Best Products of 2006: Chat Transcript

PC World: Welcome to the PC World live chat with Alan Stafford! Alan is PC World's senior writer, and he is the editor of "The 100 Best Products of the Year." He's here to answer all your questions about the featured products, how they were rated, and which are best for you.

PC World: Welcome, Alan!

Alan: Thanks for having me.

Saxena24: On what basis do you decide about good products? Is the only criterion how popular they were amongst people? Does technology matter in deciding this?
Alan: Well, we created several committees to examine hundreds of products. These committees nominated a slew of products. Editors rated the products and assigned them points. We rated them for specs, performance, design, and, this year, an impact rating. The top 100 products made the list. Products that were unique, did something new, or wowed us in some way got higher scores, and an easier time getting onto the list.

Nhthuong: What are the 100 best products of the year?
Alan: You can find the list here.

Koji: Alan, I'm a bit confused. If the subject and premise is "what were the best and worst," and what our "favorites were," aren't we talking (chatting) about 2005 products, not 2006? I'm still waiting to see what technologies and products will come to fruition in the second half of 2006!
Alan: We get that question/complaint often. The deal is, we've done these awards for more than two decades, and for much of that time, they coincided with the PC Expo trade show. The trade show is an ex-trade show, but we still do it for our July issue every year.

Carolyn: Since PC World accepts advertising from the reviewed products, how do you expect anyone to believe your Top 100? I'll stick with Consumer Reports.
Alan: Hey, I read Consumer Reports too; our library of magazines includes it. The head of editorial at Consumer Reports used to be the editor in chief of PC World. We do not have the resources to buy every product we review, but we do keep editorial and advertising separate. For example, we named America Online as the worst product of all time, and yet our business side bundled its CD with our latest issue. Left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing.

Wookymonster1: Are free products (downloaded software) safe?
Alan: Some free products are safe. How do you know which ones are and aren't? Just from experience, I know what to be suspicious of, just by looking at a Web page--if I see links to pornography, that's a big tip off that it's trouble, or if I see "click here to claim your free IPod." This article by my colleague Tom Spring covers some of the aspects of searching for free software. But the gist of it is, searching for "free screen savers" in a search engine will return links to 64 percent dangerous pages. So, what to do? One, do a search on the product's name in a search engine. Two, use EULAlyzer--a product in our World Class list--it will analyze the user agreement for any gotchas.

Bizonya: What photo printer produces the best picture using the least-expensive ink cartridges?
Alan: We picked the Canon Pixma IP6600D as our world-class printer. It's difficult and expensive to test ink costs; we did it last year, and Epson and Canon did pretty well. That may have changed by now, but that's the best information we have right now.

Mazofrank: What's the best general-use, low-cost video card (under $150)?
Alan: I'm going to upsell you on this one. Tom Mainelli, one of our graphics gurus here, was effusive about cards based on NVidia's GeForce 7600 GT chip set. The chip set is on our list of the 100 best products; the XFX GeForce 7600 GT XXX Edition tops our latest chart with it.

Rohith: Is AMD or Intel best?
Alan: Well, we chose Intel's Core Duo processor as our product of the year, and AMD's dual-core desktop CPU as No. 2. The Core Duo got the top spot because we think mobility is becoming more and more important these days. The AMD chip is phenomenal, but it's desktop-bound. The Core Duo does laptops--and it helps the latest Macs run Windows.

Jessup: How does ICQ rank now? I have had it for 10 years and hardly use it anymore.
Alan: ICQ on its own is kind of old news, but many people still use it. However, I (and many editors here) use Trillian. It's an instant-messaging client that works with several different IM technologies. I love it, in part because it's free. We did a chart of them a few months ago. Trillian isn't at the top of the list, mainly because that chart took features like videoconferencing and voice into account.

Jmickinley: What were the best and worst mobile services?
Alan: We picked many mobile products and services for this year's awards because we felt that it's an increasingly mobile world. As I said, the Core Duo got the top spot because it's primarily a mobile processor. The IBM ThinkPad X60s made the list because it's very small and light (and it uses the Core Duo CPU). We also recognized products that allow mobility: ThinkFree Office Online, for example, lets you work on Office-compatible documents within a browser, from any computer--and it's free! We also awarded some remote-access applications, for similar reasons. And EVDO wireless broadband also made the list.

Davidvermont: What is the best combination printer/fax/scanner for less than $500?
Alan: Our multifunction pick for the 100 Best list was the Canon MP500. In particular, it prints great photos.

Saurav2015: What is the best browser in the world?
Alan: In the whole wide world? Mozilla Firefox won product of the year in last year's Best Products list. This year, it ranked 12th (it's not the new phenomenon anymore, but it's still great). But Opera also made our list, at No. 48. My colleague Erik Larkin says it deserves more credit.

Massey: You say AOL is the No. 1 worst, but you don't offer anything better.
Alan: True, we weren't offering much constructive criticism. But choosing the top ISP isn't as easy as it once was. We were focusing primarily on AOL's past issues--problems with connecting, slow Internet service, the rain of CDs, and the difficulty in canceling your "free" service. Wait, I'm being all negative again. Anyway, we are working on an ISPs feature for an upcoming issue that will include a large survey of ISP users--broadband and dial-up. If you'd like to add your three cents, please do. The survey should be live on our site in a day or two.

DbMorris: What were some of the more interesting new trends you saw during your reviews?
Alan: Mobility, as I begin to sound like a broken record. And free stuff. It seems like we always have lots of free stuff on our Best Products list, but this list had a bunch of great stuff. Google Earth, EULAlyzer, Yahoo Mail. Wireless is also getting bigger and bigger.

