As the tech and business team at BuzzFeed News, we love stuff. Gizmos, gadgets, games, and gear. So here are some of the many things that we tried this year and wholeheartedly recommend.
1. Forest App — Free
Can you go half a minute without checking Twitter, or TikTok, or Facebook? I bet you didn’t make it through that sentence without gazing longingly at another tab. How does one get work done in such a distracting world? Some of us have given up. For the rest of us, there’s Forest. No, not the one with trees. Don’t get carried away. I’m talking about Forest, the app, and also a browser extension, that helps you concentrate. When you use Forest, you can choose to block certain websites, or stop using your phone, for 25 minutes intervals. When you start your countdown, Forest displays a small shrub, which grows until it’s a fully mature digital tree at the 25-minute mark. If you try to navigate to your forbidden websites — which you can whitelist or blacklist — you will kill your tree. And since you don’t want to be a tree murderer, you will concentrate and enrich your life, or your company, and live happily ever after.
2. Google Doodle Polls — Free
Toward the end of 2018, I attended my first meeting for what became the BuzzFeed News Union. When it was time to plan when we’d meet next, there came that inevitable murmur of everyone pulling up their calendars, throwing out a bunch of dates, and then someone else saying they weren’t free — but how about this day? Rather than let that agony go on any longer, I volunteered to just make a Doodle. “What’s a Doodle?” someone asked. “What’s a DOODLE?!” I probably shrieked back, stunned that so many people didn’t know about the productivity tool I’ve been loyally using for at least six years.
Doodle is pretty simple: It’s a scheduling tool that makes planning meetings ridiculously easy. You select a bunch of possible dates and send them to the attendees. They check off which dates they could do. At the end, you have a neat little tally showing which day most people are free.
But Doodle isn’t just for meetings! It’s also how I kept my book club a well-oiled machine this year. And there’s truly no better way to plan a dinner with that group of friends you’ve been meaning to catch up with. Maybe I sound like a square using a productivity tool to manage relationships, but it’s the simplest way to push past the “I’ve just been so busy!!” excuses and find time to see the people you love. I often find myself wondering what else I could be using Doodle for: A family reunion? A weekend trip with my college friends? And when will Doodle integrate with dating apps? Can it please be now?
Several months — and more than a dozen Doodle polls — later, we officially formed the BuzzFeed News Union. And while that was mostly thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, I like to think Doodle deserves a little bit of credit as well.
3. Apple EarPods — Free With an iPhone
At the end of 2017, I said that Apple’s AirPods were my favorite gadget of the year. At the end of 2019, I am retracting my opinion. AirPods are trash — after about two years, when the tiny battery in each one begins to die, and your $159 pair of earphones start sputtering out in minutes. Your only recourse is buying an expensive, out-of-warranty replacement or a brand-new pair from Apple.
So earlier this year, I abandoned my AirPods for something a lot less sexy: the simple white wired earbuds that came with my iPhone.
Sure, I can’t plug EarPods, which is what Apple officially calls them, into my MacBook, something that drives me nuts, and sure, I have wires dangling out of my ears like we all did not that long ago. But they also NEVER die on me in the middle of a podcast because the battery died, and I NEVER have to charge them, and if I ever lose them, new ones are $29 a pop, far less than what a single replacement AirPod costs. And they don’t sound any worse than AirPods.
When AirPods work, they are magical. But when they flake out, as AirPods inevitably will, they make the simple act of listening an experience fraught with anxiety — I could never predict when I’d hear the telltale chirp in my ears that meant the battery was depleted, sometimes just minutes after a full charge.
Now, I shove my trusty little EarPods into my ears and just go. Around me, millions of human beings swirl freely, unencumbered by wires, but hours later, my EarPods keeping playing and playing and playing. It’s magical — and it works every time.
