Up Front: How the 100 Best Products Got That Way

World Class honcho Stafford with a few of our 100 winners.
Photograph: Rick Rizner
In 1983, PC World's founders had a brainstorm: Why not create an honor roll of terrific products in an array of categories? Their inaugural "World Class PC Contest" celebrated 14 very old-school items. (Hey, back in those days a monochrome dot-matrix printer could be the essence of cool.)

Fast-forward to 2006. The competition we now call the World Class Awards remains a popular yearly extravaganza, and not just in its traditional dead-tree form: 2005's version was by far the best-read story in the history of our Web site.

This year's edition--"The 100 Best Products of the Year"*--starts here. Once again, the festivities span both print and online. Click here to see an expanded version offering extras such as video clips and, on June 6, a live chat session with Senior Writer Alan Stafford, who edited the feature and spearheaded the weeks of meetings, ballots, and impromptu hallway dialogues that determined our winners.

Perusing this year's roster, I'm struck by its sheer diversity. "The products we cover extend far beyond the PC, because technology today means so much more than simply sitting at a desk hammering away at a spreadsheet," Alan explains. "Traditional computing products are still important, of course, but our winners also reflect the smart technology that can now be found in everything from Web services to consumer electronics."

Does ranking such far-flung items from 1 to 100 seem quixotic? There was plenty of method to our madness: PCW editors painstakingly rated every contender on multiple measures. As always, the ultimate benchmark was whether a product or service did something worth doing, and did it well--a question that was equally applicable whether what we were judging was a laptop, a security suite, a music service, or an HDTV set.

But this year, we formally took each nominee's impact into consideration as well as its excellence. Those that were influential and widely adopted scored points here, including 2006's Product of the Year, Intel's Core Duo processor platform, which showed up both in powerful new Windows notebooks and in the first Macs that can dual-boot into Windows.

We took pains, however, to ensure that the list didn't devolve into a parade of items you already know about. In fact, I'd never heard of some of the products until a colleague made an impassioned case for them. (One example is JavaCool's EULAlyzer Personal, which gives cryptic, interminable software end-user agreements the once-over so you don't have to.)

Another methodology tweak for 2006: For the first time, we told editors to rate contenders for the list regardless of price tag. "That helped some products, like Yamaha's RX-V4600 receiver, which sells for $1200," says Alan. We had a hunch, though, that this approach wouldn't result in big-ticket luxuries pushing out useful bargains, and it didn't. In fact, more than a quarter of the winners are free applications and services--the latest evidence that we technology users are truly living in a golden age of freebies.

If these awards are anything like last year's, they'll be read, reread, debated, and dissected until it's time for us to do our World Class thing all over again. And that's part of the fun. Let the conversation begin: Write me at mageditor@pcworld.com with your take on our picks, and I'll report back at my Techlog blog.

* Wondering why "The Best Products of the Year" appear in our July issue?

Glad you asked. For eons, we doled out trophies during the midyear PC Expo show. The show died, but the awards still flourish. Call them "The Best Products at This Particular Moment," if you prefer...
Harry McCracken is the editor in chief of PC World.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon