The best PC hardware and software of 2021/2022

If 2020 was a banner year for PC hardware, expectations came crashing back down to earth in 2021. The reason? Chip shortages and the supply chain crunch. Simply getting your hands on new hardware proved to be frustratingly difficult for most of the year, and even when you could find something to buy, it often sold for a staggering mark-up.

But that doesn’t mean PC vendors took their foot off the gas. We tested some truly impressive hardware in 2021, including blazing-fast next-gen SSDs and notebooks that run laps around yesteryear’s models. Are you into streaming video? Hardware that helps you look and sound as impressive as possible took major strides forward in 2021. And this year we’re expanding our list of top picks to include the best software available, as what you use all that computing power for is just as vital.

For this list, we asked PC World’s tech experts to share their favorite picks in their areas of expertise. Without further ado, this is the best PC hardware and software of 2021 and 2022. Yes, we’re looking forward to next year, because until even newer products begin launching in 2022, many of the wins on this list will remain very relevant, especially with no end to the chip shortage in sight.

Editor’s note: This article originally published on November 3, 2021, but was updated November 15 after the launch of Intel’s 12th-gen “Alder Lake” processors. Best desktop CPU: Intel 12th-gen “Alder Lake” processors

After several painful, painful rebuilding seasons, Intel is back in championship form once again with its stunning new 12th-gen “Alder Lake” Core series of hybrid CPUs, which pack a mixture of high-performance and high-efficiency cores. Although the flagship Core i9-12900K doesn’t completely dominate AMD’s fabulous Ryzen 9 chips in all things, it offers enough of a performance lead in some very important areas—such content creation apps and (if you squint your eyes enough) gaming—to make Alder Lake the clear winner for those who can afford the entry price of cutting-edge DDR5 memory.  

But the real star in Intel’s 12th-gen lineup is the Core i5-12600K, which inflicts so much pain on AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X that a timeout was called while the Ryzen 5 was carried off the field on a stretcher. What 2022 holds isn’t known, but for 2021, there is one dominant pick when it comes to CPUs: Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake processors. —Gordon Mah UngBest thin-and-light laptop: HP Spectre x360 14

PC laptop buyers have an embarrassment of riches to pick from, but for most people, a 360-convertible is the apex machine. Convertibles are basically indistinguishable from traditional clamshell notebooks, but give you all the flexibility of a tablet as well. That means you get touch and even pen support on top of the usual touchpad/keyboard combo.

Our pick for the best thin-and-light laptop easily goes to HP’s wonderful Spectre x360 14, built on Intel’s latest 11th-gen Tiger Lake CPU with Xe graphics. It offers screen options ranging from 1920×1080 IPS to a 3000×2000 OLED display, and with its 66 watt hour battery, you can expect all-day battery performance. Its stylish diamond-cut exterior also tells the world that you actually think differently, too. —Gordon Mah UngBest gaming laptop: MSI GE76 Raider

You know MSI’s GE76 Raider is something special when you have none other than Apple tapping it for comparisons to the hyped-up MacBook Pro with its M1 Max to the GE76. Even better, Apple actually admits that its very best M1 Max MacBook Pro 16 is slower than the Raider in the comparison.

While we don’t think the two laptops are in the same category to even merit the comparison, we’re not surprised Apple focused on MSI’s killer gaming laptop. With its 8-core Intel 11th-gen Core i9-11980HK “Tiger Lake H” processor, Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 GPU pushing a smoking 165 watt TGP rating, and a buttery smooth 360Hz gaming panel, this hefty 6.6 pound laptop packs some serious gaming and productivity firepower. Did we mention all the RGB, too? —Gordon Mah Ung Best SSD: Corsair MP600 Pro XT

Corsair’s MP600 Pro XT passed our portals rather late in the year, but we’re glad it showed up. It matches the blazingly fast Seagate FireCuda 530‘s performance, but is slightly less expensive, and more importantly, Corsair’s ultra-fast drive is generally available in both 1TB and 2TB capacities. Seagate’s barn-burner is often in short supply, tipping the scales towards Corsair’s offering in the battle for the best SSD. —Jon JacobiBest antivirus: Norton 360 Deluxe