4. Google Home Mini — $14.99 on Amazon
This year, for me, has been about investing some energy into making the devices and apps I regularly use fit into my life better. It’s weird that the technology’s default mode right now is changing human behavior rather than adapting to it. After moving to a new apartment, I realized the Google Home I’ve had for about two years really couldn’t cover multiple rooms, so on a lark I picked up a Google Home Mini and threw it in my bedroom. The two devices work seamlessly together. I bought a bunch of cheap Wi-Fi outlets and plugged some lamps into them in different rooms, which lets me turn lights on and off like I’m living on the starship Enterprise. I can move a song on Spotify around my apartment, from one Google Home to another. The Mini’s speaker is just the right size for a bedroom. In the morning, it tells me the weather and plays a few headlines. This all sounds extremely basic and it is, but it’s also exactly the right relationship I think we should have with smarthome technology — add a little bit at a time when you feel like it, see if you like it, casually adjust accordingly, have fun with it.
5. Feedly and Pocket Apps — $6/month and $4.99/month
Over the last four years, my personal internet had mostly shrunk down to just Twitter — which is by all accounts an irredeemably awful website full of the worst kind of content being created by the worst people on Earth. To fix this, I started paying for the RSS reader Feedly ($6 a month) and the read-it-later app Pocket ($4.99 a month). I mainly use Feedly for work. The paid version supports Google Alerts and works really well on mobile. Pocket, according to my phone’s screen time, is regularly in my top three most-used apps. I’ve used the free version for years, but the paid version has a really powerful search function, which means that whatever I put in there is easily findable, online and off. Pocket also has a Spotify-like algorithm that is always recommending me stuff to read based on what I’ve previously loaded in there (it used to be better, but sadly now it mostly just recommends Pocket originals which I’m kinda meh on). Both apps have helped me focus better, follow the news more easily, and actually enjoy the long-forgotten feeling of digging into something interesting on the internet. Read more websites in 2020!
6. Nintendo Switch — $298.99 on Amazon
I’ve technically had a Switch for about a year and a half, originally buying it for a European vacation with lots of train rides. In the last year, I really dove into its catalog of games. I’m by no means a Real Gamer — I’m 30 and the last system I owned was a Nintendo GameCube. That means I mainly just want to play a bunch of cartoony RPGs, remakes of old games, and a bunch of party games for when friends come over. I also travel a lot. All of these things make the Switch one of my favorite devices. Big games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Astral Chain, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and this month’s Pokémon Sword and Shield are genuine joys. And the Nintendo store has all kinds of cheap mid-sized games that you can just jump into whenever you want to kill some time, like Untitled Goose Game, Sonic Mania, and Hollow Knight. The console is also incredibly portable with a shockingly good battery life. Plus, Nintendo has for the most part avoided the toxic cultural wars that follow other video games. Instead, I can come home, lay around with my Switch, and spend a mindless couple hours trying to catch a shiny Galarian Rapidash in peace.
7. Instagram’s Close Friends Stories — Free
As someone whose private Instagram account is PG-13 at its absolute most risqué, I initially brushed off Instagram’s “close friends” stories feature as unnecessary. But Instagram has become my main means of sharing and communicating, my followers now include my boss, colleagues, aunts, married high school friends, acquaintances — as well as several dudes from Hinge who will apparently continue watching my stories until one of us dies. So the close friends feature has become my go-to. Whether I want to deliver an update while perhaps being a little drunker than advisable, share a meme without individually messaging it to seven different people, or just generally be a little sad/weird/vulnerable online, close friends has become both a micro version of a finsta and the realest version of myself I share anywhere on the internet. It’s some small comfort to take back a bit of privacy on social media — as much as privacy exists there at all, of course.
8. Scam Goddess — Free
The summer of scam may be over, but scam springs eternal — and Laci Mosley keeps us informed on Earwolf’s Scam Goddess podcast. She’s tackled everything from Anna Delvey, aka the Soho Scammer, that nationwide Airbnb scam, and the absolutely bonkers Ukrainian orphan story since the podcast began in September. Mosley’s guests have included Paul F. Tompkins, Lauren Lapkus, and Nicole Byer, so while the show can’t help being hysterical, at least once per episode she delivers a line so strikingly, memorably, out-of-left-field funny that I find myself rewinding to listen over and over again. Scam Goddess is true crime without the ick factor, a bubblegum fun listen with a dose of education, and a breath of fresh air in my podcast feed.
