Each year, I dig back through the mounds of hardware and software that have landed on my desk and seek out the best of the best for our Attaboy Awards.
The best products always have a common theme -- they advance their categories both in terms of capabilities and ease of use. After all, what good are nifty features and raw power if they're so complicated that you can't use them?
This year, you can add price to the mix. Personal computers, add-ons for them and software all have hit rock bottom. The best products are not only great to use, but affordable, too.
Here are the winners of the Attaboys, the 1998 Houston Chronicle Computing Awards.
· Best Consumer PC -- Gateway G6-450. The biggest story of 1998 was how cheap personal computers have become -- even the state-of-the-art ones. Direct vendor Gateway's high-end consumer system is proof.
It has all the bells and whistles -- a 450-megahertz Pentium II chip, 64 megabytes of memory, a third-generation DVD-ROM drive, a 56K modem, a 10-gigabyte hard drive and a 17-inch monitor. At this writing, the price is $1,998 on the company's Web site (http://www.gateway.com), but it could easily drift lower by the time you read this.
The G6-450 also is solidly made and built for speed, easily one of the fastest systems I've tried all year. It handled everything thrown at it, and best of all, has yet to crash, even with some of the more finicky programs.
Runner-Up -- Apple iMac. Although the iMac already is starting to get a bit long in the tooth -- Apple hasn't updated any of its components since its introduction over the summer, nor has it cut the price -- it remains an excellent choice for either users of older Macintosh systems, or for those who have not yet committed to an operating system.
· Best Business Computer -- Compaq Deskpro EP 10000/CDS. Today, businesses aren't just run using computers as tools. Often, computers are the nervous system of the business itself. When there are PCs on every desk, it's crucial that those machines be easy to inventory, maintain and alter.
That's what makes the Deskpro EP a winner in this category. Compaq has designed the guts of this machine to be fast and simple. The same chassis is used for both a tower and a desktop configuration -- just flip the drives to convert it. The cover removes easily, and there is plenty of working room inside.
It's also a zippy performer. Tests on a model earlier this year showed it outran a similar model from Dell Computer Corp. That's unusual for Compaq's business machines, which usually run far behind Dell's speedy systems.
Finally, Compaq has the price right, too. In many configurations, the Deskpro EP costs less than a comparable Dell machine.
Runner-Up -- Dell Dimension XPS R450. Just because the Compaq beat it by a nose doesn't mean Dell's offering isn't a formidable system. Well-designed and using state-of-the-art components that are sometimes updated daily, this system is one of the best personal computers you can buy today.
Best Notebook Computer -- Toshiba Tecra 8000. Toshiba demolishes the notion that full-featured corporate notebooks have to be heavy and cumbersome with the Tecra 8000. And, Toshiba has laid to rest the expectations that its notebooks are less than works of design art.
The Tecra 8000 has a sleek appearance that will make you the envy of your row on the airplane. With a large 13.3- or 14.1-inch screen and a spacious, comfortable keyboard, it's a joy to use over long periods of time.
The 8000 also has something many mobile Pentium II-based portables don't -- decent battery life. This is in spite of spartan power-management features.
Runner-Up -- Gateway Solo 3100. Looking for a thinner, lighter machine that still packs a punch? The Solo 3100 -- with the regrettable nickname of the Fireant -- proves you don't have to sacrifice power and decent ergonomics to get a smallish system.
Best Color Printer -- Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet Pro 1170. Time was when multifunction devices did everything, but did nothing well. Mediocrity was their hallmark, but boy, has that ever changed!
The OfficeJet Pro 1170 is not cheap, at $800, but with it you get a color copy machine, an excellent scanner and one of the best printers I've seen this year. It's fast when printing both plain text and pages that are a mixture of text and small graphics images. And its photo-quality images are best-of-breed, though it's not as fast here as some other printers, particularly those from Epson.
It's also a great space saver. The OfficeJet packs its components vertically, so it stands more than 18 inches tall, but takes up the same amount of space as HP's other inkjet printers.
Runner-Up -- Epson Color Stylus 640. This is the direct descendant of last year's Attaboy! winner for best printer, the Stylus 600. The new model is faster, smaller and costs less. It currently is the best printer bargain, period.
