Reviewers Choice


The great 8 products of 2009

The Lab picks the best from among hundreds of IT products reviewed this year

We’ve seen many new things in 2009 — a new president and a new Windows operating system, to name just two.

In 2009, the GCN Lab tested hundreds of new products for reviews that appeared in print and online. Of all the products we tested, eight stood out as the crème de la crème, the performers we thought would be sound investments for any government agency. We bestow on each of them our Best Products of 2009 Award. And they earned their stripes the hard way: by besting every other product in their class and rising to the top of the overall pile via hardcore testing.

These are eight products that can help a government agency face the challenges of the second decade of this new millennium. Winter will soon be upon us, and these products offer the hope of a smoothly humming, more cost-effective government in the new year.

Click "next" to read our in-depth reviews of the Best Products of 2009.

Panasonic Toughbook 30: A real tank of a laptop PC

The GCN Lab’s annualrugged roundup is a tough road, literally, for most computers. We stick to the Mil-Std 810G regulations for our testing and do everything: shock, heat, humidity, cold, salt fog, vibration and even underwater testing — depending on what a unit is designed to withstand. Although products that go through formal military testing submit five units to try to complete the test, we often only have one for a review, so our testing is even more intense. Many computers have died along the way over the years.

But that never seems to be a problem for the Panasonic Toughbook, especially the company’s newest workhorse, the Toughbook 30. This unit is built like a tank. It’s a little heavy and somewhat unwieldy, but if you need a laptop that will survive where others fear to tread, this is the choice. It was the only laptop in our roundup review this year that came through all the mil-spec testing without so much as a scratch anywhere on its solid metal frame.

We dropped it onto all of its surfaces and corners from a height of 36 inches. It landed on unforgiving plywood sitting over rock-solid concrete. In the end, only the plywood was destroyed. The Toughbook sat in our GCN Rainforest environment, with temperatures as hot as 120 degrees and humidity close to 100 percent, and it continued to burn through programs without pause. It never even shivered when transferred into a nearly freezing environment for an overnight stay.

In summary, the Toughbook 30 is indeed kind of like a tank: It’s not exactly user-friendly, but it will survive where almost any other type of vehicle would fail. In fact, given prolonged exposure to the types of testing we put the Toughbook 30 through, it’s a safe bet that it could survive better than most human users. It earned our highest marks in the roundup review this year and fought its way onto the Best of 2009 product list, too. The Toughbook 30 is a veteran that earns our respect, and it will earn yours, too, on just about any mission you can throw at it.

Panasonic Computer Solutions Company, 888-223-1012,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

HP Z400 Workstation: A high-end powerhouse, at the right price

For high-end users, a workstation computer could be the only thing that has the power necessary to perform tasks such as working with geographic information systems or computer-aided design. But the price of a typical workstation might be too high for a network administrator to distribute to most users.

Fortunately, there is the HP Z400 Workstation. The Z400 is powerful enough to handle almost any resource-intensive job with performance to spare and is reasonably priced.

The Nvidia Quadro FX580 3-D graphics accelerator and 2.66 GHz Intel Xeon W3520 quad-core processor helped the Z400 plow through our performance tests with ease. There also was plenty of room for upgrades, with a variety of expansion slots, a few drive bays, several Serial Advanced Technology Attachment ports, and eight USB ports, all open and available for additional features. And because going green is a big concern right now, HP responded by giving the Z400 a power supply that runs at 85 percent efficiency. Also, the HP WattSaver software does a good job of regulating software usage, even when the unit is turned off.

We liked the way everything was configured inside the Z400’s case. The cable management and component layout made it easy to access practically every component without the use of tools. With a retail price of $1,638, the Z400 is a good bargain, considering all you get. Government pricing also is available, making for an even better deal.

Overall, we were impressed by the HP Z400’s power and flexibility. Its pricing and energy efficiency make sure that this workstation will save money in the short and long term.

Hewlett-Packard, 800-888-0261,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

Belkin N+ Wireless Router: The class of draft-N routers

After half a decade, the N amendment to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 wireless standard was finally published this October. In the meantime, brave manufacturers have been putting out draft-N access points and routers for the past two years or so. These products tried to follow the most current draft of the aforementioned amendment, and thank goodness they did because, from the beginning, these devices performed significantly better than their G predecessors.

This year saw a distinct improvement in increased bandwidth and security features and a huge increase in implementation at many organizational levels. We looked at a lot of draft-N access points, and one stood out from the bunch as the best overall: the Belkin N+ Wireless Router.