9. Silicone Case for Apple TV Remote — $7.45 on Amazon
This was the year I finally cut the cord on cable television, which meant I used the Apple TV remote a lot more than before. I have a fourth gen Apple TV (the 2015 release that was the first model with Siri), and my chief complaint is that the remote is incredibly slippery. Not only do I find it slippery in terms of trying to scroll with my thumb on the trackpad, but the damned thing flies out of my hand like a bar of soap in the tub. I literally marvel at it sometimes wondering how Apple sells something that is impossible to hold. Steve would never!
Here’s where the silicone sleeve comes in. It’s anti-slip, and it gives a tiny bit more girth and bulk to the remote to make it easier to hold. My only regret is buying it in black. I’d recommend getting a bright, easy-to-see color, because you know the Apple TV remote is always getting lost.
10. Idagio Classical Music Streaming App — Free or $9.99/month
A few years ago, I wrote an article about the current state of the used CD market and discovered that one genre that still thrives on CD is classical. It isn’t just the better sound quality or that it’s for old people (OK, maybe that’s part of it), but rather that streaming apps like Spotify are terrible at organizing classical music. Unlike pop music, where Spotify’s algorithms and playlists can create amazing guesses on what you’d like to hear, classical is quite different.
The metadata is different — do you want to search by composer or conductor, orchestra or soloist? Also, many classical “albums” have several composers — a CD might be one orchestra’s concert of Mozart and Beethoven together, making an album search confusing. And there are dozens of versions of specific pieces recorded by different groups.
Idagio was recommended to me by a few people on Twitter after I tweeted complaining about the lack of good streaming for classical. The paid version (I signed up for a free week trial) was great — interesting curated playlists, good search, and recommendations — everything you’d want from a dedicated streaming app for classical. You can browse by composer, ensemble, conductor, soloist, genre, period, or even instrument. There are curated playlists from composers and soloists and even things like highlights from the London Symphony’s 2019–2020 season.
That said, I didn’t feel up to paying $9.99/month for yet another streaming service. I already pay for Spotify’s family plan, plus SiriusXM (which is soooo expensive, but I need my Howard Stern). So I canceled it after the free trial.
But this fall, Idagio released a free version. Not all the features of the paid version are available on the free version, crucially the ability to play a specific track. For example, you can’t play an exact Richard Strauss song, but you can play the Essential Richard Strauss radio playlist. Even so, it’s still the best free classical listening experience you can get.
11. Curology — Subscriptions From $24.90/Month
Perhaps it was naive of me, but I assumed that once I got out of my teenage years, I wouldn’t have to worry about acne. And then I hit my late twenties, and BOOM — some sort of cursed second puberty, complete with painful cyst-like zits that I couldn’t remember having as a youth. I tried every “miracle” mask, face wash, toner, acne cream, oil, etc. Nothing helped.
In May, after years of extreme self-consciousness every time I had a flare-up, I stumbled across a thread on the /r/SkinCareAddiction subreddit about Curology, a subscription mail-order acne medication service. Since I had nothing to lose, I gave it a try. A week and a half later, I got a little white bottle in the mail that literally changed my life.
It’s been six months and the hormonal acne on my chin that I thought I’d be cursed with forever is all but nonexistent. The discoloration marks on my chin and around my nose have begun to fade and my skin tone is even in a way that it’s never been before. When I get a zit or two, they aren’t painful and they’re gone after a few days of my normal cleaning and Curology routine. My prescriber has answered every question I’ve had promptly and I have yet to have any problems with my shipment — and I still can’t believe I’m only paying $40 every other month for something that’s had such a profound change on my skin and day-to-day existence.
12. SoFi Banking App — Free
Banks suck. I like money just fine, but I’ve always resented the institutions that hold onto the money for me. For years, I had a checking account at Wells Fargo, which, thanks to a massive scandal in which the company opened at least 3.5 million “potentially unauthorized” accounts, I now very much regret. Then I put my money in a local credit union, which somehow meant I was never able to access it unless I went to one specific office in San Francisco that never seemed to be open. So when I needed to open a new account earlier this year, you can imagine my trepidation — send my money to an evil empire with a UX from 1995 or to a rickety storefront in some basement, which also somehow had a UX from 1995?