Best Digital Camera -- Epson PhotoPC 700. Megapixel digital cameras used to be the province of professionals who could afford their multithousand-dollar price tags. Now, they're the province of anyone willing to spend around $500 to $800 for excellent-quality images without film.
The Epson PhotoPC 700 gives the best bang for the buck this year, with a wealth of features to enhance the process of digital photography. The color LCD viewfinder and the ability to instantly delete photos you know aren't so hot make this very consumer-friendly.
So does the price. Epson lists it at $599, but you can find it discounted to as much as $530.
Runner-Up -- Sony Digital Mavica MVC-FD81. The revision of last year's winner in this category now handles larger resolutions (1,024-by-768 pixels) and lets you add voice memos to an image. It still saves pictures and sound to a standard 1.44-megabyte floppy disk, eliminating the need for cables and software drivers on your PC.
Best Scanner -- Visioneer PaperPort One-Touch. For the last two years, the price of scanners has plummeted to the point that almost anyone can afford them. But while low prices have put them into the hands of Everyman, they have not gotten easier to use. Everyman is often flummoxed by these finicky devices.
Until now. The PaperPort One-Touch by Visioneer is a nifty 36-bit flatbed scanner with a series of five oversized buttons on it -- Scan, Copy, Fax, E-mail and Stop. Insert your document or photo and hit the button that corresponds to what you want to do.
It comes with the excellent PaperPort Deluxe software and has 600-by-1,200-dot-per-inch optical resolution. If only it came in a legal-sized configuration.
Runner-Up -- HP OfficeJet 1170. Surprise! The year's best printer is the second-best scanner, too. Like the One-Touch, it uses a set of simple buttons to accomplish scanning and copying tasks. If you know how to use a copier, you can use this all-in-one device.
Best Operating System -- Microsoft Windows 98. This was one of the toughest calls to make, but in terms of advancing the capabilities of an operating system, Windows 98 wins by a nose.
Microsoft's decision to make its Internet Explorer 4 part of the desktop has numerous benefits, not the least of which is the ability to single-click to launch programs, rather than double-click. Any Windows 98 folder can instantly become a Web browser, making the Web and your PC blend seamlessly.
Windows 98 has been called the mother of all bug fixes, and indeed it will cure many of the woes found in Windows 95. However, it is even more of a resource hog than Windows 95, so you'll need more memory, a bigger hard drive and a faster processor to make it run comfortably.
Runner-Up -- Mac OS 8.5. The latest version of the Macintosh's operating system software also incorporates the Internet, but in a different way. The biggest bell-and-whistle in the Mac OS 8.5 is a slick Web search program called Sherlock that queries multiple search engines, then sorts the results based on relevance.
Best Consumer Image-Editing Software -- Jasc Software's Paint Shop Pro 5.0. What began as a humble shareware PhotoShop clone has grown into its own, near-professional-level product. While it has many of the features of Photoshop, it is much easier to use and learn.
Version 5.0 now utilizes layers, which let you change one part of an image without changing another part. For example, if you wanted to overlay an image of your Significant Other over a romantic sunset, you could paint a 3-D handlebar mustache on Other without actually altering the sunset.
And Paint Shop Pro remains true to its roots. You can download a shareware version of 5.0 at www.jasc.com.
Runner-Up -- Microsoft PictureIt! 99. This picture-editing software takes an already solid program and makes it even better. Microsoft also throws in two CD-ROMS of clip art and photos to help you get creative.
Best Internet Software -- Netscape Communicator 4.5. Netscape Communications one-ups Microsoft with the most recent version of its Internet suite. At the core is the improved Navigator browser, which frankly delivers a serious spanking to Internet Explorer 4.01.
Communicator has a feature called SmartBrowsing that lets you enter a plain-English name for a Web site, rather than an arcane address. For example, you can just enter Houston Chronicle to get to the newspaper's Web site, rather than http://www.houstonchronicle.com. This is the way Web browsing always should have been.
Runner-Up -- InterMute. This elegant little shareware program, available at www.intermute.com, lets you browse the Web and avoid many nuisances, ranging from advertising banners to background music.
Best HTML Editor -- Allaire's HomeSite 4.0. What began as an amateur programmer's desire to create the kind of HTML editor he couldn't find elsewhere has turned into the best product of its kind.
