The few, the proud, the best

The GCN Lab picks the best half-dozen products from among the hundreds reviewed in 2008, and selects one as the Best Products of 2008

IT’S BEEN QUITE a year for government information technology products. In 2008, we saw advancements in everything from servers to Global Positioning System devices to whiteboards.

Although the GCN Lab reviewed hundreds of products in print and online, less than 30 received Reviewer’s Choice designations. Of that elite cadre, a few stood out above the rest. The following are six products — plus one — we think really advanced their technology categories or went way beyond the call of duty and are worthy of serious consideration for implementation at your agency.

In addition to the top six, we reveal the overall top product for 2008, which is truly the best of the best for the year.

GCN Lab Best Product of 2008: Supermicro SuperServer SYS-6015W-NTRB

WE REVIEWED THIS product as a Web server but, truth be told, it could perform any server function quite admirably. Its 1U rackmount chassis would allow any network administrator to find room for it.

The SuperServer made use of its limited space better than any 1U server we have seen. With four 3.5-inch drive bays in the front and three fully accessible PCIe slots in the back, it almost seems as if Supermicro has mastered interdimensional space to get everything in.

The drive bays and expansion card slots highlight another of the SuperServer’s strong suits — upgradeability. There also is room for a good amount of new memory modules before the existing ones would need to be replaced. All these factors mean that the SuperServer could last you quite along time.

A computer is arguably only as good as its performance, and even in this department, the SuperServer did not disappoint. It did very well in benchmark and file transfer tests.

And it is definitely the best we’ve tested for Web page download times.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we arrive at the price. Supermicro quoted us a price of $2,973, which was $1,000 less than its nearest competitor. Usually at that price, you have to give up something, but with the SuperServer you don’t.

We rated the Supermicro SuperServer SYS-6015W-NTRB the overall best product of the year because of its power, upgradeability and especially price. It would be a good choice for any network administrator who needs a Web server or, in fact, any kind of server. It is the best product we reviewed in 2008.

Supermicro, 408-503-8000,

6. Smart Technologies SB680 Front Projection SmartBoard

WHEN YOU’RE MAKING A presentation to a group, whether it’s a classroom full of restless teenagers or a group of soldiers preparing for battle, the last thing you want is any sort of whiteboard malfunction.

That’s one reason we ranked Smart Technologies SB680 interactive whiteboard at No. 6 on our Best of 2008 list.

The SB680 is sturdy and easy to use.

The SmartBoard and its pen tray use infrared sensors and analog resistive technology to detect the pen’s position on the board.

The SmartBoard’s pens, or styli, are inkless, and get their cues from Smart’s Notebook software and the infrared sensors embedded in the pen tray and board.

There’s nothing special about the styli. With other whiteboards, the styli have wireless capabilities; if you lose them, the whiteboard won’t fully work. Not so with the SB680. Replacing all four Smart styli costs about $13, but in a pinch, you could use dry-erase markers such as Expo markers.

You can even use your finger instead of a pen, by clicking on the on-screen palette of pen colors and tools that comes with the Notebook software.

And did we say the SB680 was sturdy? A SmartBoard actually took a bullet in Iraq and is still operating.

You never want to fumble with the whiteboard in front of your audience, and for $1,999, the SB680 offers everything you need to give a confident presentation.

Smart Technologies, 703-516-7627,

5. Polyscribe Control Content Environment

SOMETIMES THE BEST technologies use existing structures in a way that nobody else had thought of. This is the case with the Polyscribe Control Content Environment.

CCE makes e-mail almost completely secure, a great feat given how the medium is almost completely unsecure by nature.

How does it work? All data for a protected e-mail resides on servers at Cambridge Systems, the company that built the technology. As such, it’s not suitable for topsecret data, which can’t be outside an agency’s direct control. However, there are thousands of sensitive e-mail messages sent every day — such as human resources data or internal memos — for which using CCE would be appropriate, protecting the data more than any internal system probably could.

CCE-based e-mail is viewed through a link, so the person who posted the e-mail message can easily track who and how many people have viewed the file. It can also be designed to display only once for each user or to display a watermark that will mark the document no matter where it resides.

An actual e-mail message is sent to the chosen recipient, but it’s basically just a note explaining how the CCE system works with a link to the e-mail itself. In addition, the data can be encrypted using the Advanced Encryption Standard, which would require a password for viewing.

At $80 for a year of service or to send 100M of data through the CCE system, it can be just what the doctor ordered for sensitive e-mail messages that need extra protection.