Enter SoFi, the startup lending company which launched a mobile banking and investment app in February. I opened an account and now do all my finances from the free mobile app. It’s great. It’s a money market account, so I earn a small amount on my deposit and can easily pay bills, transfer money (similar to Venmo), and invest in the low-fee index funds dear to my heart. The UX looks like it was designed in this decade, and the investment side isn’t cluttered up with a bunch of unintelligible quant gibberish. (Looking directly at you, E-Trade.)
My eyes aren’t closed. SoFi seems to have previously been a terrible place to work. I sincerely hope the culture is better for employees under new CEO Anthony Noto, because I really like this app. Now if I could just convince my boomer psychotherapist to let me pay him on it instead of writing paper checks.
13. Frogstagram — Free
Frogs: They’re usually small, sometimes green, and always delightful to follow on Instagram.
I stumbled upon Frogblr, the unofficial community of frog-owning Tumblr users, in early 2018. In the months following that, I realized many of my favorite frog blogs also had frog-themed Instagram accounts. So in 2019, I fully committed and now follow more than a dozen Instagram accounts operated by frog owners.
There’s @stickyfrogs, which features frogs named Gumby, Jeans, Voight, and Tiny. I also love @moonnight.17, which has wonderfully TINY frogs, as well as small snakes and geckos. I’m also a fan of @frog.wizard_, which has extremely earnest frog-themed memes. Also, @the_froggy_momma is great. She features dozens of different amphibians and reptiles, including frogs named Buttercup, Bertha (who has three legs), Norman, and Darla.
Of course, the frogs are incredibly cute. I love their big eyes and oddly shaped little bodies. But it’s equally joyful to watch their owners livestream the frogs, call them goofy names, and brag about everything they do (which is, in all honesty, not very much). It’s very sincere. I’d highly recommend going through the #frogsofinstagram tag and findings some accounts to follow.
14. Nuking All the Digital Evidence From Before My Haircut — Free
Bangs are not just my haircut. They are a crucial part of my personality. There are two stages of my life: before bangs and after. If you ever have the misfortune of glancing at my giant forehead, you will understand.
I got bangs in January 2017. Tragically, that is not very long ago. So I decided this year to delete and untag myself in any Instagram or Facebook photos before bangs. I also deleted all of my tweets in January 2018, which would have included any images of me from before I got my haircut.
This may sound dramatic. However, I promise it is not. If I’m honest, this isn’t just about liking my current haircut. It’s about having some control over the ways that I’m seen online. I keep the number of public pictures of me to an absolute minimum, and exercising some private control over my image feels like a natural extension of that instinct. Now with bangs.
15. TikTok — Free
It’s more than just funny, although it’s funnier than almost anything on television. TikTok is as much a portal into the everyday lives of other people as Chatroulette ever was, but without the expectation to engage with what you’re seeing. It’s the only social app on which I follow only delightful strangers, don’t consume content from anyone I know, nor feel pressure to post content myself. TikTok shows me a greater diversity of race, class, and, yes, age than any other platform I currently have access to. I’ve watched videos made by Mennonite teenagers, by hippie grandmas, by immigrant families. TikTok isn’t all jokes; I’ve watched girls do interpretive dances to the soundtrack of abusive boyfriends and screaming parents. I’ve watched videos expressing queer pride, native pride, ethnic pride. I’ve watched hours of TikToks; I’ve watched TikToks about being a 30-year-old woman addicted to TikTok. I conceal the extent of my TikTok watching from my partner.
I used to be addicted to Instagram, scrolling endlessly and closing the app only to immediately reopen it seconds later. But now, that pink and orange neon square doesn’t beckon the way it used to. I’d rather be watching TikToks, which pass no judgment on my baking, never make me wonder if I’m taking enough vacations, buying enough candles, or wearing fuzzy enough sweaters. What TikTok offers is comedic, absurd, and intimate. The only problem is now I need headphones in public, and I might be under surveillance by the Chinese state.
