Every December at Engadget, between sips of spiked holiday beverages, we look back on the year and recall the best and worst developments in tech. Call us cynical, but in recent years, the list of losers gets longer, while we struggle to find true winners to write about. But in 2022, there were bright spots that brought light to a gloomy, chaotic 12 months. From beautifully simple word games to enchanting pictures from space, there were just enough distractions this year to balance out the neverending drama from Twitter, Meta, Amazon and the like. These are the Engadget team’s favorite things in 2022.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and DART projects

In 2022, things on Earth were so bad that we all welcomed the opportunity to look at what’s beyond our galaxy. After its launch on Christmas last year, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) deployed its sunshield in January, finished calibration a few months later and started sending back images. On July 11th, President Biden revealed the space agency’s first picture to the public, saying it was the sharpest and deepest image of the distant universe to date.

More photos were released on July 12th, and throughout the rest of the year, we saw more and more of deep space through the JWST. The colorized pictures made for stunning wallpapers, but also brought us tantalizing information about distant planets. In August, it detected carbon dioxide in a faraway planet’s atmosphere. To date, we’ve also seen images of the Cartwheel Galaxy, Phantom Galaxy and the Pillars of Creation in unprecedented detail. The visual spectacle is a welcome distraction, but the data gained also helps scientists learn a ton more about what exists beyond the Milky Way.

NASA also scored a reassuring win with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) project this year, when it managed to crash its spacecraft into an asteroid, changing its course. This success has been billed as a “watershed moment for planetary defense” by NASA administrator Bill Nelson, adding that the agency “has proven we are serious as a defender of the planet.” The fact that DART was able to knock an asteroid off its course showed that it could work to save the Earth if a space rock were headed for our world and was small enough and detected in time. It’s nice to have some hope for humanity in that specific situation, as we continue to be dazzled by everything we learn about the vast expanse of space that we float in. — Cherlynn Low, Deputy editor.

Wordle, Josh Wardle and all the -dles

Do you remember a time when you weren’t obsessively playing guessing games on your phone right after waking up? That was probably in 2021, before Wordle, the little browser game that could, swallowed most of the internet for the first half of 2022. Josh Wardle, a British software engineer, created a word game for his partner, letting them guess a five letter word through a process of trial and error. He didn’t publicize the title, but it didn’t take long after its October 2021 launch before everyone was playing the game.

Part of Wordle’s success was due to the simplicity of its mechanic, pulled from the ‘70s board game MasterMind or the ‘80s game show Lingo. Your guesses provoke a color-coded response: A blank box if you struck out, a yellow one if you had the right letter in the wrong place and green in a space that you got right. The other reason for its success was how simply it visualized your guesses, making it easy to share on social media without spoilers. Suddenly, everyone on Twitter was humblebragging about their lexicographical skill posting a short-ish grid of gray, yellow and green squares.

The fact that only one word came out each day also meant that you had to keep coming back to get your daily fix. It easily slid into your morning routine, as a way of waking your brain up before, during or after, your wake-up beverage of choice.

Wordle app game is seen on a smartphone in front of The New York Times logo in this picture illustration, February 1, 2022. Picutre taken February 1, 2022 REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
Dado Ruvic / reuters

It helped, too, that people rapidly took their playing style as an article of faith, developing their own “Starter Words.” And it prompted endless discussion about the best strategy, and how ashamed you should be if you ever failed a day’s game. Wordle also enabled a cottage industry of websites that can help you solve tricky words, and most SEO-chasing newspapers offer a written clue about what today’s Wordle actually is.

Wordle’s success was so grand that it wasn’t long before a deep-pocketed news organization looking to grow its traffic offered to buy the game wholesale. By January 31st 2022, The New York Times spent “low seven figures” to buy the title and integrate it into its games platform. The concept may have been knocking around for a while, but Wardle was able to see the fruits of his work pretty quickly. Since then, the NYT has launched Wordlebot, a microsite which’ll analyze your game and tell you the most efficient starter words (CRANE/SLOTH), and it even has its own named editor, so you know who to blame if you have a bad day.

But it wasn’t just Wardle who benefited. Wordle inspired a fleet of copycats, all of which took the original idea and tweaked it slightly. My daily play routine includes Heardle, which asks you to guess a song after hearing just its opening bars. That was acquired by Spotify in similarly rapid fashion, which makes perfect sense given the marketing opportunities therein. Then there’s Framed and Episode, which provide screenshots of movies and TV shows, for you to guess it. Waffle, meanwhile, asks you to sort a grid of jumbled letters into interlocking words using the same Yellow / Green color coding. And then there’s my personal favorite, Redactle, a game which takes a key Wikipedia page and blanks out most of the words for you to guess.

You want more? Because there is more – Worldle is a geography guessing game letting you work out a country. Heardle decades, with one for each decade between the ‘60sandthe‘00s. Lyricle, lets you guess songs from lines of lyrics. Quordle, which asks you to solve four Wordle-style questions simultaneously. Mathler, which tasks you with finding an equation. And, of course, Jeffle, where you have to guess a movie starring one of your favorite Hollywood actors called Jeff – sorry, I made that up, but the fact that’s plausible speaks volumes about the way the world is right now. — Daniel Cooper, Senior editor.

