect ray tracing to be a big selling point for next-gen games in 2021.
Moving away from TVs and gaming, there’s a new kind of WiFi that you may or may not know about.
WiFi 6 has been rolling out for a little more than a year, but 2021 will likely see wider adoption of the new standard, whether folks know it or not. At some point, you won’t be able to buy a router that doesn’t support it.
The technical specifics of WiFi 6 might be a little bit above our pay grade here, but broadly speaking it’s a new certification standard that should make your internet faster in the long term once your router and your devices are all WiFi 6-compliant.
One of the bigger draws is that WiFi 6 is supposed to be much better at handling network congestion than the WiFi we’ve all been using for the past several years. Anyone who’s had to work from home with several devices drawing from the same router all last year just breathed a huge sigh of relief.
On top of that, expect to hear more about WiFi 6E over the next couple of years, too. If the internet is a highway, think of WiFi 6E as a massive new expansion of the highway that gives everyone way more room to operate. In less metaphorical terms, it’s a new band of internet signal that the FCC opened up to civilian use just last year. Again, the long-term effect is faster and more reliable WiFi even with lots of devices using the same signal. Also, again, almost nothing supports it yet. Be patient.
Finally, let’s talk about audio. You’re surely familiar with Bluetooth, the decades-old technology that transmits wireless signals from one device to another over short distances. It’s what powers wireless video game controllers, wireless earbuds, and tons of other devices. Thanks to Bluetooth LE, you can add hearing aids to that list.
Bluetooth LE (or low energy) Audio is a new Bluetooth standard that was outlined last year and should get wider support in 2021. One big reason for that is Qualcomm adding support for Bluetooth LE to its latest earbud chips. As its name suggests, LE uses less power than traditional Bluetooth.
That’s obviously not the only advantage. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group says LE will enable more native support for hearing aids, as well as the ability to broadcast audio from one source to several different devices at the same time in what the SIG calls “audio sharing.” If you’re digging a tune and want to share it with someone nearby, Bluetooth LE should let you blast it into their earbuds, too.