Cambridge Systems, 703-435-5110,

4. Trimble Nomad 800LE

THE TRIMBLE NOMAD 800LE handheld computer can do almost anything: monitor longitude, latitude and wind speed; take pictures and video; scan bar codes; link wirelessly to the Internet; play your favorite songs; send e-mail messages; read your handwriting; and make a mean spaghetti carbonara.

OK, we made up that last one, but it wouldn’t surprise us if the Nomad 800LE could also cook. Its versatility is why we ranked the Nomad at No. 4 on our Best of 2008 list.

And it’s a tough device, meeting the Mil-Std 810F standard for drops, vibration and temperature extremes. We put the Nomad through the rigorous GCN Lab tests for heat, humidity and drops, and it passed them all brilliantly.

The bright yellow Nomad weighs about 21 ounces, including a rechargeable battery, so it didn’t weigh us down. It was a little bigger and heavier than the average BlackBerry personal digital assistant, but the Nomad could do plenty of things a BlackBerry can’t. The lithium ion battery lasted just fine throughout the week we spent testing the Nomad.

At $2,499, the Nomad is a bargain if you consider what it would cost to buy a separate Global Positioning System, PDA, MP3 player, tablet PC, digital camera and scanner.

Trimble, 541-750-9200,

3. Belkin N1 Vision Wireless Router

AS THE WORLD WAITS for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to finalize the n amendment to the 802.11 standards for wireless networks, the information technology world can’t afford to sit still.

The latest reports say finalization will occur in November 2009, but network administrators need secure, high-speed wireless access for their users now.

Fortunately, companies such as Belkin are stepping up to the plate.

The Belkin N1 Vision is a draft n wireless router that can easily be set to function as an access point. In addition there are four gigabit local-area network ports so it can function as both a wired and wireless router.

We really like the sleek, science-fiction look of the N1, which includes a large liquid crystal display that can show at a glance the device’s status.

Various displays can be selected, from a network status screen that shows how many users are connected to an upload/download bandwidth gauge.

The N1’s security was top notch, with up to 128-bit encryption and all of the nowstandard authentication formats.

The device is also able to deliver some of the fastest transfer rates in the market, even through our rather tough indoor/outdoor course.

Belkin sells the N1 Vision for $150, which is an even greater bargain than when we reviewed it.

Although this router may have a science fiction look, and the n amendment finalization is still far off, the N1 can make your fast, secure, long-range wireless network dreams a reality.

Belkin, 800-223-5546,

2. Olympus Stylus 1030 SW

BACK WHEN THE exclusive world of rugged computers started to expand into fresh areas, cameras were the first products to make the jump. But the early models tested in the lab were heavy bricks that could still be broken if subjected to the stresses of the Mil-Std 810F requirements.

Olympus has washed away those old models with the Stylus 1030 SW, a camera that not only looks just like the consumer equivalent, but exceeds 810f standards. Plus, it can work underwater.

Even reviewed as a typical digital camera, the $399 Stylus 1030 SW is impressive. It’s a 10.1-megapixel model that could rival film cameras in terms of quality. And if you like to frame your shots using the LCD screen, the Stylus 1030 SW comes with a 2.7-inch LCD that uses a new hypercrystal technology that makes images on the screen look like your photos will.

Along with passing the shock portion of the military tests, the camera withstood water pressure down to 33 feet. We snapped pictures underwater and left the camera there for 24 hours. Afterward, it was fine. Above or below the water, it’s our No. 2 choice for best new product of 2008.

Olympus America, 978-468-8944,

1. Oki Data C5550n MFP

OKI DATA HAD a lot of competition when it came into the lab for our annual multifunction printer roundup. We tested every component it had, including the fax, scanner, and color printer, against not only our rigorous standards but also against competitors.

Many MFPs specialized in one area, such as print speeds or color quality, but the C5550n did very well in all areas.

It was beaten in specific areas by more specialized MFPs but finished second or third in every category. It’s just about exactly what you want in an MFP: a wellrounded device that can handle anything you throw at it.

The C5550n had no flaws and quite a few ease-of-use features, such as preset buttons that let you print documents on different sizes of paper. One button converts legal documents to letter size and another goes in the other direction, expanding letter- size documents fit on legal paper. And almost all commands are executed with a single button. The C5550n also was relatively fast, printing our 30-page text document in 1 minute, 24 seconds and the 30-page color one in 2 minutes, 17 seconds with good accuracy.

The $1,499 price tag put it over the top as the No. 1 new product in 2008.

It may not be as flashy as some other technologies, but in government, almost nothing gets done without ink hitting paper. And the C5550n is ready to serve.

Oki Data Americas, 800-654-3282,

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