16. Send to Kindle for Google Chrome — Free
I’m trying to spend less time looking at my phone and have become obsessed with looking at my screen time stats (in the iPhone’s settings app). My most-used app, other than Instagram, is always Safari or Pocket, because that’s where I read long articles — actually, where I try to read long articles, but never finish in one sitting because some news alert or push notification has pulled me away from the story.
In an attempt to create a more distraction-free reading space, I’ve started to send any article of length to my Kindle, which has a black-and-white screen that’s more comfortable on the eyes. This Chrome extension makes it so easy. It grabs all the text on the page and zooms it right over to my e-ink reader in less than a minute. And it really works! I plowed through an entire ~3,800-word piece without reading one incoming WhatsApp and loved every minute of it!! (BTW, the fantastic, multithousand-word story is by my colleague Katherine Miller, and you will not regret spending 15 uninterrupted minutes on it.)
17. Tile Pro — $35 and Tile Sticker — $40 2-pack
I’ve been yelling at people to get Tile’s Bluetooth-enabled thing finders, for years, but with the caveat that the device’s biggest flaw is the way it handles its battery, which is glued onto the device’s circuit board and can’t be replaced. Not great for the environment.
Well, the latest version of the Tile Pro finally has a replaceable battery!!! This is huge because the Tile really is a wonderful little doodad for helping you find keys, your kid’s fave toy, etc., and now you don’t have to throw away the entire device when it runs out of juice a year from now.
There’s another new Tile, called Sticker, which unfortunately doesn’t have a replaceable battery, but it lasts three years, which is very good for an always-on Bluetooth device. It’s also small enough to put on my AirPods case and stick discreetly on my bike. I haven’t lost either yet — but I am a huge fan of these tiny things.
18. Streaming Co-Op — Free
It has been active for years, but in 2019 my streaming cooperative really began to shine. The idea is so obvious that you may be in one already: a group of friends — comrades, one might call them — who each subscribe to one streaming service and share the login details with all the others.
As it currently stands, I pay for Netflix, a friend in San Francisco pays for Hulu and another here in New York pays for HBO Now. We all pay for Amazon Prime, because Amazon. The co-op is currently onboarding a fourth member who will pay for Disney+. Scale!
Sharing passwords like this might go against the fine print of the average streaming user agreement, but it doesn’t seem to be against the spirit of them — most allow two and sometimes four seperate devices, in completely different locations, to be streaming simultaneously. Unless we’re talking about a situation where every member of the co-op is watching the same service at the same time (Does this really happen in a post-GoT world??), you should be just fine.
And given the trend, this might be the only workable model for watching stuff in the 2020s: Apple, Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Hulu will all have exclusive shows you can’t see anywhere else, while Disney and its fellow content mega-giants will be using their vast libraries to funnel people into their own platforms. In a world with 8 to 10 streaming services each demanding 12 bucks a month — and we’re not even including cable channels, for those who want live sports or CNN or whatever — a co-op is the only game in town. Viewers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your passwords.
19. Buy Nothing Project — Free
On Jan. 1, 2019, Netflix released Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, a reality series consisting of eight episodes of sweet lifestyle porn. The smiling, soft-spoken, petite host gently floats into people’s messy, cluttered homes, like an organizational Mary Poppins, and — from the shambles — helps them create a peaceful space to live and breathe and be joyful. Deep. There were moments during the show, however, when I wondered what exactly happened to all that perfectly usable stuff that Kondo helped them thank in a moment of ritual silence before tossing it into a trash bag in the driveway. Is it all headed to the landfill before ending up in crushed shards in some whale’s guts or up some turtle’s nostril?
One answer to this problem is the Buy Nothing Project, a network of local groups on Facebook started in 2013 “to quickly get rid of things that are cluttering their lives, or simply to save money by getting things for free.” The groups — which have popped up around the world — are organized by city, sometimes even by neighborhood. Some members post items they’re ready to “gift” to their neighbors, and others post things they need, in case anyone happens to be looking to expel that object from their house.