A Pixel 6a lying face up on a wooden surface, and a white Pixel 6a laying next to it.
Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Google Pixel 6a

When friends and family ask which phone they should buy, I tell them to get the latest Pixel a. Last year it was the Pixel 5a (well, the Pixel 4a, because Google didn’t launch the 5a here in the UK), and now it’s supplanted by the even-more premium-looking Pixel 6a.

The new design is glossy, with the distinctive camera bar that arrived on the flagship Pixel 6 phones last year, ensuring it looks different to all other smartphones. This year, the Pixel 6a also has Google’s homemade Tensor chip, which was built to help with AI and image processing. I might not even need to say this, but the Pixel 6a, like its predecessors, has an incredibly capable camera for the price. It includes Google tricks like Face Unblur to salvage dodgy shots and Magic Eraser for scrubbing out any unwanted elements. The Pixel 6a also has a 6.1-inch display, down from the 6.34-inch screen of last year’s Pixel 5a. So if you’re looking for a more pocketable Android, this might be the best option.

The Pixel 6a launched at $449, sneaking in under $500. On some occasions (like Black Friday), it’s already been on sale at $300, which is an incredible bargain – especially if you’re still using a smartphone that lacks 5G. The only reason for not buying it in early 2023 is that we’re already hearing rumors of the Pixel 7a, which should be an even better phone. — Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief.

Steam Deck review
Engadget

Valve Steam Deck

The Steam Deck isn’t the first handheld computer and it certainly won’t be the last. However, by combining the convenience of the Nintendo Switch with the flexibility of a PC and a huge library of supported games (there are now almost 7,000 titles listed as verified or playable), Valve has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the market for portable PC gaming. And with a starting price of just $400, the Steam Deck also costs hundreds less compared to rivals from Ayaneo, GPD and more.

Granted, the Steam Deck isn’t perfect. It’s rather bulky as far as handhelds go and Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS often requires a bit of tinkering with to optimize a game’s performance. I wish its high-pitched fan was a bit less distracting, too. But thanks to its clever touchpads and general customizability, the Steam Deck makes it easier to play traditional keyboard and mouse games while on the go than pretty much anything else out there. For people who love Nintendo’s games, the Switch is great. But for everyone else, the Steam Deck might be the best multipurpose gaming handheld you can buy right now. — Sam Rutherford, Senior writer.

The Apple Watch Ultra with alpine loop strap on a person's wrist. The screen shows the Compass app's so-called technical view, with a white dot in the middle.

Apple Watch Ultra

I’ll admit it — this one’s personal. As a reporter covering smartwatches, I’ve been holding my breath for this year’s trio of highly anticipated wearables from Apple, Samsung and Google. The first two were expected to unveil souped up “Pro” models of their flagship models, while Google was set to launch its first “homemade” smartwatch, featuring Fitbit integrations. Between the blandness of Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5 Pro and the overall letdown of the Pixel Watch, there wasn’t a lot of competition for Apple’s Watch Ultra.

But the company didn’t just coast on the mediocrity of the Android smartwatch market. The Watch Ultra features a 49mm screen in a highly durable case that doesn’t feel excessively huge (unless you’re a fellow petite-wristed person). Apple made a selection of carefully crafted straps that are eye-catching, comfortable and easy to maneuver with gloves. The Watch Ultra also boasts a depth gauge for divers, dual-frequency GPS for more-accurate distance tracking, an emergency siren and impressive four-day battery life. All that is on top of other Apple Watch features like comprehensive health and fitness tracking, seamless messaging and excellent iPhone integration.

And for the cherry on top of it all — and this is my selfish reason for loving the Apple Watch Ultra — reviewing this device allowed me to go on a hike on the job, all in the name of real-world testing. Sure, I have since swapped out the Watch Ultra for a Series 8 as my daily driver, but Apple managed to pack enough features into its prosumer smartwatch to set it apart from its mainstream flagship. — C.L.

Discord and Twitter app icons are seen in this illustration taken November 7, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
Dado Ruvic / reuters

Mastodon

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has breathed new life into a number of upstart social platforms. But no other service has benefitted more than Mastodon, the once relatively-obscure site that’s long billed itself as a Twitter alternative.

Ironically, Mastodon first became prominent back in 2017 after a backlash against Twitter’s decision to remove user handles from character limits (it’s difficult to remember now, but there was a time when these kinds of changes would temporarily spark mass outrage among the Twitter faithful).

Since then, the decentralized platform has had a small contingent of dedicated users, but was nowhere close to the social media mainstream. That all changed as soon as Musk’s takeover began. Almost overnight, more than 30,000 new users flooded the platform, and the growth has only intensified since Musk formally took control of Twitter in October. As of November, Mastodon had more than 2 million users seeking a new home outside of Twitter.

While that may still be tiny by social media standards, it’s notable that the nonprofit, open-source site is already the preferred alternative for a number of journalists, celebrities and other one-time Twitter power users. Yes, the platform is more complicated than Twitter, and not everyone is eager to start over on a new site. But it’s impossible to ignore just how good Mastodon’s timing has been. In the span of a few months, it’s gone from niche to mainstream, and for now seems best-poised to absorb the masses fleeing Twitter. — Karissa Bell, Senior editor.