SLIDESHOW

The 10 Most Overrated Products

Hype springs eternal. Lots of technologies, products, and services don't merit the praise heaped on them. Here are 10 tech items that don't live up to their billing--and 10 that deserve respect that they don't receive.

Overrated: Touch Interface; Underrated: A Good Keyboard

Apple's touch-screen in­­terface makes navigation easy, but who wants to type even a haiku on that screen? Instead of endlessly stabbing at a soft keypad, give the Sidekick 2008 a try. T-Mobile's QWERTY keyboard remains the best one we've seen on any cell phone--spacious and easily stowable. If only more smart-phone makers would follow and im­­prove on Danger's de­­sign. I wish Danger's updated Sidekick had a deeper OS and less emphasis on the teen scene.

Overrated: Nintendo Wii ; Underrated: Sony PlayStation Portable

More than two years after their debut, Wiis are still tough to find in stores. In that time, Nintendo has re­­leased just enough great games (and non­games like Wii Fit) to tease gamers. Nintendo continues to develop new peripherals like the WiiSpeak speakerphone attachment (coming this fall), but the company says that only a handful of marquee titles will appear by the end of 2008.

In contrast, Sony's PlayStation Portable continues to gain unique titles and cool features--if you have a Wi-Fi connection (having a PlayStation 3 doesn't hurt either). Now in its second generation, the PSP offers Skype, Internet radio, the ability to up­­load movies from a PS3 directly to your handheld, and downloadable translation travel packs. Plus, you can play games remotely and view content stored on your PlayStation 3 over a Wi-Fi network.

Overrated: Mini Notebooks; Underrated: Ultraportable Laptops

A serviceable, compact notebook for around $500? It sounds tempting if you're on a tight budget and have modest processing needs. Mini-notebooks are small and easy to love. But try doing anything fancier than sending e-mail or composing a document, and you'll long to upgrade to an Etch A Sketch. Intel's Atom CPU gives very small devices de­­cent power—but hundreds of bucks to do a handful of tasks adequately? Mmph.

Meanwhile, full-blooded laptops that can easily outperform a mini-notebook are getting more affordable every day. For ex­­ample, Lenovo's X61, a 12.1-inch, 3.6-pound ultraportable, sells for about $1000. It offers more flexibility and will resist obsolescence better than any current or near-future mini-notebook will.

Overrated: iTunes Downloads; Underrated: Slacker and Pandora

After ripping through your stack of old CDs, you're grabbing songs from the iTunes Store. In other words, you are paying for the privilege of buying music that's locked down in DRM hell.

We'd rather start from scratch with a music streaming service like Pandora or Slacker. Enter the name of a band you like, and the site compiles sets of tunes you'll probably enjoy as well--many of them by artists you may not know. Both of these music streamers offer free flavors of the service. Love a song? Buy it on­­line. Slacker also has a premium service with a $10 monthly fee that gives you more control of the music you get. And you can upload your play­lists to the second-generation Slacker player.

Overrated: Facebook; Underrated: Multiply

Everyone seems to be on Facebook at this point. But to what end? Countless free applications of dubious value, plus scores of plug-ins and games that draw you deeper into the Facebook rabbit hole until you're spending hours a day befriending complete strangers with whom you have nothing in common be­­yond a shared love of Raisin Bran.

Ready for a little quality control? Try Multiply.com, a social networking site that's less a landing page (à la Facebook) than a series of feeds. Share various as­­pects of yourself with people in different spheres of your life: Have a drinking-buddy list for happy-hour up­­dates and a family group for Aunt Helen sightings.

Overrated: Apple iPod Touch; Underrated: Microsoft Zune

The iPod has established it­­self as the Kleenex of the MP3 category, but other players offer stronger features to the discerning few. Most annoyingly, Apple charges a premium for less. News flash: A built-in accelerometer on the latest models lets you shake your iPod like a maraca to change tunes. Yay!

As a Microsoft product, the Zune is bound to earn insta-hate in some quarters. But it lets you sync your device wirelessly--no cradles or cables needed. Though the iPod Touch has Wi-Fi too, we want more than Web browsing from our wireless connection. A recent Zune update allows users to tag music heard on the built-in FM tuner and order it when they next hook up on Wi-Fi. The Zune also lets you stream music to other Zune owners—if you can find 'em.

Overrated: Google Apps; Underrated: OpenOffice 3.0

Google's productivity Web apps are great for teams working online that want to share calendars and documents. But Google Apps is online only and ulti­mately is just a couple of applications. What we need is a full-fledged productivity suite that's completely compatible with Microsoft Office files, can work across multiple OSs, and is free. Oh, wait--that suite already exists.

If you haven't taken the time to check out OpenOffice in the past, you owe it to yourself to do so now. You'll find the latest beta, OO 3.0, at OpenOffice.org.

Overrated: Adobe Photoshop CS4 ; Underrated: Paint.Net

Photoshop has been the gold-standard im­­age editor for ages. It is continually upgraded with new features, and it remains one of the few image editors that supports four-color (CMYK) mode--essential for print work. But people who work online in three colors (RGB) don't need CMYK mode. All image editors--including Photoshop Elements, which costs a small fraction of what Photoshop CS3 costs--can handle RGB.

But why pay at all? Paint.Net, a favorite at PC World, is free. This small, unassuming program performs many basic image editing tasks, works quickly, and mimics the tools and functions that are found in other image editors (so it should be easy to learn).

Overrated: Windows XP; Underrated: Windows Vista

"Save Windows XP!" is the rallying cry of Windows users dismayed by the needless bloat of Vista. But didn't everyone have the same critique of Windows XP when it first galumphed into public view like an unsteady rubber monster?

What did Vista get right? For starters, though the User Account Control feature is like an annoying little sister who constantly pokes you, it makes Vista more secure than XP. Vista also trounces XP in handling mobile de­­vices, networking, multimedia files, and photos. On top of that, it has a cleaner, more navigable interface--one eerily reminiscent of a certain Mac operating system.

Overrated: Streaming Video; Underrated: Blu-ray Disc

Streaming video gets all the buzz: Netflix via Roku or Vudu! Hulu, YouTube, and the Beijing Olympics via PC!

But we haven't seen streaming video im­­ages as impressive as those on Blu-ray Disc (and Blu-ray audio rocks, too). The detail, clarity, and depth of Blu-ray trump the lower-bit-rate product that streaming video offers every time. That's not to say that streaming isn't convenient: You just click and go, with no packaging to fuss with and no disc to load. But with Blu-ray (the successor to the DVD), you don't have to worry about broadband-network data caps or hiccups in the service.