25 Products We Can't Live Without
It's a nice life. PC World staffers and contributors are continually deluged with the latest technology products, so as you can imagine, we set a high bar on the hardware, software, and Web sites that we choose to use ourselves. What are they? To answer that question, we compiled the following list of the top 25 products that we don't just like but that we absolutely, positively can't live without.
Because of my TiVo recorder, I could never go back to the regular way of watching TV. TiVo lets me skip all the commercials and watch a 1-hour show in 45 minutes. If I want to record all programs and movies with a particular actor, TiVo will do it automatically. I can keep up with series such as "Heroes," "24," or "Lost" and still be able to leave the house. And since I got my second TiVo, I don't even have to worry about two shows airing simultaneously. I have the units connected to TVs in different rooms and transfer shows between them. (Newer models have dual tuners so you can record two shows with just one machine.) I can also move recordings from a TiVo to my PC, where I can convert them for playback on portable devices. And TiVo can download video from the Internet so I can watch it on my TV. But the simplest features, such as pausing a show when you need to get up and do something, are the most important.
--Elliott Kirschling, Test Center analyst
Belkin N1 Vision
Sure, the Belkin N1 Vision is the fastest, most reliable wireless router I've ever used, with gigabit ethernet ports and three antennas juicing a draft-n Wi-Fi radio. The real fun comes when you start reading the LCD status screen on the front of the router. Dials, gauges, and graphs show you how fast your downloads are running, exactly what's connected to your network, and how much data each computer is sucking down. For geeks, it's a guilty pleasure akin to pushing a performance car past the redline--all without having to get up from your chair. For additional information, read our review, which found the N1 Vision less than perfect due to its lack of an 802.11n-only mode at the time.
--Christopher Null, contributor
The ability of Skype to make cheap and free calls over the Internet is a gift that keeps on giving, shaving thousands of dollars off my AT&T phone bills over the past five years. As a journalist covering international issues, I make phone calls to various countries almost every day to connect with sources for stories. Skype provides prices (and in some cases, voice quality) that conventional phones cannot. Though the service suffers from some stability and lag-time issues, the cost savings it offers makes it critical, especially in my line of work.
--Agam Shah, Digital Gear columnist
Microsoft FolderShare Beta
Though Microsoft acquired FolderShare in 2005, this Windows Live service is still listed as a beta. I use it to keep folders synced on multiple PCs. That sounds simple to do without help, but in my experience it really is not. Since I work at home about 60 percent of the time, I find myself constantly moving documents from my home PC to my work notebook and back. With FolderShare, I set up a designated folder on both computers where I want the documents automatically synced. As long as both machines have an Internet connection, synchronization is nearly instantaneous.
--Tom Mainelli, GeekTech columnist
Mark/Space's The Missing Sync
My laptop is an Apple MacBook; my cell phone is an HTC model (similar to AT&T's Tilt) that runs Windows Mobile 6. In theory, that's a problem, since Microsoft's synchronization software is for Windows only. But Macs actually work with Windows Mobile better than Windows Vista machines do, thanks to Mark/Space's The Missing Sync for Windows Mobile. Of course, I use this $40 utility to shuttle calendar and contact information between Pocket Outlook and OS X's iCal and Address Book apps. I'm most smitten, though, with The Missing Sync's iTunes integration, which makes getting playlists of podcasts and unprotected music onto a Windows Mobile device as painless as it is with an iPod. (See also our review of The Missing Sync for BlackBerry.)
--Harry McCracken, editor in chief
Fujitsu LifeBook P7010D
Ever since I began using the Fujitsu LifeBook P7010D--a 10.6-inch wide-screen ultraportable laptop--about two years ago, I knew I'd found something I couldn't live without. This was the first time I could do everything I wanted to do--play DVDs, take notes, edit high-resolution photos, copy files from SD Card and CompactFlash media (without an external card reader)--all on a notebook that weighs about 3 pounds. Its light weight makes going through airport security a breeze, and I've yet to see the back of an economy-class airplane seat that will crunch into the P7010D's display.
--Melissa J. Perenson, senior products editor
Intuit Quicken Premier 2008
Intuit's Quicken Premier 2008 personal finance software, even though its straight-out-of-1998 interface frustrates the heck out of me, gives me comfort that I won't be living in a refrigerator box five years after I retire. I love that it can download transactions automatically; I hate that it can't download transactions from many organizations or for many types of accounts (for example, 403b plans and 529 plans). But once I've entered all those tiny transactions, I really know how much I've got--and how far I still have to go. For more, read our review of Quicken Home & Business 2008, which is similar to the Premier version but also adds business tracking tools.
