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The best products of 2000

PC World

June 7, 2000
Web posted at: 10:31 a.m. EDT (1431 GMT)

(IDG) -- Quick, what's the national pastime?

We say baseball still gets the nod, but computing is closing in. Both PCs and the Web are national obsessions these days, at home and at work. And just as baseball fans vote for the best of the best to play in the All-Star Game, PC World editors have been casting ballots to select the winners of our 18th annual World Class Awards. Over 70 outstanding hardware, software, and Web products make the cut -- call them the buys of summer.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

As always, performance, value, consistency, and innovation are the four qualities we seek in a World Class winner. Some products here are standouts in a couple of these areas, but the Product of the Year -- AMD's Athlon processor -- is a superstar in all four. Athlon-based PCs sprinted to the top of our corporate and home PC charts this year, touting record-breaking performance and affordable prices. And AMD's chip was the first to hit a clock speed of 1 gigahertz, beating Intel at its own game.

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Our all-star lineup includes rookies (such as Adobe's InDesign, Handspring's Visor Deluxe, and Microsoft's IntelliMouse Optical) and veterans (including Adobe Photoshop, Dell's Dimension PCs, and Microsoft Office). New award categories this year for designer PCs, gadgets, and MP3 players reflect the move toward stylish, fun, and funky computing devices.

Another emerging trend: Web-based services are rapidly encroaching on the turf of desktop applications. Our top groupware product is the browser-based HotOffice, and we've added categories for Best Web Service (EFax) and Best Free E-Mail (Yahoo Mail). We're not saying that you'll never again have to trek to a computer store to purchase shrink-wrapped software. But a year from now, it could be a whole new ballgame.

Not every award winner here is, well, a winner. Y2K doomsayers, we're relieved to report, are our Losers of the Year (guess they'll have to save those candles and canned goods for the next millennium). Though the Y2K crowd edged out Microsoft for this award, the software giant has been declared a monopoly, and its fate will be decided by legal battles that could drag on for years. And in "Hits & Misses," we take a poke at the most irritating vendors, trends, and events of the past year.

But enough pregame show. Welcome to year 18 of the World Class Awards, PC fans. Play ball!

Winners, losers and trends

Product of the Year: AMD Athlon
It started as a spring phenom last season and it has only gotten stronger. Today, AMD's fast Athlon CPU shows no sign of suffering from a sophomore jinx. Architecturally superior to Intel's Pentium III, it's done for the high end what the company's K6 CPU did for the low end: set off intense competition where we all wanted it. The Athlon's performance means AMD can charge profit-making prices that are still low enough to keep Intel honest. Consequently, IBM, Compaq, and others can offer reasonably priced and powerful consumer PCs. Let's just hope that AMD can meet demand and not blow its lead in the late innings.

Losers of the Year: Y2K Doomsayers
They told us banks would fail and planes would tumble from the sky like lethal confetti. Were we nervous? Umm, slightly. When 1/1/2000 rolled around, however, nearly all of the world's computers turned out to be perfectly aware of what year it was. Maybe the billions invested in Y2K preparedness were well spent; maybe people overreacted. Either way, we have three words for those who built bunkers and hoarded rations: Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah.

Trend of the Year: Broadband Availability
For the Web-addicted among us, superfast, always-on Internet access is the hottest ticket this side of field-level seats at the Giants' new ballpark. And rival broadband technologies DSL and cable are finally evolving from a vague rumor into something more than a handful of users can get. Yes, glitches happen, security remains a concern, and monthly fees ($35 and up) aren't peanuts. But as broadband gradually blankets the country, the screech of a dial-up modem could become as rare as a baseball stadium built for speed, pitching, and defense.

The best in computers, system basics, service and support

Computers

Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch are this year's best PCs...

