These days, when you’re shopping for a new lightning-fast computer or a slick DVD recorder, you probably don’t look to just one source for information. You read PC World (naturally), but you also see what other tech pundits have to say, and you read reviews at Web sites dedicated to the equipment you want.
In this 22nd edition of the World Class Awards, we’ve taken care of that work for you. To choose the best that the world of technology has to offer, we tapped not only the expertise of our own editors and PC World Test Center analysts, but also the knowledge of a team of outside experts — industry analysts, reviewers, and leaders at specialty sites. We looked for hardware, software, and services with exemplary usability, design, innovation, features, performance, and value. After considering hundreds of candidates, we chose 68 winners, from powerful notebooks to versatile cameras to hassle-free remote access software.
This year, we’re also establishing the World Class Hall of Fame. Which products get in? Only those that consistently show World Class qualities for many years. After all, being great once or twice is impressive, but being great over the long haul is truly exceptional.
Dell Dimension 4600
The 4600 line continues Dell Inc.’s tradition of building strong-performing systems that can be configured to your liking. Dell’s range of processors, optical drives, sound systems, and other components let you get a basic or decked-out PC for a reasonable price. US$749 to US$1500
Alienware Aurora Extreme FX 53
You want fast? The Advanced Micro Device Inc. Athlon 64 FX-53-based Aurora Extreme obliterated the competition in our tests, notching the fastest-ever PC WorldBench 4 score of 150. Though pricey, our test system — with CRT monitor and speakers — costs less than similar PCs from fellow elite builders Voodoo PC and Falcon Northwest Computer Systems. US$4,619
Hush Technologies Hush ATX
A model of elegant design, the Hush ATX is the first PC to combine good performance and quiet operation. Using today’s mainstream processors — we tested a 2.8-GHz Intel Pentium 4-based unit — the Hush ATX uses a unique heat pipe system to dissipate heat through its aluminum-finned case, eliminating the need for noisy fans. Available in business or media-savvy configurations, the Hush ATX should be welcome anywhere silence is golden. US$2,264
Desktop replacement notebook
Toshiba Satellite P25
Toshiba Corp.’s Satellite P25 tips the scales at over 10 pounds, but its large frame holds lots of features. It blends entertainment — with a beautiful 17-inch wide-screen LCD, fantastic sound, and Windows XP Media Center — speed — courtesy of a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 — and flexibility — with 80GB of storage and a DVD burner that supports all DVD formats. This powerful configuration makes the P25 the ideal desktop replacement. US$2,599
IBM ThinkPad X40
With the ThinkPad X40, IBM Corp. has perfected the ultraportable. Not only is it extremely thin — barely an inch top to bottom when closed — but it weighs a mere 2.8 pounds. Despite its small size, the X40 has a comfortable keyboard and a bright, sharp 12.1-inch screen. Powered by a low-voltage 1GHz Pentium M processor, the X40 turns in sprightly performance to boot. US$2,024
Toshiba Portege M200
A notebook with a twist — that is, the screen twists and folds flat onto the keyboard — the Portege M200 series lets you use a digitizing pen to jot down notes at meetings, or you can type on it as if it were a traditional notebook. Microsoft Corp.’s OneNote software is included, for keeping your scribbled notes organized. US$2,199
Product of the year
AMD Athlon 64 FX processor series
When you want top performance, the Athlon 64 FX line delivers. But these CPUs aren’t important just because of the speed they give you today. The FX is the first desktop PC processor that will let you upgrade to 64-bit operating systems and applications as they appear in the next few years.
What will a 64-bit future mean to you? Smoother, faster video encoding and speedy rendering in complex programs such as AutoCAD.
The FX chip’s other technical innovations include integrated memory controllers, larger caches, and a feature to help stop malicious worms.
Don’t want to pay a premium for the FX? Then get the less powerful but more affordable Athlon 64 CPU.
Hall of fame
IBM ThinkPad series
In the competitive PC industry, few products stay at the top for a year, let alone for over a decade. IBM’s ThinkPad line earns our first Hall of Fame award because it has embodied World Class qualities — innovative design, excellent reliability, powerful features — since 1992. The first in the series, the ThinkPad 700, had revolutionary features such as a 10.4-inch screen and a red pointing device that became a signature element. Fast-forward 12 years to the current ThinkPad X40, crowned this year’s best ultraportable notebook. It bears the same black case — though pleasantly slimmer — solid construction, and comfortable keyboard, and it has an improved eraserhead. Big Blue also backs its notebooks with stellar service. No wonder ThinkPads have been going strong since day one.