--Alan Stafford, executive editor
Siber Systems RoboForm
Hands down, Siber Systems' $30 RoboForm (I use version 6.9.3) is the best tool for storing user names, passwords, and other contact data for Web sites. Here's why: You provide RoboForm with all the vitals you might need to complete a site's form--name, address, phone numbers, and even credit card numbers. When you click the Fill Forms button, the program does just that. Click a Web site from the RoboForm Passcard screen, and RoboForm transports your Web browser to the site, logging you in if necessary. Need an industrial-strength password? RoboForm will generate one for you. And don't worry about security: RoboForm is itself password-protected. --Steve Bass, Hassle-Free PC and Tips & Tweaks columnist
My passion for duplicate bridge got me on the Internet early on: I joined OKBridge, an online bridge community, in 1992. It has progressed from a free text-based Unix game to a sophisticated, graphical Java application that runs in a Windows or Mac browser. I'm happy to pay $100 a year to play with or kibitz the likes of Warren Buffett and bridge pros from around the world, participate in online tournaments, and read articles by well-known bridge columnists. You can play bridge elsewhere on the Web, but OKBridge remains the best implementation with the best community.
--Yardena Arar, senior editor
I'm a compulsive tech-bargain hunter, and one of my favorite ways to find red-hot specials and the absolute latest in price drops is to use deal-scanning sites such as SearchAllDeals.com. It sifts through other bargain and coupon listing services, including Ben's Bargains, FatWallet, SlickDeals, DealCatcher, DealNews, TechBargains, and more, to spot great deals with one simple search. Now that's one-stop shopping! (For more on bargain-hunting sites, see this Skeptical Shopper column on the subject.)
--Danny Allen, associate editor
Microsoft Word 2003
Microsoft's Word has been the center of my professional life for many years now, primarily because I've yet to find another word processor that handles outlines so well. The outline view is based on hierarchical text styles, so turning an outline into an article or reorganizing an article as if it were an outline is easy. I haven't always been pleased with Word's updates, however. I still miss Word 95 with its fantastic Word Basic macro programming language. Nor am I happy with the user interface changes in Word 2007; I reverted to Office 2003 rather than learn a whole new way to use my primary program.
--Lincoln Spector, Answer Line columnist
Anyone who takes public transportation will likely agree that an iPod is a must. My 80GB Apple iPod with video--which I've nicknamed "Ducky"--helps drown out crying babies, overexcited shoppers, rowdy teenagers, and unrepentant cell-phone abusers on multiple city buses. Between the 10,000-plus songs, scattered videos, and Spanish-language podcasts I've loaded onto Ducky, I'm assured of a ride home listening to my own personal soundtrack. The shuffle setting saves me from having to make mix CDs, and since the iPod is ubiquitous among my friends, I've never had a problem finding a docking station for impromptu dance parties or for playing songs in the presence of other audiophiles.
--Amber Bouman, On Your Side columnist
Microsoft Virtual PC 2007
There's no safer way to surf or to try out new software (including operating systems) than from within a virtual machine--that is, a PC emulator running inside a window. Download Microsoft's free emulation product, Virtual PC 2007, or VMware Server, which is also free. Install your VM host, configure your virtual machine (easy), and then install an operating system. (VMware Server calls the virtual machine a Virtual Appliance, by the way.) With a VM running, my main operating system is safe: If malware attacks or if I don't like the software I installed in the VM, I simply close the VM without saving its state, and the unwanted software will be gone next time I start up.
--Jon L. Jacobi, contributor
"Can you print that up for me?" That question used to frustrate me because it meant that I had to tether my otherwise wireless laptop to a USB printer. Enter my savior, a Wi-Fi-based Lexmark Z1420 printer, which I bought in utter frustration after repeatedly hunting for my old printer's USB cord. The Z1420 is almost a bottom-of-the-line model, but who cares--I can use it with all my Wi-Fi-equipped computers. Now, when I need to print out driving directions, I can feel the full effect of wireless freedom.
--Mike Barton, senior editor
Logitech Harmony 670 Advanced Universal Remote
Between the DVR, the DVD player, the TV set, the CD changer, the Xbox 360, the Mac Mini, and the receiver connected to them, my coffee table would be drowning in remotes but for my Logitech Harmony 670 Advanced Universal Remote. Logitech's universal remotes don't just replace the controllers that come with your A/V components, they go far beyond them. Press the Harmony's Watch Movie activity button, and the appropriate devices turn on, switch to the right inputs, and begin playing. It takes some configuration (you'll have to install an app on your PC and tell the remote which components you have and how they're connected), but once the Harmony is dialed in, you'll never need your old controllers again. This is the way all remotes should work.
--Eric Dahl, senior editor
M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 and Audacity
Okay, this is two products, but they go together. The M-Audio MicroTrack is a portable digital recorder that captures excellent audio and saves your recordings in .wav or MP3 format. I bought it to create podcasts--something I haven't gotten around to yet--but it's ideal for recording phone interviews, meetings, and such. I can play back my recordings on the M-Audio or on my iPod. (See the M-Audio site for the new MicroTrack II.) Audacity is free audio software that allows audio novices like me to edit their recordings easily.
--James A. Martin, Mobile Computing columnist
I use My Yahoo to keep up on blogs and news sites, preview my Yahoo Mail account, learn about new DVD movie releases, drool over the latest Epicurious recipes, and envy backpackers who post photos on Flickr. These are all content modules that I can drag and drop around the page over a pretty background of my choosing. Other people may prefer such rival services as iGoogle or NetVibes, but I've been using My Yahoo to bring a little joy into my workday for so long that I'm reluctant to fix what's not broken.
