GCN Lab revisits 1998's hits and misses

1998 has been a good year for computer hardware. Processor speed jumped impressively
from 333 MHz to 450 MHz. But software suffered from the upgrade syndrome. Most upgrades
fell a little flat or required a host of patches and fixes.


Lotus Development Corp. released the year’s only software suite, SmartSuite
Millennium Edition [GCN, Sept. 28, Page 37], and
Microsoft Corp. sent Microsoft Windows 98 on its way [GCN, June 29, Page 31]. But neither one made much of an impact on government buying.


Meanwhile, Novell Inc.’s long-awaited NetWare 5.0 network operating system met
with a cautious response from government installations that are mulling transition to
Windows NT 4.0’s successor, Windows 2000 Server.


1998 did bring one particularly good software upgrade—Adobe Systems Inc.’s
Photoshop 5, which easily wins our vote as the year’s top application [GCN, Aug. 31, Page 44]. Some of Adobe’s improvements
subtly changed Photoshop, but overall, the complex image-editing application is simpler
and more powerful.


Text finally is editable on its own layer. The History menu lets users back out of
unlimited recent effects. Magnetic lasso and pen tools make image editing easier. And the
Help menu at last gives a boost to uninitiated users.


@Guard from WRQ Inc. of Seattle also caught our fancy and earned a nod as 1998’s
best utility [GCN, Oct. 19, Page 26]. Advertising may
make the Web free and generate income for site owners, but that does not mean users want
to see it constantly.


@Guard does a good job of identifying and preventing ads from loading, thus speeding
browser performance. You can turn it off, too.


In network utilities, we particularly liked LapLink Tech from Traveling Software Inc.
of Bothell, Wash. [GCN, Sept. 21, Page 36]. The advent
of client-server networks was supposed to make file transfer products disappear. LapLink
Tech, however, has adapted and grown.


Its superset of features from the flagship LapLink package constitutes an entire
toolbox of utilities for tech-support personnel. Whether your support staff is down the
hall or across the country, LapLink Tech helps the helpers with remote control, file
transfer, voice chat and transfer scheduling tools.


The easy-to-use interface works for troubleshooting remote offices or
telecommuters’ locations. Security and encryption features assure managers that
machines open to remote management are not vulnerable to attacks.


Also on the server side, Compaq Computer Corp.’s SmartStart gives administrators
one of the easiest setup routines ever seen for Compaq servers [GCN, June 15, Page 39]. Its wizardlike interface
guides a user through RAID configuration, network OS installation, and even configuration
of some management tools, utilities and database products.


For the mobile user, Tioman ProSwap [GCN, Oct. 12, Page 1]
from Agate Technologies Inc. of Fremont, Calif., can hot- or warm-swap floppy or CD-ROM
drives and batteries in certain notebook computers.


The GCN Lab’s only A+ grade of the year went to DiskCataloger from Sheridan
Software Systems Inc. of Melville, N.Y. [GCN, Aug. 24, Page 1].
The program keeps track of what’s in the piles of floppy and Iomega Zip disks via
color-coded icons.


Wonder which disk you saved the draft copy of a report on? Just look in DiskCataloger
to learn that it’s on green disk No. 3. Assuming you do the minimum and label your
cataloged disks, you will never misplace a file again.


One of the hottest trends in software in 1998 was voice recognition. Continuous
recognition did not manage to take off this year, but several programs tested by the GCN
Lab had a measure of success. Some earned B grades; one got a D. Even with 95 percent
recognition, there are still going to be mistakes, and correcting them takes time.


For disabled users or people with poor typing skills, however, voice recognition can be
a godsend. For most everyone else, a meaningful conversation with your computer is years
away, especially if you are a whiz with a mouse and a good typist.


As for hardware, 1998 brought flat-panel displays to desktop prominence. LCDs cannot
displace traditional CRTs yet, but as quality rises and prices plummet, they are well on
their way.


The most eye-catching of the bunch, with excellent quality to boot, came from Apple
Computer Inc. Suitable for every kind of desktop work or advanced desktop publishing, the
Apple Studio Display sets a standard for crisp color balance, brightness and sharp
contrast [GCN, June 22, Page 1].
It works equally well with Macs and PCs.


Energy-efficient monitors top our list of standout technologies this year. LCD
manufacturers have made a start at eliminating the negatives. Screens are crisper than
they used to be and distort less when viewed at an angle. LCDs continue to maintain the
advantages of their class—low weight and little heat or radiation.


As they get larger—some have already reached 31-inch diagonals—they will
appear in new formats. A 31-inch CRT would weigh far too much to be functional, but a
large LCD is still comparatively light at about 30 pounds.


Intel Corp. this year began an earnest invasion of workstation space formerly reserved
for RISC processors. The BX chip set brought a 100-MHz frontside bus, which has great
bandwidth for memory-intense operations. Intel’s Advanced Graphics Port, or AGP, took
more of the burden off the overburdened PCI bus for video processes, too.


Intel further boosted processing power by giving the Pentium II Xeon processor up to 2M
of Level 2 cache. So, although Intel’s clock rate increased more than 100 MHz, it was
the motherboard that gave the bigger jolt to performance in 1998.


We had a tough time deciding which PC deserved the distinction of 1998’s best.
Compaq, Dell Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. all submitted good desktop PCs this year.


We chose Dell’s OptiPlex GX1 minitower for one simple reason: chassis design [GCN, July 13, Page 31]. Its one-button access, incredible
interior organization and generally good support show that Dell concentrates on more than
building boxes.


We must, however, give a well-deserved nod to Compaq’s Intelligent Manageability
client management tools, which surpass Dell’s current set of tools.


