Lab looks to 2003 with 2002's highlights

The lab hopes the HP Vectra VL830 desktop client's nearly perfect form factor remains in future models.

Henrik G. DeGyor

Dell Latitude C810 notebook is heavy, and it has heavyweight features.

The Motorola A388 got an A grade from the GCN Lab for its successful marriage of a monochrome PDA with a wireless phone.

NEC's PlasmaSync 42MP4 scared several competitors away from a GCN Lab round- up of plasma monitors. Its high price is balanced by great resolution and low weight.

Leading products in many categories created a trend: They're easier to use, with more features and better security.

No IT buyer wants to repeat the mistakes of the past in the technology purchases of the future. That's why the GCN Lab each December looks at the year's standout products with a view to their influence on next year's stars.

Everything we cite in this review met high standards for storing, transporting or displaying data important to government agencies.

In the flood of network security products, nothing impressed us more than the State Point Plus software analysis tool from Westinghouse Electric Co. of Monroeville, Pa. State Point Plus can detail every program on a computer down to the bit level. Its diagnostics work on standalone machines or over a network.

State Point Plus can spot a corrupted file in any piece of software. If a user alters the administrator's configuration or protocols, possibly breaching security policy, State Point Plus can show the changes.

It's not cheap, however. For the average network, State Point Plus inspection will cost about $28,000 not including training.

Also at the top of 2002's security products was another impressive piece of software: Phantom Total Security from Gianus Technologies Inc. of New York. We used Phantom for an entire year but never managed to break into the data it dematerialized for security.

Phantom works by partitioning a hard drive with a separate, independent Microsoft Windows XP or 9x operating system and files, accessible only through a 68K executable.

[IMGCAP(2)] To de- or rematerialize the OS and its partitioned data requires a 32-digit password. Gianus was stubborn about revealing any of the mechanics to us. That tight-lipped policy made the vendor frustrating to work with, but one thing we learned after countless hours of testing was that Phantom works.

You can't buy and install it, however. Phantom Total Security must be ordered from and installed by a licensed reseller when you buy a PC. The cost ranges from $200 to $300 per license.

No infrastructure, secure or not, can be much good without adequate equipment. The WebAvalanche server testing device from Caw Networks of Santa Clara, Calif., simulates up to 20,000 transactions per second with controlled data that has different characteristics for each imaginary user.

This flood pours in fast enough to stress most servers, particularly Web application servers. WebAvalanche is expensive at $20,000, but that's peanuts compared with potential losses from malfunctioning servers.

The product is so well known for server benchmarking that representatives of Apple Computer Inc. mentioned their WebAvalanche scores in the first five minutes of a presentation to the lab staff.

Speaking of servers, the NEC EXPress 5800/ft from NEC Solutions America of New York
eliminated clustering crises with its dual, plug-and-play power supplies. It needed only one power supply to remain active and stable through complex hardware changes.

The included software for remote control had some setup drawbacks, but otherwise the tower hardware we tested was near-perfect. We expect next year's counterpart to be rackmountable, too.

Roomy interior

The NEC server wasn't the only hardware we admired this year. The HP Vectra VL830 desktop client from Hewlett-Packard Co. came close to form-factor perfection, although that particular model is being discontinued.

The interior was roomy, spacious and simple to get into without tools. We could easily access every component.

Thoughtfully designed interiors often go along with good performance. The Vectra averaged a high 5,955 on the lab's benchmark suite from Alterion Corp. of Conshohocken, Pa. Reasonably priced at $1,870, the VL830 had 512M of RAM, six Universal Serial Bus ports and a 64M nVidia GeForce3 graphics card.

We hope such good specifications and chassis design will become standard in next year's clients.
The best notebook PC we tried out this year was the $2,437 Dell Computer Corp. Latitude C810. At 7.2 pounds, it wasn't lightweight, but its 1.13-GHz processor, 256M RAM and 30G hard drive packed enough power to average 3,573 on our benchmark suite.

The Latitude C810 scored so well partly because of a robust 128-bit nVidia GeForce2 graphics card. The notebook outperformed a 1.1-GHz Celeron, our baseline desktop PC at the time.

We predict these hefty specifications will make their way into the ultraportable notebook market next year. Furthermore, we expect high-end desktop replacements such as the Latitude to sport desktop-quality Pentium 4 chips.

The Motorola Inc. A388 got an A grade this year for successfully marrying a monochrome personal digital assistant to a wireless phone.

Its battery lasted for 270 minutes' talk time and 145 hours' standby. That was terrific, especially in view of its Web browsing and PDA functions.

What made this PDA-cell phone combo such a successful union was logical navigation. From the four-level grayscale touch screen, it was easy to get to any application or jump between phone and PDA.

Also important were the small 3.9- by 2.3- by 0.95-inch size and 4.95-ounce weight. The A388 felt like a cell phone and worked like a PDA'no mysteries.

In 2003 you can expect even simpler PDA-phone unions with color screens. We suspect makers will have to sacrifice battery life to make this happen.

Computers and phones got smaller this year, but plasma monitors moved in the opposite direction.

When several plasma monitor vendors learned that NEC Solutions America of New York was submitting the dazzling 42-inch PlasmaSync 42MP4 for lab review, they declined our invitation to the roundup [GCN, July 22, Page 58]. The PlasmaSync won hands down over competitors from Sony Electronics Inc. and ViewSonic Corp.

Priced at $9,495, the 42MP4 was worth it for a native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. Text looked just as good as on a CRT or LCD monitor. But the PlasmaSync was only 3.5 inches thick and weighed only about 70 pounds with the stand, or 65 pounds without. Some competitors tipped the scales at 100 pounds.

The viewing angle was about 180 degrees, meaning people could sit at the sides and still see everything in a presentation. Images looked flawless and clear, and the antiglare coating passed our simulated-sunlight test with flying colors.

The PlasmaSync 42MP4 wasn't the only product capable of producing images with amazing texture and clarity.

New color leader

Lexmark International Inc.'s C750n networked color laser printer unseated Tektronix Inc. models as 2002's best.

The C750n took only 18 seconds to print the first page of a complex document, thanks to a 350-MHz processor and 128M of RAM. A 30-page text document emerged in one minute, 48 seconds. Another 30-page document with colorful images, photographs and charts took five minutes, 25 seconds.

Lexmark sent its full contingent of trays for a whopping 3,900-sheet capacity. Even without extras, the C750n had a respectable 600-sheet capacity.

Toner lasted about 60,000 pages, adequate for midsized offices. And each ink color could be replaced separately as it became depleted.

Perhaps the best spec was the C570n's affordable price: $2,399. Such features and prices should become more common by mid-2003, which is testimony to the C750n's position ahead of the curve in the color laser market.

The Aironet 350 Access Point and PC Card from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., blew by the competition in the lab's most recent wireless LAN roundup.

Averaging 100M data transfers in six minutes, five seconds within a 120-foot radius, the Cisco setup surprised us by being not just speedy but secure.

It could join forces with a Remote Authentication Dial-in User Service server and had other desirable security features such as password-protected access.

Though small, it cost $1,299, plus $199 per PC Card for users. In 2003, we expect vendors to produce more wireless access points that are powerful, secure and user-friendly.

Next year we are hoping for better tools that diagnose and secure networks from the inside out. We also expect to see smaller, faster computers with more wireless capability. And we look forward to new fusions of existing technologies.


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