--Narasu Rebbapragada, senior editor
Yes, the Palm OS is long in the tooth, but if you've been a user for ages, you look past the cobwebs and the 20th-century look-and-feel and know you're home. No one has ever constructed a PDA interface half as user-friendly and as tap-minimizing as the Palm OS calendar/contacts/memos/to-do suite. Mashing that OS up with a phone--the Palm Centro--that has a decent Web browser, an e-mail client, and an open development environment makes for a killer combination. Third-party apps are legion; I use an SSH (Secure Shell) client to connect to my home PC all the time, and a freeware music player for all my Ogg Vorbis and MP3 files. I can even listen to Internet radio. I had a Treo 600 and then a 700p for years, but they were built like tanks. The Centro is lean--happy in my pocket--and makes me hope that Palm is headed for a renaissance when its promised new OS comes out, rather for than the dustbin of tech history.
--Matthew Newton, Free Agent columnist
It's hard not to love an office suite that does everything I need and costs me exactly $0. It's not merely that I'm a tightwad (I am) or that I hate Microsoft (I do). The OpenOffice.org suite simply works. It handles Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files with ease and seamless integration: When I'm in Writer, I can open a spreadsheet or presentation file with a couple of clicks--without sucking up half my system memory or crashing my PC. OpenOffice is not perfect, of course. To send files to non-OpenOffice users, I must convert the documents to something more Microsoft-friendly. The suite has few bells and whistles, too. But if I wanted bells and whistles, I'd get myself a choo-choo train.
--Dan Tynan, Gadget Freak columnist
SATA HDD Stage Rack (3.5-Inch)
This obscure little gadget--the SATA HDD Stage Rack--is an external USB desktop docking station that accepts ordinary 3.5-inch SATA hard drives. It helps me migrate data to new PCs, and it turns unused drives into quick-and-dirty backup cartridges--Veritable 100GB floppies. This device has breathed new life into my old drives, which were just collecting dust in a closet.
--Dave Johnson, Digital Focus columnist
When I use an unfamiliar PC and get search-engine results that lack the colored safety icons of SiteAdvisor, I feel like I'm stumbling blind into questionable territory. The terrific free safety tool from McAfee for Firefox and Internet Explorer adds a small colored icon next to results from Google, Yahoo, or MSN to indicate whether a site is hunky-dory, might send me spammy e-mail, or could even try to attack my PC with malware. What's more, it gives full details on why a site received a particular rating. Of course, it doesn't offer absolutely impenetrable protection, but I'd hate to live without it. A $20 Plus version offers extra features such as site blocking.
--Erik Larkin, Privacy Watch columnist
Verizon EvDO Service
I could live without Verizon's $60-per-month wireless broadband Internet access service--if I didn't have a 3-hour daily commute. Since I don't want to move, I have to be connected while commuting (by ferry, by the way; I don't try to type while driving!). Out on the water, speeds aren't always what Verizon promises (600 kbps to 1.4 mbps for downloads), but are still fast enough for me to deal with e-mail, do Web research, and keep up with the news. And all that helps me forget about the killer commute.
--Edward N. Albro, editor
As a child in the 1980s, I learned that my brain was an egg and that my brain on drugs was a fried egg. As an adult, my brain is more like scrambled eggs: I can't remember everything I need to remember. But my Apple iPhone has changed that. I now have all of the essentials of my digital life--my e-mail, calendar, contacts, text messages, Web bookmarks, latest YouTube obsessions, and music--at my fingertips in a single sleek device. My iPhone makes me more connected, more accessible, and more productive. It fits my crazy, busy, on-the-go lifestyle perfectly. With the iPhone, I'm always sunny-side up.
--Kellie Parker, online community manager
Google Earth 's Google Sky
Google Earth grew a whole lot more powerful--and engrossing--when it added the Google Sky feature last August. As if being able to visit your childhood home, your first school, and the site of your first wedgie without leaving your desk weren't enough, Google Sky lets you fly around the galaxy and search for monoliths. This is one application that can actually bring generations together: It's probably the only piece of software that fascinates my grandma. And it costs nothing, which is much cheaper than a flight to Europe. Or a flight to Venus.
--Tim Moynihan, senior editor
Kinesis Advantage USB Keyboard (QD Model)
My fingers fall perfectly on the contours of the Kinesis Advantage USB/QD Keyboard for Macs and PCs. This funny-looking but friendly device, which comes in white and black, puts the space and backspace buttons directly under my thumbs. Now that I type in the ergonomic Dvorak layout, I barely have to move my fingers beyond the home row. My typing speed is faster, and my long hours at the keyboard are much more comfortable than when I used a flat QWERTY keyboard. The QD model has a hardware switch for alternating between the unusual Dvorak and the ubiquitous QWERTY layouts, so I can change it to a standard keyboard for visitors who need to use the latter. (See also our review of the Kinesis Advantage Pro.)
--Laura Blackwell, Download This columnist
Read our other 25th anniversary stories.