Dell also made the year’s best server: the PowerEdge 2300 [GCN, Sept. 7, Page 1]. It certainly exemplified
Moore’s Law concerning the doubling of processor speed every 18 months; 18 months
earlier, we had reviewed the PowerEdge 2100, and the 2300 showed far more robust features
in the same price range.


Dell has a history of bringing high-end features to entry-level and midrange products.
The 2300 benefits from departmental-level RAID, chassis design and management bundles.
Though aimed at the workgroup market, the 2300 has the muscle to grow with demand. This
kind of forward thinking is unusual at the lower end of the market.


The notebook of the year was the MetroBook LT from MetroBook Computer Corp. of
Chantilly, Va. [GCN, Oct. 12, Page 27]. We were
surprised by the balance of power and features in this 6-pound wonder. No other notebook
came close to its 15 minutes of life per ounce of battery.


We also gave a nod to the mini-notebook realm with Panasonic Personal Computer
Co.’s CF-M31 [GCN, June 1, Page 1]. The 2.2-pound unit is the best example we’ve seen of what a
mini-notebook can do. It runs a full version of Windows 95, handles standard office
applications and personal information managers, and completely sidesteps the limited
Windows CE operating system.


More powerful than a personal digital assistant and less expensive than a full-blown
notebook, the CF-M31 meets the needs of a wide cross-section of users. With an optional
battery pack, it can even run for eight hours.


As for printers, we liked Epson America Inc.’s Stylus Photo EX [GCN, June 1, Page 29]. For an ink-jet printer, it produces
remarkable photo-quality images at an incredible $500 price. Only a discriminating eye
with a magnifying glass could discern any dot pattern, and no other ink-jet matched its
output.


Epson scored another win for scanner of the year. The Epson 636 Professional 2 [GCN, Oct. 26, Page 23] aimed at the high end of the market.
Image resolution and color fidelity were very good, and the 636 Pro added ease of use and
flexibility at $1,260.


Three digital cameras made our list of top products. We particularly like the Olympus
Image Systems Inc. D-600L still camera [GCN, Jan. 26, Page 27]. This semi-professional camera combines point-and-shoot convenience with some
control to the operator. Quality surpassed that of all the other cameras we examined.


Panasonic Office Products Co.’s EggCam [GCN, Sept. 21, Page 1] is low-cost and can fill multiple roles on the desktop. It’s a
still-frame camera, a videoconferencing tool and a video e-mail sender.


You can record yourself using the camera and then e-mail the video portion as an
attached file. Because the software sends along a 50K application with the message, anyone
at the other end can receive and play the message just by clicking on it. Picture quality
is very sharp.


One of the coolest products we saw this year was Hitachi Home Electronics’ MP-EG1A
[GCN, Feb. 9, Page 32], the first Motion Picture
Experts Group camera on the market. It can record 20 minutes of MPEG video, 3,000 Joint
Photographic Experts Group files, or 1,000 .jpg files with 10 seconds of .mpg audio each.


Weighing a little more than a pound, this digital video camera is versatile and easy to
use. The Hitachi MP-EG1A earned an A, and we have yet to find anything to match it.


The newest version, called the M2 Multimedia Recorder, does better justice to its
multitude of uses. The price, the only real downside at the time of review, dropped by
$900, to $1,499.


If 1998 proved anything, it proved the importance of the connections between computers
and the rest of the world. Two of the hottest technologies this year were 56-Kbps modems
and the Universal Serial Bus.


56K modems finally took off after the V.90 standard was adopted, putting an end to the
conflict between x2 and K56Flex standards. V.90 represents the latest step in a string of
improvements in modem technology that have brought change in how we think about computers,
the Internet and the workplace.


V.90 modems were designed for faster downloads from Internet providers that have
digital lines and V.90 host modems. But firms are finding that setting up a V.90 host
infrastructure lets workers use their 56K modems to connect remotely over analog lines.


The scheme costs less than Integrated Services Digital Network or other proprietary
connections and is easier to manage. With two 56K modems and two analog telephone lines,
remote workers can make a single connection to their office network or an Internet
provider with the same bandwidth as ISDN.


56K modems may not be the last word in remote connectivity, but they are an important
interim step. Whether the future takes the form of Digital Subscriber Line, cable modems
or ISDN, 1998 belonged to the 56K analog modem.


USB represents another revolutionary change in how we use computers and peripherals.


GCN first covered USB in 1996, but no computers supported it until last year, and USB
peripherals did not put in an appearance until early this year. What started as a trickle
has become a flood.


This year we have looked at USB monitors, cameras and scanners. 1998 also saw the
release of USB printers, modems, sound systems and removable storage devices. Early doubts
about this new standard have faded, and USB is now clearly the future of peripheral
interfaces.


With support from Win98 and Windows 2000, USB will supplant conventional serial and
parallel ports in years to come. Its great advantages are ability to daisychain devices,
easy use and high data throughput.


Any manager who talked about computer connectivity in 1998 always had to consider
security. AirID from RF Ideas Inc. of Buffalo Grove, Ill., [GCN, Sept. 28, Page 1] provides hands-free supplemental
security for computer networks.


The black box has a radio frequency transmitter and a 3-inch-long antenna. It attaches
to the PC or server COM port. Users clip a credit card-sized badge to their clothing to
identify themselves to the box.


When a user leaves the desk, the computer locks up until the authorized person returns
within range. Although AirID can be defeated by rebooting, an unauthorized user would have
to break system passwords and leave evidence of tampering.


Here are a few predictions for 1999:


Coming in the Jan. 11 issue: an index of all products tested in the GCN Lab in
1998.

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