Personal Tech '07: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Our seventh annual flashback bounces from nifty notebooks and cool Web tools to HDTV headaches, poorly launched processors, and a surprise pick for Product of the Year.
Posted December 20, 2007

Eric Grevstad

Worst hangover from 2006: Wasn't the brainless battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD supposed to be over by now? At least HDTV on PCs, or streamed from the den PC to the living-room TV, will get easier as TV tuners continue their maturation from analog-only to unscrambled over-the-air (antenna) digital to unscrambled cable (ClearQAM) to full-fledged CableCard HDTV.

But those "buy it, download it, burn your own DVD" movie services that are supposed to be the next broadband bonanza? We've seen them, and when they say "near DVD quality," they're leaving out two or three "near"s.

Product of the year runners-up runners-up: The ferocious Dell XPS M1710 gaming notebook and its M1730 successor helped make it a surprisingly big year for hardcore, overclocked gaming systems invading mild-mannered consumer PC lineups; see also Dell's liquid-cooled XPS 720H2C and HP's VoodooPC-spawned Blackbird 002.

The HP Officejet Pro L7680 topped 2007's all-in-one peripherals -- a $399 inkjet printer/scanner/copier/fax with automatic document feeder; duplex printing; excellent output quality for the office, if not quite for museum-class photo prints; and sufficiently high speed and low consumables costs to challenge color lasers.

We enjoyed the comfortably curved -- ergonomic, but not oddball learning-curve ergonomic -- keyboard and mouse of Logitech's Cordless Desktop Wave duo ($90). Convertible notebooks like Fujitsu's LifeBook T2010 are actually beginning to fulfill the five-year-old promise of the Tablet PC.

BE WHOM the Bell Tolls

Product of the year runners-up: The Asus Eee PC 4G and One Laptop Per Child XO notebooks.

Both are lightweight (two and three pounds, respectively), low-cost ($400 and $200) laptops with 7-inch screens, solid-state flash instead of hard drives, WiFi Web access, and friendly point-and-click interfaces hiding Linux. (Both have inspired Microsoft to hurry to implement versions with Windows.)

One is an irresistibly cute, easy-to-pack e-mail, Web, and productivity machine for travelers without briefcase space or bicep strength to carry a full-sized notebook and without the budget for a $1,500-plus status-symbol subnotebook. It won that rarest of trophies at the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk, the BE WHOM Award: Bought by Editor With His Own Money. It's also rumored to be the template for a mini laptop that Apple fans forecast for January's Macworld Expo.

The other is a 2-watt technology showcase -- from its built-in mesh networking to its color screen that becomes high-contrast black and white in outdoor sunshine -- that applies fresh, from-the-ground-up thinking to the challenge and opportunity of helping to educate millions of kids in developing countries. (Ironically, the XO's fresh thinking is proving to be a handicap when competing for contracts with Intel's familiar, conventional Classmate PC.) Bravo to both.

But now, with no further delay, the Product of the year:

Windows XP.

That's not just us being snarky. Of course Windows Vista dominated the year in computing (for the second year in a row, actually). It showed once again that Microsoft, more than any other tech company except maybe Intel, can put smart people to work on spectacular projects, with ambitious plans to make Windows more secure, smoother in working with other software and hardware, readier for the future, and more pleasing to the eye.

But the year of Vista will go into the books as the year that users pushed back. Not only were drivers surprisingly scarce at first, but until some patches and updates arrived, it felt as if Microsoft had never bothered to try the new OS on a system with only one CPU core or only 1GB of RAM. Vista brought legions of practically new PCs to their knees, choking at something as simple as copying a file folder, its translucent title bars looking glamorous but all too often reading, "Windows Explorer (Not Responding)" or "Mozilla Firefox (Not Responding)."

Most of all, Vista put a spotlight on Microsoft's toughest competitor: Microsoft. Windows XP, with a service pack and tweak or two under its belt, was and is the most successful operating system on the planet. IT managers and PC vendors like it just fine. They like it especially now that the browser is increasingly becoming the platform for increasingly impressive applications. (Google Docs, anyone? Zoho? Buzzword?)

And they pushed back. Corporate customers insisted on an extended lifespan and support for the six-year-old platform. Manufacturers started offering systems with XP again. A number of consumers put the iPod, iPhone, superb new iMacs, and Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (not that the last is flawless, mind you) on one side of the scale and found themselves tilting toward Cupertino.

So is Vista a flop? No. New PC purchases will steadily lift its installed base above its predecessors'. A service pack and tweak or two under its belt, and another DIMM or two under the hood, will turn its promise into satisfying reality. But things will never be quite the same.

Except at HardwareCentral. This is the seventh time we've wrapped up this roundup by sending you our best wishes, thanks for reading, and cheers for a happy holiday season and New Year ahead.

This article was first published on HardwareCentral.

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