It may not be the most exciting choice, but Norton’s long-lived security solution remains our top pick for the best antivirus for Windows. The price is right, at just over $100 for a year of Norton 360 Deluxe covering five devices. The suite offers a good amount of features, and the protection is top-notch. Norton also has a wide variety of products to choose from, including Norton 360 for Gamers, which focuses on gamer-centric features like a game optimizer and a VPN to protect against DDoS attacks, which are sometimes deployed by hackers in certain games. Above all, Norton is one of the more quiet antivirus solutions. It just goes about its business and doesn’t bother you with too many pop-ups and notifications. Norton simply works and does a fantastic job of protecting you. —Ian PaulBest GPU: Ryzen 5000 APUs

Usually, this category is called “Best graphics card,” casting a spotlight on the best discrete desktop video card released over the past 12 months. And sure, several new graphics cards were released in 2021, from 1080p-focused offerings like the Radeon RX 6600 and Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 to heavy-hitting 4K behemoths like the $1,200 GeForce RTX 3080 Ti. But the chip shortage’s effects were felt most acutely in the graphics space, exacerbated by incredible demand from crypto-currency miners who use their graphics cards to mint virtual coins for real-world profits. Understandably—though disappointingly—every new graphics card launched this year hit store shelves with staggering price tags, though they also sold out instantly only to appear on second-hand retailers like Ebay and Craiglist at up to twice the price of those already-inflated MSRPs. Gross.

So, this year we’re switching gears. The best gaming option for most people with modest budgets isn’t a graphics card at all, but the GPU cores integrated into AMD’s game-ready Ryzen 5000G APUs, which remain in stock in both DIY form and inside numerous prebuilt systems. “You can build a Ryzen 5 5700G machine today and get outstanding CPU performance along with OK gaming performance,” we said in our review. Yes, you’ll need to dial down some graphics options for the best performance, but you’ll be able to play esports games and even triple-A titles at a decent clip at 720p or 1080p resolution. At $259 for the Ryzen 5 5600G and $369 for the Ryzen 7 5700G, they aren’t exactly cheap, especially since you’ll also need a motherboard to plop them into. But remember that you’re getting both a CPU and a doable GPU stand-in for the price. And, hey, they’re actually in stock. —Brad ChacosBest Thunderbolt Dock: Plugable’s Plugable TBT3-UDZ

Plugable’s TBT3-UDZ is simply the very best Thunderbolt dock we’ve seen, ever. Plugable intrinsically understands that Thunderbolt docks are about displays (two 4K60 displays, specifically) and provides two HDMI and two DisplayPort ports to accommodate whatever you have on your desk. There’s boatloads of other ports, too,  and 96 watts of charging power to top it all off. I absolutely love this thing.

The catch? It’s extremely hard to find. While this model is clearly the best Thunderbolt dock, the Plugable TBT3-UDC3 is smaller, cheaper, and slightly more available. If you find one, buy it. Now. —Mark HachmanBest USB microphone for streaming: NZXT Capsule

Arguably the most important piece of streaming hardware is a great microphone. This year, PC component maker NZXT brought the company’s first microphone to market with the $130 NZXT Capsule, which is dead simple to use and sounds fantastic. The Capsule is packed with killer specs, sports a fairly large condenser capsule, and is plug-and-play over an included USB-C cable. The sound profile is on the warmer side, with plenty of deep vocal reproduction for booming voices, and clean and even highs for clarity. One of the best features of this mic is the included detachable stand. It’s large, heavy, super solid, and something I could actually recommend someone using (which isn’t always the case with these type of desktop mics). To top it off, the design is uniquely NZXT, with trademark grided holes on the back and a two-toned white version that makes it very stylish despite its larger size. —Adam Patrick MurrayBest password manager: LastPass 

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