Saltylady: Whatever happened to the mini-CD digital cameras? Sony put out the Mavica several years ago; I got one and love it. I have been looking online for an updated version but find nothing with that mini-CD format/storage.
Alan: Well, the problem was that mini-CDs didn't hold that many images--137MB, I believe. And flash-memory cards have become much, much bigger. Also, the mechanisms to write to the CDs made the cameras bulky. My advice--forget about the CDs! Or, buy a camcorder that burns to DVD on the fly.

RonaldZ: Do you have an opinion on the MacTel (Intel Core) computers that Apple has come out with? Do you see an easy transition from PC to Mac for folks with this new technology?
Alan: I've been holding out hope that Macs would run Windows since I first tried Rhapsody--a code name for one of the first versions of Mac OS X. Rumors then were that it would run Windows. Anyway, now that it's finally here, I think it makes Macs much more attractive. But I'd check our editor in chief's Techlog--he wrote about a Boot Camp alternative yesterday.

Ryan: Hi, Alan. The only GPS solution to make the top 100 is an accessory for the Palm Treo. I'm wondering what features the Garmins and TomToms of the world are lacking.
Alan: We did consider GPS units, and we tested them in a recent issue--May 2006, I believe. But we liked the price and the innovation of the Palm device.

RB: How do you find out about the repair record for the products you evaluate?
Alan: We do a humongous reliability and service story every year. Much of the data we publish comes from that. As a consumer, I consult that; I also look at user comments on various sites (especially Amazon.com), and I subscribe to Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports, by the way, has always had this problem, too.

Saltylady: By the time the review comes out it is hard to purchase the model reviewed; the store tries to sell you the newer model.
Alan: We are putting more and more product reviews up on our Web site first, as in, before they hit the magazine. We try to call them out to readers by labeling them as "First Looks."

PeterMcG: That makes sense. I've always thought PC World to be the most consumer-minded publication out there. Do you strive for that?
Alan: We have a very, very broad, diverse readership--we try to appeal to business users and to consumers. But yes, we always strive to address consumers' needs. My boss always asks me, when I pitch a story, "What's the take-away?"

Judyb: The downloads PC World recommends have been tested, right?
Alan: Yes. We have a small staff to hand-pick only the very best apps for your downloading enjoyment.

Carl: Do you think that Microsoft's OneCare is a good product?
Alan: I know very little--well, nothing--about that product, but my colleague Narasu Rebbapragada does. She wrote a large security feature in the same issue (July). OneCare ranked seventh on our chart.

PeterMcG: Were any of your worst products of all time ever listed as the best product of any given year? Maybe the Zip drive?
Alan: I'll never tell. Yes, the Zip was on our list of Greatest Gadgets; I think the Zip made the worst products list because of its Click of Death issue, and the company's poor dealing with the issue. Had that problem--and the bad PR--never happened, maybe it wouldn't have made our list. So why is it a Greatest Gadget? Well, it was still a great alternative to using 75 floppies. So, on the one hand, we give credit; on the other, we taketh it away.

Jason: Now that Apple's gone Intel, what can PC makers learn from Apple? What can Apple learn from PC makers?
Alan: I think Apple has always set the pace for design. But PC vendors haven't always paid attention. And even when they did, they did stupid things (like Acer's purple-and-forest-green PCs from the mid-'90s). Ugh. So, I see many, many companies trying to copy Apple (and occasionally getting sued for it). Good companies don't copy; they innovate. Some PC companies need to learn that. Apple learning from PC manufacturers? That sometimes design isn't more important than function (see the Puck Mouse and Twentieth Anniversary Mac entries on our Worst Products list).

Lanai: What products surprised you on this list?
Alan: Guitar Hero. That a video game--and one that only works with the PlayStation 2--would rank so high on the list is amazing. Bud McLeod, editor of our Web site, absolutely loves the thing, but many editors here were similarly bowled over.

PeterMcG: You have at least four PCs on your worst list and only one in your top 100 (the Alienware Aurora 7500). Are there no other PCs worthy of being on your list? Your magazine is called PC World! :)
Alan: Well, with a Best Products list, it's "What have you done for me lately?" Worst products stick in the memory for much longer. We do have a couple laptops on the list. But as for desktops, the Alienware is a unique product in a sea of generic, off-the-shelf PCs. It stands alone.

Elsie: Should I buy a computer with Windows XP now or wait for Windows Vista?
Alan: How much money do you have? I think, if your current computer works fine, then wait (of course). If you need one now--also obvious--buy now. If you're in the middle, like most of us, I would consult some of our recent articles on Vista--we have plenty. Oh, and the other consideration--the Vista delivery date doesn't seem very definite; you could end up waiting a while.

Shelby: Do you think there is a better MP3 player than the IPod out on the market today? If so, why and which one?
Alan: Not being one of the editors here who covers them, I can't give you first-hand knowledge. But hey, Best Products is a group effort. We also liked a Creative audio player, and an IRiver; you might consider them.

Alexa: Citrix's GoToMyPC 5 was No. 23 on the list. I like the idea of accessing my desktop from anywhere, but are there any security issues that I need to be aware of?
Alan: Most remote-access applications use secure https:// connections in a browser. IS departments (probably) hate them because they use a common port to get around firewall problems. I think the biggest issue is just going to be password security; I haven't heard of any problems with hacking or viruses that afflict these apps.

PC World: Alan, thank you for answering so many questions here, and in the "100 Best Products" issue! We're almost out of time, but do you have any final comments before we have to close?
Alan: I forgot to tell people to check out our list of the best (and one worst) companies of the year--it's linked on the first page of the Best Products article. And if you have further comments, leave them in our blog--also linked to on that page. Thanks!

PC World: Thank you for joining us! For more great products, please visit our Dads & Grads Gift Guide.

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