Fear is struck in the hearts of writers when you receive from on high the commandment "produce a best of…" list. It’s fun doing this kind of list once or twice, but when you’ve done twenty or so of them they become more a matter causing internal conflict than kudos for manufacturers. The reason is simple: when you do your first few lists you know which products impressed you the most over a year. After a few years in the business, you have to consider not only the products but the people and companies behind them. Politics, whether you want it to or not, starts to infiltrate itself on your considerations and so you pull punches, give good products a nudge into great, and otherwise sell yourself out. Still, what an editor demands is quite often respected, and hence I decided to do a "best of" list. With a twist. I’m reverting to my early years and simply listing the products that gave me the most enjoyment, satisfaction, and productivity this year. And then, just to be contrary and burn a few bridges, I’m going to explain the ones that annoyed the hell out of me!

Let’s start with traditional categories. Best system of any kind goes to IBM for their continuing line of ThinkPad laptops. The latest models continue the trend of the earlier ThinkPad 560, still my favorite laptop, for its combination of light weight, power, readable screen, and just plain show-off factor ("Your laptop weighs how much?") Worst system is going to raise some howls: the Apple iMac. I think the idea of the iMac is great. The execution kinda lacked a few things (like a floppy, which despite what Apple says, everyone needs). And the thing that annoyed me about the iMac more than anything was the hype. "Three times faster than an Intel PC". Yeah, maybe in pure clock cycles. Ask anyone who’s compared applications or games head to head, and you’ll find the iMac is slower than a fast Pentium II. I don’t mind hype, but misleading the consumer I do object to.

A few hardware side awards. Best server of the year was a tough choice between those models from ALR (now a division of Gateway) and Compaq sporting multiple processors and oodles of RAM but finally goes to IBM (yet again) with their Infinity series. Power, IBM’s name (which still means something), and growth capability in a reasonably priced package. If only software could keep up with the load of these servers! Best processor must go to Intel with their every-faster Xeon Pentium II. Yeah, it’s expensive, but I have yet to see a competitor with the same juice. Best UNIX workstations? New models from HP and Sun are continuing the trend to faster, smaller, and cheaper. Heck, they run UNIX, the best operating known to man. (But then I may be just a little biased.)

For add-on peripherals my favorite genre this year has been the photo-quality printer. There have been marvelous units from Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and Epson, but after testing them all I bought the HP PhotoSmart PhotoPrinter. It’s a slightly older model but the quality of the images impressed me no end. Worst peripheral is more a genre. The USB was unveiled as being the savior of all things peripheral and hasn’t lived up to the hype yet. Oh, sure there are some joysticks, keyboards, and sound systems available for USB, but the whole promise of flexible and multiple interconnected devices fell flat. Maybe next year, guys.

For other hardware, the award goes to 3Com for the PalmPilot, which continues to be an amazing little device that spawned a whole market niche, as well as caused conniptions for Microsoft. There are a number of excellent palm-sized computers, but the PalmPilot continues to be my favorite. Worst of the bunch goes to the increasing number of joysticks, mice, and steering wheel add-ons for the game player which are not only flimsy, but also downright dangerous in some cases.

On to software and the best operating system of the year. Surprisingly I vote for Windows 98. Not because Bill needs a few more bucks, and not because it added a whole bunch of features over and above Windows 95, but simply because it is a good development over the earlier product. When coupled with the Plus package, most of the routine tasks of disk maintenance can be automated, as can other system tasks. Windows 98 patches enough of the holes in Windows 95 to make it a worthwhile upgrade for most people, and support for USB, DirectX 6, and other products leads Windows into the next generation of hardware. Which brings us to the worst operating system of the year, also from Microsoft. It’s Windows NT 5. Or rather, it isn’t. Windows NT 5 (now renamed Windows 2000 – catchy, eh?) was supposed to be available this year and I’ve played with the betas for over a year. I’m impressed and think it will be a wonderful successor to the aged Windows NT 4. So let us have it, already. Windows NT systems need the new features!

Applications are always a tough call. My favorite utility or application for the year is Symantec’s PCAnywhere32 which allows remote control of any Windows or DOS machine over modems, Internet, or network. I use it extensively on my in-house network, as well as when travelling, and it’s performed miraculously. It’s not a package for everyone, but it is the one application I was glad I bought this year and that was worth every penny I spent. Worst application of the year goes to the industry as a whole for designing bug-laden software, rushing it out before testing and documentation are complete, then forcing us to either spend money to upgrade to the next bug-laden version or download innumerable patches from the Internet. If they built cars the way they built software…

Best gateway or computer security product? CyberGuard’s CyberGuard firewall software. If you’ve been reading my Help Desk series (you have, haven’t you?) then you know this is my favorite firewall. My network is protected. Maybe yours should be, too. Best encryption product is Entrust, which finally has a product that is friendly, workable, and maybe some day will integrate properly with e-mail! Best programming tool goes to a UNIX tool called KL Group PageFormatter which brings total output control to UNIX programmers. Best utility of the year to Symantec’s Norton Utilities, yet again. Hey, they are the standard for a reason. Best anti-virus tool to McAfee VirusScan. I think I’ve run out of inspiration now.

Best game of the year? (Not that I play games much, you understand, but I do have to test all the hardware that comes in.) My favorite and that of many others was Blizzard’s StarCraft. Hooked? I wasted a couple of weeks. There have been many notables, too, but let’s just say this is the one game I’d buy anyone with a PC for Christmas. Worst game of the year? Riven. Myst was all show and no game, and Riven is more of the same. I don’t understand how these two sell so many copies! (But then, I didn’t understand how "DOS for Dummies" sold so many copies, either!)

Market hype of the year award goes to the Y2K problem. Sure, some applications will have problems doing the roll-over, but this is not going to be the catastrophe everyone has been playing it up as. When consultants can get $5,000 a day for "fixing" something that won’t be a major problem anyway, there’s something wrong. (Anyone need a consultant?) But kudos to WRQ for their WRQ Software 2000 package, which scans your applications looking for likely candidates for replacement.

Computer Magazine of the year award goes to no-one, as there really isn’t one magazine that set the tone for the entire industry, offered good advice, reviews and articles, and had me on their masthead. (Naturally CCR would win, but I disqualified it because, well, you know it’s the best at what it does!) Worst mag of the year to Byte, a once great magazine that had top-place in the business, now ruined by new owners who got too greedy. We miss you, Byte.

Special awards to a few companies for continuing an outstanding tradition of innovation and development. First to IBM for coming up with newer, smaller, faster hard drives. Laptops and desktops of the future will appreciate the effort. To companies that develop and market 3D graphics cards, getting faster and fancier every year, the game-player salutes you! To Hewlett-Packard, an award for continuing to make superb products, bullet-proof as possible, and never being ordinary. And finally, a special award to Lego and their MindStorm Robotics Invention System. ‘Cause even us old writers are kids at heart.

Summary:

bullet System: IBM ThinkPad
bullet System: Apple iMac
bullet Server: IBM NetFinity
bullet Processor: Intel Xeon
bullet Peripheral: HP PhotoSmart PhotoPrinter
bullet Peripheral: All things USB
bullet Misc Peripheral: 3Com Palm Pilot
bullet Operating System: Windows 98
bullet Operating System: Windows NT 5
bullet application: Symantec PCAnywhere32
bullet game: Blizzard StarCraft