Loser of the year S
A wristwatch that does wireless news, instant messaging, and reminders? We’re not saying it’s a bad idea. But the first watches based on Microsoft’s SPOT technology — from Fossil Inc. — including a Dick Tracy model — turned out to be as underwhelming as they were overhyped. Their interfaces are illogical. Their batteries last only a few days. If you venture far from home, you need to alert the MSN Direct service to continue to get relevant information. And Microsoft’s ad blitz touted features that weren’t available at first. Call these timepieces miracles of miniaturization: Rarely have so many hassles been packed into devices this small.
Software newcomer of the year
Apple Computer Inc. makes Windows apps about as often as Microsoft ships bug-free products, and if ITunes for Windows — which is free — is any indication, that’s a crying shame. The ITunes media player works on PCs the same way it does on Macs, right down to the handy feature that lets you share your music library with other PC or Mac ITunes users on your network. It looks great, it’s easy to use, and it has a surprising number of useful features, like the abilities to generate rules-based Smart Playlists and to trim individual tracks.
Meanwhile, Apple’s complementary ITunes Music Store — US$0.99 per track, album prices vary — started the party last year on subscription-free digital tunes, pioneering the US$0.99-per-track model that most online music stores now use. With easy navigation, an impressive exclusive track selection, and such innovative offerings as audiobooks and radio show archives, ITunes Music Store is going strong. Competitors like RealPlayer Music Store made this a tough choice, but it’s hard to beat a store that’s built into the best media player software around. We do have one major complaint: ITunes tracks are incompatible with digital audio players other than Apple’s own IPod. How selfish!
Hardware newcomer of the year
PalmOne Treo 600
Not too big for a cell phone and not too small for a handheld, PalmOne Inc.’s breakthrough Treo 600 — US$450 to US$699, depending on carrier and plan — has raised the bar for Palm/cell phone hybrids. We especially like the ease of single-handed phone use, the built-in VGA camera, and the small but usable domed keyboard that in many cases is smart enough to know when it’s being used as a numeric keypad. Says IDC’s Kevin Burden: “Everyone who has [a Treo 600] loves it. It’s that rare product that has found a good balance between delivering the functionality that comes with a PDA with a design that is as close as it can be to a mobile phone.”
Apple Mac OS X Panther 10.3
Panther’s sleek interface and reliable performance are impressive. Although we aren’t suggesting that you ditch your hardware and buy a Mac, Apple deserves credit for raising the bar for OSs. And we hope Microsoft is paying attention as it works on the next Windows. US$129
Input device Logitech DiNovo Media Desktop
Finally, devices that put some teeth into Bluetooth. This suite of Bluetooth-enabled keyboard, mouse, and MediaPad — similar to a number pad — combines elegant design with high-end functionality. The MediaPad sports a small LCD to show what’s playing, and has buttons to control music and video. US$250
Netgear WGT624 108 MBPS Wireless Firewall Router
Hassle-free setup and swift performance — thanks to accelerated G technology that can push data at 108MB/sec., twice the throughput rate of the 802.11g standard — distinguish the WGT624. But what really sold us are its generous security and privacy features. US$85
An alternative browser without the bloat, according to Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, Opera 7.23 is a fleet-footed package that provides innovative ways to view, analyze, and store Web pages. Opera’s security options are strong and easy to configure. The beta for version 7.5 looks promising, too. Free or US$39 without the ad banner.
Microsoft Office Outlook 2003
Some users might consider Outlook’s cornucopia of features overkill, but this PIM’s e-mail client is excellent, especially for the corporate set. Version 2003’s spam filters kept out virtually all of our test junk mail. US$85.
Search engine Google
Other search engines are giving Google Inc. a run for its dominance, but so far none have surpassed it in accuracy and versatility. Free.
ExplorerPlus puts Windows Explorer to shame, thanks to features such as built-in file viewers, data management tools, and horizontal or vertical multipane folder views. US$40.
V Communications SystemSuite 5
SystemSuite 5 packs hardware diagnostics, an application uninstaller, a lost data rescuer, and other practical tools into one CD. But some of the apps are inferior versions of the company’s stand-alone programs. US$60.
ACCPAC Simply Accounting 2004 Pro
Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2004
PC-cillin outperformed the competition at removing infections, and its neat interface lets you access components easily. US$49.
Zone Labs ZoneAlarm Pro 4.5
Continuing to set the standard in the firewall category, ZoneAlarm Pro blocks most incoming and outgoing e-mail viruses, manages cookies, and stops pop-up ads. US$50.
SpamNet delivered a catch rate of 98 per cent and an uncanny ability not to block legitimate mail. Use it for Outlook and Web-based, POP3, or IMAP e-mail. US$4 a month.