First, the N+ has access point and router modes. That can be useful to a network administrator who needs to provide wireless access but is not ready to replace the existing router.

In our real-world file transfer tests, the Belkin N+ had the highest transfer speeds at shorter distances and held its own at the more extreme ones. Because most wireless setups would have users within 80 feet of the access point, this makes the N+ ideal for most implementations.

We also liked the fact that, in addition to its Gigabit Ethernet ports, the Belkin N+ also has a USB 2.0 port. This would allow users to access a storage device through the wireless network, and that was a unique feature in our review.

The retail price of $120 was the least expensive among those devices that had gigabit network ports. Overall, the Belkin N+ is a good workgroup-level wireless router/access point and is the best example of draft-N technology.

Belkin International, 800-223-5546,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

eSoft InstaGate 604: Take the pain out of managing network security appliances

Changing network security appliances can be a bear of a task, especially if the device is in-line, meaning it sits directly between the router and the rest of the network. Having to change several appliances is even harder.

Many manufacturers have combined the purpose and function of their appliances, which can certainly lower the cost of purchasing them but can further complicate the installation process. It means that either all of the replaced devices need to be uninstalled at once or the new one will only perform a few of its functions.

TheInstaGatefrom eSoft addresses that problem, offering the best of both worlds. The company has taken a modular approach to network security appliances, allowing a network administrator to buy only the functionality that is needed, adding more later as necessary.

We liked how easy the InstaGate was to set up, installing almost as quickly as its name implies. It automatically retrieved an IP address, which would allow an administrator to access it from any network computer through the Web-based interface.

The basic functionality of the InstaGate includes a firewall, traffic monitor and virtual private network server. It performs each of those functions well, and we were particularly impressed by ThreatMonitor, an at-a-glance network activity-monitoring application.

But the true beauty of the InstGate is its ability to add functionality without needing to make a hardware change. SoftPaks can be purchased from eSoft and installed with one click of a button. What started as a basic firewall/traffic monitor can become a Web content filter, spam filter or e-mail server, all without a change of hardware.

The $2,999 retail ($2,699 government) price for the basic unit is a good one for a stand-alone enterprise-level firewall, let alone one that also has the InstaGate’s features. And the SoftPaks can be purchased in one-year or three-year contracts, which are much cheaper than an additional appliance would be.

In an environment in which budgets are tight and rack space is at a premium, the modular nature of eSoft’s InstaGate should fit the bill quite nicely.

eSoft, 888-903-7638,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

Lexmark X 782e: An MFP that does it all – and does it fast

It seems as though we reviewed more printers than any other product type this year, with two full roundups dedicated to them — one for standard printers and one for multifunction printers — plus a half-dozen stand-alone reviews. Of that entire pack, theLexmark X 782e stood out.

With print times of 1 minute, 1 second for both our 30-page color and black-and-white test documents, the X 782e was easily one of the fastest units we looked at all year. No dust will form on its print engine, and no lines will form waiting for copies of the federal budget to spit out. The 800 MHz processor and 768M of memory help push the pages.

It’s also packed with features you would expect to find on a high-end multifunction printer. It has a rated 150,000-page monthly duty cycle. And the printer comes with enough paper trays to hold 1,600 sheets of paper, which will make your poor printer admin very happy.

Beyond just the speed, it also was one of the easiest to use. There is a large LCD screen that not only tells you exactly what the printer is doing, as in “printing page 15 of 35 of printertest.doc,” but also makes using the system pretty simple. The touch screen lets you fax, print or scan. It takes the intimidating-looking unit — one of the largest that we looked at this year — and makes it very friendly.

The one negative could be the price, which is about $4,500, depending on its configuration. But you should soon make that up with its large duty cycle, blazing fast speed and ease of use. All those factors are why the X 782e got a good value score despite the price tag. It earned the top spot for printers — really multifunction printers — and a spot in our Best Products of 2009 hall of fame.

Lexmark International, 800-539-6275,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

ViewSonic VG2427wm: The high-bar for large LCD monitors

This was the year LCD monitors stepped up their game across the board. In the past, there was a huge difference in quality between a 21-inch display and anything larger. But companies seemed to get over those technical problems to begin delivering true colors, accurate lines and stellar graphics in large formats.

All of that makes theViewSonic VG2427wm’s victory in ourLCD roundup even more impressive. It was the cream of an impressive crop.

The VG2427wm is a 24-inch widescreen LCD with a reasonable $499 suggested retail price. Despite the huge display, it has one of the smallest footprints around, with a tiny circular base that acts like a Lazy Susan to turn the monitor in any direction. It also pivots and tilts vertically.

