1999's best products weigh less, do more
1999's best products weigh less, do more
Many of this year's best peripherals make office workers' and road warriors' computing tasks easier
By Michael Cheek and
John Breeden II
The HPCapShare 920 handheld scanner runs on two AA batteries and captures information flexibly yet reliably.
Multi-Tech System's MultiMobile USB modem works with portable or desktop PCs and transmits at 56 Kbps.
Iomega's 250M Zip drive can read existing 100M media, and it comes in a Universal Serial Bus version.
The Microsoft Intelli-Mouse Explorer works on almost any surface and never needs to be cleaned.
At year's end, the GCN Lab reviewers get together to compile a list of the best products we reviewed. This year, one characteristic stood out among the top nine products: Except for a printer, all the hardware weighed less than a pound.
Even two of the top three software products were light-footed utilities, not heavyweight clunkers.
So is lightness the next big thing?
In the lab, we avoid portentous phrases such as paradigm shift or watershed product, but lightness does seem to be a significant trend in technology innovation.
Products are getting smaller and easier to use. Even the biggest products on our Top Nine list deserve kudos for their ease of use.Everything but
No PCs or notebook computers made the list this year. That's significant, because in spite of the Pentium III hype, we do not believe computing has changed substantially. Hard drives spun a little faster and megahertz rates rose somewhat, but the changes were mainly incremental.
One exception is Intel Corp.'s latest 0.18-micron process for fabricating Pentium III processors, coupled with its 133-MHz 820 bus chip set. In the end, however, Intel's confusingly similar names for the 10 new processors and the 820 chip set's delays kept these innovations off our list.
The trend still holds in one regard: 0.18 micron is smaller than the 0.25 micron of the manufacturing process it succeeds. We have a hunch that Intel will come up with other ingenious updates for notebook makers next year.
So on to the list of the GCN Lab's Top Nine in 1999 products.
When we tested Hewlett-Packard's CapShare 920 handheld scanner [GCN,
Oct. 25, Page 19], we liked its innovation and flexibility. Swipe it in a U-shaped pattern on any printed page, and it captures the information reliably, unlike the handheld scanners of the early 1990s.
Two optics look so closely at the paper that they pick up the fiber pattern and straighten the digital capture as if the page had been through a flatbed scanner. The monochrome image appears on the unit's LCD panel for quick cropping.Light and easy
The CapShare 920 is easy to use and extremely portable, running on two AA batteries. The $499 price seems a little high, but innovation makes this handheld scanner worth the money.
We welcomed the higher-capacity Zip 250 removable-media drive from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, onto the PC storage landscape [GCN
, Oct. 11, Page 29; and Aug. 2, Page 23]. Just as when Iomega released the first Zip in 1995, the 250M version could not have come at a more strategic time, and it is now available in a Universal Serial Bus version.
The Motorola PageWriter 2000X is handy, and road warriors will love its e-mail, pager and synchronization functions.
The Tektronix Phaser 840 turns out near-photo-quality documents fast and comes with free black wax for life.
Computer files are huge and growing bigger daily. Digital cameras take photographs on removable disks. Database programs have practically unlimited entry fields. Users need a quick way to transport such files, and the standard 1.44M floppy and the bandwidth-constrained Internet are inadequate. In the past, the 100M Zip drive was the answer.
Iomega's 250M Zip more than doubles storage capacity, and remarkably it does so without performance loss or increase in physical size. In fact, the Zip 250M drive accepts the older 100M disks.
The addition of USB support is icing on the cake. We especially like the thinner, external Zip drive.
Microsoft's IntelliMouse Explorer [GCN,
Oct. 11, Page 29] is a revolutionary improvement in a category of devices that people have been using for decades.
For users who spend a lot of time at the computer, the mouse has become an extension of the hand. They hardly even notice the device that lets them manipulate 95 percent of all software programs. They think nothing of it until the cursor jumps around or scrolling becomes difficult.Mouse lint
The old-style mouse roller ball picks up bits of lint and dirt from the mouse pad and, over time, accumulates dust bunnies. The little gears get dirty. Cleaning them is a pain, and eventually cleaning is no longer enough. The mouse dies.
Microsoft has eliminated the ball and gears altogether. The IntelliMouse has no moving parts. A sensor tells it where it is moving, regardless of the surface. In our tests, the IntelliMouse worked as well as or better than standard mice, even over unusual terrain such as a forearm.
The best part: The IntelliMouse never needs cleaning.
From a mouse to a database manager is quite a jump, but Microsoft made a similar leap between SQL Server versions 6.5 and 7.0 [GCN
, March 8, Page 27].
