Best of 2004
Product of the Year
When you want top performance, the Athlon 64 FX line delivers. But these CPUs aren't important just because of the speed they give you today. The FX is the first desktop PC processor that will let you upgrade to 64-bit operating systems and applications as they appear in the next few years.
What will a 64-bit future mean to you? Smoother, faster video encoding, speedy rendering in complex programs such as AutoCAD, and movie-quality games.
The FX chip's other technical innovations include integrated memory controllers, larger caches, and a feature to help stop malicious worms.
Don't want to pay a premium for the FX? Then get the less powerful but more affordable Athlon 64 CPU.
Hall of Fame
IBM ThinkPad series
In the competitive PC industry, few products stay at the top for a year, let alone for over a decade. IBM's ThinkPad line earns our first Hall of Fame award because it has embodied World Class qualities--innovative design, excellent reliability, powerful features--since 1992. The first in the series, the ThinkPad 700, had revolutionary features such as a 10.4-inch screen and a red pointing device that became a signature element. Fast-forward 12 years to the current ThinkPad X40, crowned this year's best ultraportable notebook. It bears the same black case (though pleasantly slimmer), solid construction, and comfortable keyboard, and it has an improved eraserhead. Big Blue also backs its notebooks with stellar service. No wonder ThinkPads have been going strong--and winning World Class awards--since day one.
Loser of the Year
A wristwatch that does wireless news, instant messaging, and reminders? We're not saying it's a bad idea. But the first watches based on Microsoft's SPOT technology--from Fossil (including a Dick Tracy model, at left) and Suunto--turned out to be as underwhelming as they were overhyped. Their interfaces are illogical. Their batteries last only a few days. If you venture far from home, you need to alert the MSN Direct service to continue to get relevant information. And Microsoft's ad blitz touted features that weren't available at first. Call these timepieces miracles of miniaturization: Rarely have so many hassles been packed into devices this small.
Software Newcomer of the Year
Apple makes Windows apps about as often as Microsoft ships bug-free products, and if ITunes for Windows (free) is any indication, that's a crying shame. The ITunes media player works on PCs the same way it does on Macs, right down to the handy feature that lets you share your music library with other PC or Mac ITunes users on your network. It looks great, it's easy to use, and it has a surprising number of useful features, like the abilities to generate rules-based Smart Playlists and to trim individual tracks.
Meanwhile, Apple's complementary ITunes Music Store (99 cents per track, album prices vary) started the party last year on subscription-free digital tunes, pioneering the 99-cents-per-track model that most online music stores now use. With easy navigation, an impressive exclusive track selection, and such innovative offerings as audiobooks and radio show archives, ITunes Music Store is going strong. Competitors like RealPlayer Music Store made this a tough choice, but it's hard to beat a store that's built into the best media player software around. We do have one major complaint: ITunes tracks are incompatible with digital audio players other than Apple's own IPod. How selfish!
Hardware Newcomer of the Year
Not too big for a cell phone and not too small for a handheld, PalmOne's breakthrough Treo 600 ($450 to $699, depending on carrier and plan) has raised the bar for Palm/cell phone hybrids. We especially like the ease of single-handed phone use, the built-in VGA camera, and the small but usable domed keyboard that in many cases is smart enough to know when it's being used as a numeric keypad. Says IDC's Kevin Burden: "Everyone who has [a Treo 600] loves it. It's that rare product that has found a good balance between delivering the functionality that comes with a PDA with a design that is as close as it can be to a mobile phone."