AT&T Privacy Bird
External hard drive
Maxtor One Touch 250GB
With an excellent combination of capacity, features, and performance, the One Touch 250GB is the best choice for backing up your PC and expanding your storage easily. US$300.
Ultraportable hard drive
LaCie Data Bank 40GB
The Porsche-designed Data Bank is one of the few small hard drives that can fit in a shirt pocket. Available in both 20GB and 40GB capacities, the 5.7-ounce hard drive draws all the power it requires from a USB 2.0 or FireWire cable. US$349.
USB flash drive
PowerHouse Technologies Migo 256MB
Migo’s on-board data management and synchronization software make parting with your desktop easier. US$200.
StompSoft BackUp MyPC 5 Deluxe
BackUp MyPC provides a logical interface, a disaster recovery tool, and the ultimate in set-and-forget automation. US$60.
Business color printer
If you need business-quality text and color graphics from the same printer, buy the C7300n. This LED model printed text quickly, had a low consumables cost per page in our test, and bears a low price for what you get. US$1,889.
Monochrome laser printer
HP LaserJet 1300
The LaserJet 1300 is fast enough to satisfy a small office, is a snap to install, and prints clean-looking line art and sharp text. US$400.
At its price, Dell’s M5200n can’t be beat for high print quality and fast performance. This monochrome laser printed text at a sizzling 22.9 pages per minute in our tests. The printer is easy to operate, and it offers many expansion options. US$999.
Canon MultiPass MP730
The MP730 is about as close to “no compromises” as we can imagine. It makes great prints, turns out pages quickly, and comes loaded with extras such as an automatic document feeder that can scan batches, slots that read five types of media card, and faxing that works even when your PC is off. US$300.
Desktop publishing software
Adobe InDesign CS
In this two-horse race — with the US$995 QuarkXPress 6 — InDesign CS wins by a nose. Its Separations Preview and Flattener Preview palettes take the guesswork out of print previews, and its Story Editor word processor makes fitting copy easier. “Once the underdog, InDesign is now the 3000-pound gorilla,” says graphics guru and book author Deke McClelland. US$699.
Web development software
Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003
Whereas FrontPage 2002 focused on Office XP integration, Microsoft concentrated on improving this version’s overall tools. The HTML engine generates much cleaner code that loads pages faster and simplifies HTML editing. Though FrontPage’s features are playing catch-up with Web designers, who favor Macromedia’s US$399 Dreamweaver MX 2004, it’s the better, lower-cost choice for casual developers. US$199. Sound and video
Sound and video
Eizo Nanao FlexScan L767
The L767 defies the stereotype that LCDs can’t handle graphics work. In our tests it displayed rich colors, with precise transitions. For further picture refinement, Eizo includes its excellent ScreenManager Pro adjustment software, which, among other things, lets you specify custom screen settings for each application on your PC. The L767 comes at a premium price, but the results are worth it. US$900.
Samsung SyncMaster 173P
The SyncMaster 173P looks great and offers a lot of flexibility. You can set the silver-framed panel in almost any position, and you make screen adjustments via an intuitive control application rather than by pressing clunky buttons on the bezel. The stylish design alone might justify paying a bit extra, but the 173P is also a top-notch performer, producing bright, vibrant colors in graphics and extrasharp text in documents. US$660.
HP IPaq Pocket PC H4350
We haven’t always seen eye to eye with Microsoft on handheld OSs, but Hewlett-Packard Co.’s take on Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PCs is particularly elegant in the H4350. You’ll pay top dollar for this corporate companion, but it doesn’t stint on features — built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a small keyboard. US$500
VeriChat manages IM with panache on both Palm and Windows Mobile [Pocket PC] handhelds. The service works on the major IM networks, and it lets you toil away in another app while swapping messages with buddies. US$25.
Remote access software
Citrix Online GoToMyPC
With a GoToMyPC account, you can turn any Web-connected PC into a clone of your distant machine, affording access to remote programs, files, and networks. Though pricey, the service’s speedy, secure, and hassle-free approach remains unbeatable. US$20 per month per PC.
Groove Networks Groove 3
No other collaboration tool matches Groove’s safety, simplicity, and low cost — all within Windows Explorer. US$69.
This dot-com-era survivor has only improved over time, with new party invitation tools, including ones for public events. Free.
GPS navigation device
Garmin StreetPilot 2620
The expensive StreetPilot calculates routes within seconds and supplies accurate, detailed maps and directions. Better still: It puts safety first by requiring that you stop the car before entering a new location. US$1,300.