People gift clothes they no longer want or that don’t fit, furniture that doesn’t work in a new apartment (even a fireplace), storage and packing boxes, cosmetics and other beauty products that aren’t exactly the color or scent they were looking for, kitchen gadgets and spices they don’t use — the list goes on. One popular member regularly gives away extra bagels (local hero!). My most recent acquisition was a bunch of baby spider plants from an indoor gardening enthusiast who is propagating her plants and who — it turns out — lives across the street from me. It can be a nice way to meet neighbors with shared interests, which is part of the project’s ethos: “A gift economy’s real wealth is the people involved and the web of connections that forms to support them.”
I’ve found it to be an especially fabulous resource for new parents like me, since babies grow out of (or grow tired of) everything in just a few short months — onesies, shoes, toys, feeding gear — and a Buy Nothing group creates a pipeline to people in a similar life stage as you and who also live near you. It’s way easier than holding a yard sale and preferable to plopping a box of stuff on the sidewalk with a “FREE” sign and hoping for the best.
Life is fluid and ever-changing, but most of our stuff outlives its utility. I’ve really embraced the idea of letting things go when I no longer need them. My place isn’t Marie Kondo–level tidy — and probably never will be — but a Facebook group that facilitates free, no-landfill decluttering really can spark joy.
20. #great-tweets — Free
This feels kind of like cheating because this isn’t a product that normies can access. Also it’s not new: I’ve been using it for the last two-and-a-half years at BuzzFeed News, when in my first week here someone showed me its greatness and my world perspective was forever changed. With this product — or more aptly place — the 473 people who can see it will on any given day find memes about Baby Yoda, a listing for a toddler’s (unused) Minion coffin, wedding photos from the holy matrimony between two water coolers, and screenshots of an influencer tanning their perineum, a.k.a. “buttchugging sunlight”. And that was all just on a random Monday in November.
This wonderful watering hole of content is known within BuzzFeed as #great-tweets, a Slack channel open to everyone at the company where folks pop in to just share really good tweets. There’s little conversation — save for the emoji reactions that fellow great-tweeters use to express their gratitude or disgust — and each day it’s a continuous stream of hits, 10 to 15 of the funniest, weirdest, nastiest things taken from the blue bird hellsite that most of us here spend too much time on. Maybe the tweets have been ripped from another platform (TikTok is a pretty popular source these days). Maybe the tweets have already gone superviral. But they are our great tweets, and we love them.
While I feel a little dirty sharing the existence of my colleague’s secret space with the public, #great-tweets is just that good. After spending some pretty terrible days online at work, I’ve spent many a night lying in bed laughing my ass off because someone shared a tweet with a hypothetical conversation between a cat and an octopus in a standoff, or a cow wearing a VR headset. It’s one of the few things that I know can consistently bring me joy on the web and I hope when I go, I too will be memorialized in the channel.
21. Neato Botvac D7 — $599.99
One of the best things to happen to my family in 2019 was Kevin, the robotic vacuum cleaner. Kevin is a BOTVAC D7, and he is a cleaning monster in a household of 4 sloppy humans, 2 sloppier dogs, and a cat aghast at their collective sloppiness. When my home is dirty, I summon Kevin from my phone. Kevin is always ready to clean. He is very good with dust and dirt, and — crucially — his blade-and-bristle brush makes short work of dog hair, which is in issue in home with 200 lbs. of doggo, where things can go from relatively clean to dog park very quickly. When Kevin gets stuck or encounters an insurmountable obstacle, he messages me asking for help. It feels stupid to say it, but I find this adorable. Part of this is because that help typically involves picking Kevin up like a baby and relocating him to an easier navigate area. And part of it is because afterwards Kevin will message me again noting — like a dorky little grade school cartographer — that he has updated his map of my home. Two things here: 1. Kevin uses exclamation points! 2. I can use this map to create zones for targeted cleaning (kitchen, dog bowl area) and also out-of-bounds areas for Kevin to ignore (dog bed, dog). My home is a small one, so Kevin’s advertised battery life of 120 minutes has always been plenty. He automatically switches cleaning modes when running on wood, carpet, or tile. Typically, there is no (to little) visible dog hair on those surfaces when Kevin is in town. Kevin’s lone flaw, as best I can tell, is that his dirt bin can be easily overwhelmed during spring “blow,” but in a house with these two, who wouldn’t be.