GCN Lab reviews 1997's best products

With two years to go before the next millennium, computers have finally learned to
listen. Monitors are shrinking and expanding at the same time, and processors are
rocketing to new megahertz heights.


But the only new operating system to make a debut was Microsoft Windows CE 2.0, which
barely hinted at the handheld power to come. Next year will likely bring powerful but tiny
units running the second release of the portable OS.


Windows NT 5.0 and Windows 98 encountered further delays. Microsoft Corp.'s major
announcements were about its suite software, World Wide Web browser and antitrust defense.


Maturing suites topped the software charts. Lotus Development Corp.'s SmartSuite 97 was
first out of the gate followed by Microsoft Office 97 and Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect Suite
8. But none has yet reached full potential for integration and collaboration.


On the hardware side, PC makers rushed to improve connectivity with new enterprise
management capabilities.


But client control software lagged behind, and the Zero Administration initiative took
too long for administrators to master. So not many managed PCs have made a desktop
appearance.


The GCN Lab examined about 350 products over the past 12 months. Many hinted at what
computing will be like in the 21st century, so we are honoring them as next-millennium
forerunners
:


We applaud
NaturallySpeaking's control over editing and navigating the spoken word. ViaVoice gets
kudos for talking back--generating spoken word from plain text.


These capabilities suggest that someday, all users will be able to speak their commands
to the PC and get feedback. Maybe we'll chat a la "Star Trek," asking computers
to read us our e-mail.


Compaq's
TFT500 drew excellent images, although its color was imperfect, and NEC's MultiSync
LCD2000 boasted a 20-inch diagonal display [GCN, Sept. 15, Page 39]. Flat-panel
image quality has far to go before it equals a bulky CRT. LCDs have made big strides in
just the last two years, though, so this won't hold them back forever.


Now, with a full docking
station, users can take everything they use in the office out on the road.


Many stations come well-equipped, but in our opinion, only one meets every road need:
Compaq's ArmadaStation [GCN, Sept. 8, Page 33]. This well-designed, easily deployed
dock will have even more features next year.


If vendors can make their handhelds work properly with desktop computers,
handhelds will become a permanent fixture of the computing environment. We still find
styluses and keyboards that resemble calculators to be awkward, however.


Intel's MMX, or multimedia extensions, put
heavy-duty processing power inside common desktop computers at a reasonable cost.


Look for the portable Pentium II to arrive in 1998. Intel probably will not phase out
the Pentium II family before the turn of the century.


Now that we've looked forward at products for the next millennium, let's look back at
the best software of 1997.


Some of this year's standouts were, at best, mediocre. The war of office suites
fizzled; the battle was more about which suite had the fewest problems rather than which
had the best features.


Users who stayed the course with Microsoft Office found that Office 97's file formats
complicated file sharing with non-Office 97 users. We hope that when the next suites
arrive in late 1998 or early 1999, the big-three vendors manage to deliver bug-free
application groups that work in harmony.


A better fit for enterprise environments also is on our wish list, but no current suite
does well there.


Best groupware: Collaborative creation of documents is even more important in
government offices than elsewhere. Rarely are documents created by only one author, and
workflow routing is important.


Maybe that's why this category's winner, Lotus Domino, has so many supporters in
government offices.


Lotus software has always been the market leader in online collaboration, but it has
stretched further with the advent of the Internet and intranets. Adoption of open
standards and a more complete line of clients make Domino an outstanding candidate for any
organization's infrastructure.


Best office suite: Corel WordPerfect Suite 8 and Lotus SmartSuite 97 received
Reviewer's Choice designations in our office suite comparison [GCN, Aug. 25, Page
39]. Microsoft Office 97 was bigger, slower and buggier than its predecessor. The Corel
and Lotus suites were leaner, cleaner and more robust.


For those working in collaborative environments, SmartSuite 97 is best. Standalone and
mobile users, or anyone designing pages for the World Wide Web or an intranet, should go
with WordPerfect Suite 8.


Best personal information manager and e-mail client: Microsoft Outlook 97 [GCN,
Nov. 10, Page 25] deserves to win in this category, despite its inherent connectivity
problems with non-Exchange post offices.


Our comparison review did not designate a Reviewer's Choice for a personal information
manager, but Outlook 97 leads the field with the best interface.


Its e-mail handling abilities are excellent--if all users are connected to an Exchange
server. Outlook 98, expected early next year, will be wider in scope.


Best graphics: Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop 4.0 [GCN, April 14, Page
34] is still the most powerful application for detailed graphics editing. Enhancements to
4.0's layering, new filters and more macros make Photoshop a must for any webmaster or
graphics professional.


Best World Wide Webauthor: Microsoft FrontPage 98 [GCN, Oct. 27, Page 1]
constitutes a full tool suite at low cost. It does snappy Hypertext Markup Language coding
and has an updated what-you-see-is-what-you-get frame design tool and good graphics
handling. The word processor-like table tool is from Word 97.


Best Internet tool: NetMedic [GCN, Oct. 13, Page 1] from Vital Signs Inc.
of Santa Clara, Calif., arrives on a single floppy disk, but don't let its size fool you.


This program can track Internet and intranet access speeds and connection problems for
any user. It details slowdowns on your network, your provider's network, the backbone or
the site you're trying to access.


NetMedic fixes some problems, and it can notify those responsible for bottlenecks or
connection problems.


Best utility: Utility software has been fairly stagnant this year because of the
delays in new operating systems. Last year's best, Cybermedia Inc.'s Oil Change, is still
one of our favorites, but the winner this year is Nuts & Bolts from Helix Software Co.
of Long Island City, N.Y. [GCN, June 30, Page 38].


Nuts & Bolts is great all around at a great price. It does disk and file management
and registry editing, and its crash protection really works.


Best anti-virus package: Viruses continue to plague just about every user. Macro
viruses, which now account for 90 percent of reported incidents, have hit desktop PCs
especially hard. Symantec Corp.'s Norton AntiVirus [GCN, July 14, Page 33], handles
them with aplomb. It automatically downloads and installs virus definitions for free, and
it scans with admirable speed.


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