HomeSite 4.0 is very fast, easy to use and probably the most flexible editor around. You can work with Web pages in raw HTML form, or use the new Design View for a WYSIWYG-style editor.
The program lets you customize nearly every part of the interface. It also automatically checks Allaire's Web site for updates to the program if you're connected to the Web when you launch it.
Runner-Up -- Sausage Software's HotDog Professional Suite 5.1. This excellent product makes a rebound after a disappointing version 4 with a package that includes Jasc's Paint Shop Pro as its image editor. It's easier to use, less buggy and much, much faster.
Best Utility -- Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 1.0. Like office productivity software, utility programs are being merged into suites. The idea is to give users a single control panel from which to maintain their PCs.
SystemWorks is the best of the breed, so far, bundling Norton Utilities 3.0, Norton AntiVirus 5.0, CleanSweep 4.5 (acquired when Symantec bought Quarterdeck), Norton CrashGuard 3.0 and Norton Web Services. There are some other components included, including Visual Page, a so-so HTML editor, a set of mobile utilities and a "lite" version of WinFax Pro.
Users can get to all these components via a single screen, or use them as though they were separate applications. With the exception of CleanSweep, which has a unique interface, they all work together in similar fashion.
Runner-Up -- McAfee VirusScan 4.01. While Norton AntiVirus is an excellent product, you can't beat McAfee's product for speed and a simplified interface. VirusScan will even check your system for viruses whenever your screen saver launches.
Best Game -- Tie: Sierra Studio's Half-Life and LucasArt's Grim Fandango. Last year's Best Game award was also a tie. Either it's getting harder to choose these, or I'm just an indecisive weenie.
However, these really are the best two games of the year. Half-Life, created for Sierra by Valve, uses the Quake II game engine to create an addictive title that's both an adventure game and a 3-D shooter. You are Gordon Freeman, a researcher at a secret facility where an experiment has gone horribly awry. Hideous monsters are stalking the hallways, and it's your job to figure out how to undo the damage, while staying alive.
The graphics are incredible, particularly if you have a 3-D accelerator card, and the plot and game play are superb. It really is like being a character in a movie.
Grim Fandango is very different, but just as exciting in its own way. This pure adventure game uses 3-D graphics, with a theme taken from the Mexican holiday of Day of the Dead.
The lead character is Manny Calavera, whose head looks exactly like the candy skulls Mexican children love to eat on the Day of the Dead. Manny, who dresses like Humphrey Bogart, has to figure out who is waylaying souls who are supposed to be headed his way.
It is full of both dark and light humor, and the graphics are, of course, nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Runner-Up -- Electronic Arts' Need for Speed III. Here's a car-racing game for people who don't like car-racing games. It's fast, fun and, best of all, you can switch to pursuit mode in which you must avoid getting caught and arrested by the highway patrol!
Best Children's Software -- P.F. Magic's Dogz 3/Catz 3. The mark of great kid software is that children keep coming back to it again and again. Dogz 3 and Catz 3 -- together known as Petz -- is one of those titles.
Long before Tamagotchis were a brief rage, Petz put pets on your computer that you had to care for and raise. With the latest version, you can play with and take care of dogs and cats in several locales, including your own back yard.
Part of Petz's staying power is that you can download new breeds from the company's Web site at www.petz.com.
Runner-Up -- Purple Moon's Rockett's Adventure Maker. The Rockett series of adventure games for preteen girls has become a best-selling franchise aimed at a demographic that's been ignored by the software industry. In this title, girls can easily craft their own junior-high adventures, even choosing what characters belong to which cliques.
Best Shareware -- GameSpy 2.06. GameSpy epitomizes the shareware movement. It's software developed collaboratively, and you're welcome to use it without paying for it. However, if you register by paying $24, you're entitled to tech support, lifetime upgrades and more.
GameSpy lets you find free servers that are running different kinds of multiplayer, first-person, 3-D games. Want to blast your buddies in Quake I, II, Unreal, Half-Life or Sin? Grab this from the GameSpy Web site at www.gamespy.com and it will find the best servers for your area.
Runner-Up -- Patterson Design Systems' TweakDUN 2.22. Want to speed up your Internet connection? This shareware title changes the settings in Windows 95/98/NT's Dial Up Networking configuration in a way that may boost the connection speeds of some users. Get it at http://www.pattersondesigns.com/tweakdun/.