The new version's impressive changes in performance and management have not quite brought enterprise-class databases down to the average user, but SQL Server is more accessible than it was.
Symantec's Norton 2000 will continue to be useful for leap year readiness updates next year.
Allowing Excel and Access applications to tap into SQL Server data turns out to be ingenious. The familiar interfaces make life easier.
Add to that the ability to scale down data to go on the road, and SQL Server seems right in tune with the increasingly mobile worker.
SQL Server's tentacles stretch to the Web, too, serving up data across the Internet or intranets for a number of government agencies. Wizards make it easy to manage, replicate and tap with simple English queries.
Version 7.0 is a big step forward in bringing significant database power to everyone, not just database administrators.
The first time we saw Mijenix Fix-It Utilities 99 from Mijenix Corp. of Boulder, Colo., we thought it was another also-ran compared with the reigning leader, Norton Utilities from Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif. When we saw Mijenix in action, our opinion quickly changed [GCN
, June 14, Page 1].
The best part about Fix-It Utilities is that it works as claimed. We have tested dozens of other products that don't do so or that create problems instead of solving them. A neophyte who has never even touched a utility will be up and running, fixing a system, in less than five minutes. Throw out the manual if you want because Mijenix keeps you from doing anything harmful. Instead, it makes helpful suggestions to guide you.
Priced at around $50 for a single version for Microsoft Windows 9x or Windows NT, the Mijenix product is a welcome change in a market that usually charges separately for different operating systems.
All systems go
Mijenix Fix-It Utilities 99 has versions for Windows 9x and NT in one $50 package.
Scalable SQL Server 7.0 accepts database queries from Microsoft Excel and Access.
Over a period of three months on one reviewer's PC, Mijenix found 477 invalid registry entries from programs that had been moved or deleted. System performance following the fixes went up by 6 percent.
When it comes to the Motorola PageWriter 2000X, we want one [GCN,
Sept. 13, Page 1]. The PageWriter 2000X merges a pager with a personal digital assistant.
Instead of a stylus and touch screen, the PageWriter incorporates a miniature QWERTY keyboard.
After they are re-viewed by the lab, products are returned to their makers. Sometimes we are happy to send things back, but the Page-Writer turned out to be so handy that we hated to see it go.
If you are paged, you can respond via e-mail. You can even synchronize the device with your desktop PC calendar. The PageWriter is a little bigger than a standard pager. When you flip the top you see a 2.25- by 1.5-inch backlit display.
With contact information, text notes, even a couple of games, all this little device lacks is a cellular phone.
The PageWriter costs $395, plus service from SkyTel Communications Inc. at $24.95 a month. It's a little costly but soon becomes a necessity for any road warrior.
The MultiMobile USB modem from Multi-Tech Systems Inc. of Mounds View, Minn., is a friend not only to travelers but also office workers [GCN,
July 26, Page 1]. This simple, palm-sized modem plugs into the USB port of a desktop PC or a notebook. Once the proper drivers are installed, it becomes a fully functional 56-Kbps modem that weighs about 2 ounces. Data lights show instantly whether the user is connected or, if not, why.
USB modems came along at a time when the two card slots on a standard notebook were valuable landscape sought by many types of devices.
USB eliminates the need for a card modem yet also works on a desktop system.
The MultiMobile is durable. Despite being dropped several times during its test travels, it never broke or lost performance.
We can't let 1999 pass without a nod to year 2000 PC test software. Symantec's Norton 2000 racked up praise [GCN,
Sept. 27, Page 31 and Jan. 11, Page 1]. Version 1.0 and Version 2.0 both earned Reviewer's Choice designations, and deservedly so.
Norton 2000 looks at everything inside a PC to assure readiness, from the BIOS to the data files. It scans quickly, with generally reliable results. Although less than three weeks are left before the crunch, we predict Norton 2000 will remain useful longer to keep PCs up-to-date throughout the leap year.
The Phaser 840 from Tektronix Inc. might sound like something out of 'Star Trek,' but the hot-wax printer looks little different from other office models [GCN,
July 26, Page 24]. It's what's inside that counts.
Loaded with giant squares of wax that look, feel and smell like big crayons, the Phaser 840 heats and applies wax to paper, with impressive results.
Photographs look vibrant and realistic. They emerge completely dry with a sheen like that of real photos. Text prints just as well, at a quality far higher than the average laser printer's.
If high quality and speed are what you need, the Phaser could be the answer. Full-color documents emerge only seconds after the job is sent.
Replacing a wax cartridge is as easy as dropping a fresh block of wax into the holding area. And Tektronix will even give you free black wax for life.