Forget about any negative experiences you might have had with large LCDs in the past. The VG2427wm starts with one of the most accurate blacks we have ever measured. There is almost no backlight pollution messing with the darkness. Given that black is the state from which an LCD builds all colors, it should be no surprise that colors are very precise on the VG2427wm. In fact, it was the most accurate display for color accuracy of any size or type we reviewed in 2009, with near perfect Pantone color matching.

The backlight is also very uniform, with less than a 20-lumen drop between any corner and the middle of the display. It takes at least 100 lumens for the naked eye to notice even an eyelash of difference, so the 20 lumen difference is about as close to perfect as you can get, especially with a large display. We would expect results like that with a specialized high-end LCD for medical or military work but not with a $499 panel designed for anyone.

There were even a couple of additional surprises, such as two stereo speakers that are completely hidden inside the thin bezel. The speakers make use of the SRS WOW HD technology found in TVs, and they sound better than most external speaker setups but don’t add to desktop clutter.

The VG2427wm will be a difficult display to beat next year. Kudos to ViewSonic for setting the bar so high in 2009 and providing a real visual treat in a large size.

ViewSonic, 888-881-8781,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

Kanguru e-Flash flash drive: A faster-than-fast multitasking gadget

The GCN Lab tested a lot of cool gadgety devices this year, from an iPod app forlearning Arabic to an e-mail organization tool.

But the one that really wowed us in terms of performance was theKanguru e-Flash flash drive. The Lab is usually not at a loss for words, but for this one, we ran out of synonyms for “fast.”

How fast was it?

It was faster than a baguette-toting bird could shut down the Large Hadron Collider. It was faster than Susan Boyle’s singing could melt the hearts of millions. It was faster than Bernie Madoff could clean out a retiree’s life savings.

It transferred a full gigabyte of data in 13.3 seconds, so fast we almost missed it. Not only was it fast, but it was a multitasker, always a plus in the do-more-with-less world of 2009. One end of the e-Flash connects to your computer via an eSATA connection, the other end connects through a USB 2.0 connection. To test the eSATA side, we had to crack open our test PC, but it was worth it. This is the side that registered the gigabyte-per-13.3-seconds transfer. The same data transfer on the USB side was a little slower, clocking in at 31 seconds for a gigabyte. But that was still mighty fast.

All this power and speed is packed into a drive the size of a cigarette lighter, a fitting analogy for something that is so smokin’.

The year 2009 will be remembered as a time when whining became an art form. Everybody was so down about the economy, layoffs, swine flu and reality TV. But if we stop whining for a few minutes, we realize we’re living in truly amazing times, when you can pack 32G of data into something the size of a pack of gum for $119.95.

Kanguru Solutions, 888-526-4878,

Click "next" to read another review of the Best Products of 2009.

System Mechanic 8.5: A serious tune-up tool for your PC

Computers can be tricky. Even a shiny new system can quickly become a slow-moving, slow-booting paperweight if not maintained. And maintaining a computer is not as easy as changing your oil or pumping up your tires. Computers have a lot of things working against them, from sloppy programming to fragmented registries and the exploits of hackers. Thankfully, System Mechanic 8.5 can give users peace of mind along with powerful tools.

The beauty of System Mechanic 8.5 is that it works on many different levels. Users can simply push a single button to fix most of their computer’s ailments. But if you want, it also lets you get under the hood and make some pretty powerful changes and configurations. Just be sure you know what you are doing before you delve into the advanced options.

For just $40, it’s pretty amazing what System Mechanic will do for you. When installed on a modestly maintained computer, it found 196 registry problems and discovered that the registry itself was 37 percent fragmented. That means slower boot times, possible program hang-ups and generally slower-than-optimal performance. Problems also included 69 invalid .dll files and 122 invalid folders. It’s kind of like looking at your skin under a microscope and realizing how much junk is living there. Only here, that junk can really slow you down.

We let System Mechanic do its thing, and within half an hour, our system was humming along like new again. It even scored 20 points higher when we reran the PassMark Performance Test benchmark after the fixes. That’s a noticeable and measurable change.

Nothing will make an aging system compete with a brand new screamer, but System Mechanic 8.5 can help your older hardware perform as well as technically possible, which in most cases is enough for the task at hand. And that might save you a lot of money by avoiding costly new computer buys. For that alone, System Mechanic 8.5 could be the hero of the current economy. It easily earns the final coveted spot on our Best Products of 2009 list.

Iolo Technologies,


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