BEST CORPORATE PC: HP Vectra series
Corporate users looking for a powerful starter will appreciate HP's Vectra series. Priced at $2500 and up, Vectras sport built-in networking, an easy-off side panel for breezy upgrades, and a chassis-intrusion detection mechanism that automatically alerts your company's information systems crew when an unauthorized person opens the PC case.

BEST SMALL-BUSINESS PC: Dell Dimension XPS series
With fast-paced Pentium III processors, Dell Dimension XPS PCs, starting around $1200, have more zip than a Randy Johnson fastball. Dell's big units offer good value for small-market teams and won't spend much time on injured reserve, thanks to the vendor's first-rate system reliability.

BEST HOME PC: Gateway Astro
The Gateway Astro is a perfect fit for rookie home PC buyers. Its all-in-one case is a breeze to set up. And its low, sub-$800 price is tough to beat.

BEST DESIGNER PC: Sony VAIO Slimtop series
For good looks and solid performance, we like Sony's VAIO Slimtop PCs best. Priced at $2500 and above, VAIO Slimtops offer innovative, svelte design; sleek flat-panel displays; and lots of storage.

BEST NOTEBOOK: Gateway Solo 9300LS
For road trips, the extra-inning battery life of the $2848 Gateway Solo 9300LS lets you go the distance.

BEST SUBNOTEBOOK: IBM ThinkPad 240
If slim and light are key, the $1500-$2400 IBM ThinkPad 240 delivers: It weighs just a feathery 3 pounds, but its comfortable keyboard is nearly as big as those on notebooks twice its size.

System basics

You can't make the plays without the basic PC products...

BEST OPERATING SYSTEM: Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional
Microsoft's Windows 2000 Professional ($319) is our top choice among operating systems; it combines Windows 9x user-friendliness with NT management and security. It's a natural fit for office systems and business-oriented notebooks, but home users can stay with Win 98 (or 95) for now.

BEST APPLICATION SUITE: Microsoft Office 2000 Professional
The best application suite is probably the one you already own. For new users, though, we like Microsoft's Office 2000 Professional ($599) best for its collaboration and Web-integration tools.

BEST UTILITY: Ontrack SystemSuite 2000
Keep any of these Windows versions in shape with the $60 Ontrack SystemSuite 2000. Its utilities work better as a team and have a deeper bench than those of rivals Norton and McAfee.

BEST E-MAIL SOFTWARE: Qualcomm Eudora 4.3
Eudora fields e-mail with advanced filtering and color-coded labels; it can catch mail, account settings, and address books from Microsoft Outlook and Netscape Communicator.

BEST WEB BROWSER: Microsoft Internet Explorer 5
IE 5 delivers stability, speed, and a number of handy search tools.

BEST ANTIVIRUS SOFTWARE: Norton AntiVirus 2000
Help your PC perform at 100 percent by installing Norton's AntiVirus 2000 ($40). It offers automatic e-mail scanning and handy update features.

BEST SECURITY SOFTWARE: Network Ice BlackICE Defender
The $40 Network Ice BlackICE Defender foils gate-crashing Net intruders by maintaining constantly updated files of known hacking techniques and changing security levels in response to attacks.

BEST INPUT DEVICE: Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical
Shuffle through apps with Microsoft's IntelliMouse Optical ($55); its electronic eye tracks movements over surfaces, and works for left- and right-handed batters.

Service & support

BEST PC SUPPORT: Dell

BEST SOFTWARE SUPPORT: Microsoft

Before handing over your credit card to make that final PC purchase, it's a good idea to run a background check on the service and support policies of the company that you have in mind. In our most recent Reliability and Service survey (see "PC reliability and service: Things fall apart," link below), our readers reported that Dell still provides the best support for desktops and notebooks. And when we asked readers to rate software vendors' service and support, the biggest software company of them all, Microsoft, received top marks.

Hits & misses

Every season has its ups and downs. Here we look back at some of the past year's most memorable events and bonehead plays in the PC industry -- from the funniest dot-com ads to absurd technological innovations and unfortunate copycats.

