When the flow of new computer products for 2000 begin coming through the pipeline, they will have to be judged against the slew of good hardware and software introduced last year.
Here are some of the best products of 1999--the ones that improved the lives of office workers and road warriors--as reviewed by the testing lab at Government Computer News:
CapShare 920 Scanner When we tested the Hewlett-Packard handheld scanner, we liked its innovation and flexibility. Swipe it in a U-shaped pattern on any printed page and it captures the information reliably, unlike the handheld scanners of the early 1990s.
Two optics look so closely at the paper that they pick up its fiber pattern and straighten the digital capture as if the page had been through a flatbed scanner. The monochrome image appears on the unit's LCD panel for quick cropping.
The CapShare 920 is easy to use and extremely portable, running on two AA batteries. The $499 price seems a little high, but innovation makes this handheld scanner worth the money.
Zip 250 Just as when Iomega released the first Zip in 1995, the 250-megabyte version could not have come at a more strategic time, and it is now available with a Universal Serial Bus interface.
Computer files are huge and growing bigger daily. Digital cameras take photographs on removable disks. Database programs have practically unlimited entry fields. Users need a quick way to transport such files, and the standard 1.44-megabyte floppy and the bandwidth-constrained Internet are inadequate. In the past, the 100-megabyte Zip drive was the answer.
Iomega's 250-megabyte Zip more than doubles storage capacity and, remarkably, it does so without performance loss or increase in physical size. In fact, the 250-megabyte Zip drive accepts the older 100-megabyte disks. The addition of USB support is icing on the cake. We especially like the thinner, external Zip drive.
IntelliMouse Explorer This mouse from Microsoft is a revolutionary improvement in a category of devices that people have been using for decades.
For users who spend a lot of time at the computer, the mouse has become an extension of the hand. They hardly even notice the device that lets them manipulate 95 percent of all software programs. They think nothing of it until the cursor jumps around or scrolling becomes difficult.
The old-style mouse roller ball picks up bits of lint and dirt from the mouse pad and, over time, accumulates dust bunnies. The little gears get dirty. Cleaning them is a pain, and eventually cleaning is no longer enough. The mouse dies.
Microsoft has eliminated the ball and gears altogether. The IntelliMouse has no moving parts. A sensor tells it where it is moving, regardless of the surface. In our tests, the IntelliMouse worked as well as or better than standard mice, even over unusual terrain--such as a forearm. And it never needs cleaning.
SQL Server Version 7.0 Microsoft's new version of its SQL software has impressive changes in performance and management, but it hasn't quite brought enterprise-class databases down to the average user. Still, SQL Server is more accessible than it was.
Allowing Excel and Access applications to tap into SQL Server data turns out to be ingenious. The familiar interfaces make life easier. Add to that the ability to scale down data to go on the road and SQL Server seems right in tune with the increasingly mobile worker.
SQL Server's tentacles stretch to the Web, too, serving up data across the Internet or intranets. Wizards make it easy to manage, replicate and tap data with simple English queries. Version 7.0 is a big step forward in bringing significant database power to everyone, not just database administrators.
Fix-It Utilities 99 We thought this product from Mijenix Corp. was another also-ran compared with the reigning leader, Norton Utilities from Symantec Corp. But when we saw Mijenix in action, our opinion quickly changed.
The best part about Fix-It Utilities is that it works as claimed. We have tested dozens of other products that don't do so or that create problems instead of solving them. With Fix-It, a neophyte who has never even touched a utility will be up and running, fixing a system, in less than five minutes. Throw out the manual if you want because Mijenix keeps you from doing anything harmful. Instead, it makes helpful suggestions to guide you.
Priced at about $50 for a single-user version for Microsoft Windows 95/98 or Windows NT, the Mijenix product is a welcome change in a market that usually charges separately for versions for different operating systems.
Over a period of three months on one reviewer's PC, Mijenix found 477 invalid registry entries from programs that had been moved or deleted. System performance following the fixes rose 6 percent.
PageWriter 2000X Motorola's PageWriter merges a pager with a personal digital assistant. Instead of a stylus and touch screen, the PageWriter incorporates a miniature QWERTY keyboard.
After they are reviewed by the lab, products are returned to their makers. Sometimes we are happy to send things back, but the PageWriter turned out to be so handy that we hated to see it go.
If you are paged, you can respond via e-mail. You can even synchronize the device with your desktop PC calendar. The PageWriter is a little bigger than a standard pager. When you flip the top, you see a 2 1/4-by-1 1/2-inch backlit display.
With contact information, text notes, even a couple of games, all this little device lacks is a cellular phone.
The PageWriter costs $395, plus service from SkyTel Communications Inc. at $24.95 a month. It's a little costly but soon becomes a necessity for any road warrior.
MultiMobile USB Modem This simple, palm-sized modem from Multi-Tech Systems plugs into the USB port of a desktop PC or a notebook. Once the proper drivers are installed, it becomes a fully functional 56-kilobits-per-second modem that weighs about 2 ounces. Indicator lights show instantly whether the user is connected or, if not, why.
USB modems came along at a time when the two card slots on a standard notebook were valuable landscape sought by many types of devices. USB eliminates the need for a card modem yet also works on a desktop system.
The MultiMobile is durable. Despite being dropped several times during its test travels, it never broke or lost performance.
Norton 2000 We can't let 1999 pass without a nod to year 2000 PC test software. Symantec's Norton 2000 racked up praise from our reviewers in both versions 1.0 and 2.0.
Although Y2K is now here, we predict Norton 2000 will remain useful to keep PCs up-to-date throughout the leap year. It looks at everything inside a PC to assure readiness, from the BIOS to the data files.
Phaser 840 This printer from Tektronix heats and applies wax to paper, with impressive results. It is loaded with giant squares of wax that look, feel and smell like big crayons.
Photographs look vibrant and realistic. They emerge completely dry, with a sheen like that of real photos. Text prints just as well, at a quality far higher than the average laser printer's. Full-color documents emerge only seconds after the job is sent.