Best makeover of a formerly ho-hum product
Microsoft's $109 Works Suite 2000 gets our nod for this category. The update turned a much-maligned suite into a comeback-package-of-the-year many of us would be proud to own. Kudos to Microsoft for finally giving us what we wanted: a cheap way to get Word on a new PC, along with extras like Money and Encarta.

Most likely to kill other removable-media storage options
CD-RW drives earn our award this year. Not only have they plummeted in price -- to less than $200 -- but they provide an attractive alternative for storing MP3 music tracks and archiving other important data.

Most amusing dot-com advertisement
Approximately 450 million Web site ads came out in the past year, all vying to be amusing. We liked exactly three. E-Trade's ER-themed "money out the wazoo" ad wins the series, though it's hard not to crack a smile every time you see that Pets.com sock puppet. EDS's stellar cat-herding ad was disqualified after judges learned that the company is technically not a dot-com.

It's about bloody time
This award goes to PC vendors -- namely Compaq, Dell, and Sony -- who've warmed up to the idea that beige isn't everyone's hue.

Best technology that might be illegal soon
Despite My.MP3.com's and Napster's legal troubles, accessing anyone's CD collection via Web connection was trs cool.

Best technology burned up during reentry
We choose Iridium, which let its $5 billion satellite network fall from the sky after not getting enough money to keep it in orbit. People just didn't want to pay $1200 for a mobile phone, even if they could use it from Antarctica.

Company most likely to inspire George Orwell references
The newly merged AOL/Time Warner monolith gets our vote. The marriage of an online behemoth and a traditional media giant will create the largest media conglomerate around. The supercompany isn't just in a league of its own -- it should be eligible for membership in NATO any day now.

Don't let the door hit you on the way out
This award goes to Packard Bell, a PC company that merged with NEC and then single-handedly improved the industry's service and support by dropping out of the U.S. market last year.

We have now patented the words A, An, and The
Amazon.com gets the this award for patenting one-click technology -- the idea of paying for something online with one click. Another patent we imagine it applied for: No-scroll technology (a page that fits on your screen).

Imitation is the sincerest form of product design
Emachines earns this award for building the iMac... er, EOne. Our read: You can try to clone Big Mac, but if it hits like Mario Mendoza, maybe it is Mario Mendoza.

Most promising newcomers

Hardware: Handspring Visor Deluxe
Handspring's Visor Deluxe offers an object lesson in how the game changes. Though nothing is radically innovative about this PDA from the inventors of Palm Pilot, the well-conceived package -- a tweaked version of the Palm software, slick case design, and low price -- is the most sought-after palmtop of the year. Call it the best Palm that Palm Computing never built. Look for the Visor to get even cooler as more add-ins for its Springboard slot (such as a wireless modem module) hit the market.

Software: Corel Linux OS
When we picked Linux as last year's Most Promising Software Newcomer, we cautioned that the Open Source operating system wasn't quite ready for the big leagues. With the release of Corel Linux OS, that's starting to change. Corel emphasizes user-friendliness, with a fast and easy setup routine, a superintuitive version of the KDE user interface, and a specialized tool for downloading updates and patches. The initial release choked on some cutting-edge hardware, but recent updates should banish most setup woes. Most of us won't ditch Windows just yet, but trying this upstart OS is easier than ever: Purchase Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux, and you get the OS for free.

Internet: Zero-Knowledge Systems Freedom
Privacy was on the minds of PC users this year -- and Zero-Knowledge Systems Freedom protects yours like nobody's business. The $50 software creates a pseudonymous digital identity, called a nym, that lets you surf the Web, send e-mail, chat, and use newsgroups without leaving a trace. Freedom routes your data through a network of 150 servers; Zero-Knowledge never knows its source or destination. Your identity remains secret, and personal info will not make its way into the wrong hands. Not just for the paranoid, Freedom offers peace of mind in the nosy, invasive world of the Web.




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