Friday, September 17, 2021

The Best, the Worst, and the Ugliest

Few of us would call 2001 a good year, and all of us would gladly trade an even

worse recession or high-tech slump for a cosmic Control-Z to undo the tragedies

of September 11. But there were highs as well as lows here at Hardware Central.

Plenty of cool products reached the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk — from

Microsoft’s latest IntelliMo

use Explorer to HP’s Color

Inkjet Printer cp1160, from powerful desktops to desktop alternatives like

Dell’s Inspiron

4100 (and notebook alternatives like the AlphaSmar

t 3000). Ditto for software, ranging from the best Windows ever to a $27

word processor called Atlantis Ocean Mind.

And plenty of trends made the year memorable. Here’s a recap, with my best

wishes for bright holidays and a happy year ahead.

Winners of the year: Peripheral shoppers, as LCD monitors fell below

$500; fast monochrome laser printers and versatile color ink-jet

printer/scanner/copiers fell below $250; and photo-quality ink-jet printers

became practically free.

Losers of the year: The dial-up majority — analog modem users who

continue to be teased by DSL and cable Internet-access ads that mask limited

availability or delivery nightmares, while the industry’s talking heads take

broadband for granted.

Collapse of the year: In terms of business, dot-com service

providers. In terms of caving, folding, wimping out, taking a dive after

winning 14 rounds: U.S. Justice Department vs. Microsoft.

Not quite consumer products after all: PDAs beat a retreat upmarket,

with most handheld vendors following Microsoft’s Pocket PC pitch to corporate

execs with $500-plus budgets. Let’s see if Handspring’s Treo leads a move back

toward the mainstream with cell phone/PDA combos in 2002.

Bitter pills of the year: 2001 brought two blatant insults or

confusing inconveniences, moves unabashedly meant to serve vendors’ marketing

needs instead of consumers’ interests. But any backlash or protest fizzled, as

we swallowed them in order to get (I admit) otherwise excellent products. What

were they? The PR ratings of AMD’s Athlon XP, and Product Activation in

Microsoft Windows XP.

Comeback of the year: ATI, although the company nearly blew it by not

nailing the Radeon 8500 drivers on the first try. Coincidentally, PC graphics

overdog Nvidia showed …

Cracks in the armor, generating big buzz about its nForce integrated

chipset, only to ship it months late with a disappointingly outdated GeForce2

MX graphics core. The formerly unflappable Nvidia also botched a bid to

undermine ATI’s Radeon 7500/8500 announcement with a prerelease of new GeForce

drivers, but got back on track with the sizzling GeForce3 Ti 500 and 200.

Say bye-bye: Transmeta. It’s hard to sell mobile CPUs when (a.) Intel

whips up low-voltage Pentium IIIs that virtually match your ballyhooed energy

savings and (b.) you can’t actually ship product.

Glass that looked half-full last year, half-empty this year: Linux

hype and vendors crashed to earth, just in time for Windows XP to kick dirt in

their faces. Actually, Linux made strides in 2001, going strong on servers and

showing impressive desktop progress with Mandrake 8.1, SuSE 7.3, and KDE 2.2.1,

but now it’s handicapped by a dot-com-bust, last-year’s-bandwagon image as well

as the self-defeating “Linux community” — if the theosophist hippies don’t

repel you, the command-line macho men will.

Repeal Moore’s Law? The elephant in the room, or problem the PC

industry is pretending isn’t there, reached consumer consciousness this year

and will be bigger still in 2002: For at least two years, our ever-faster, more

powerful PCs and processors have been pulling away from our applications.

It’s fun to watch the Intel/AMD arms race, but nobody needs a 2.0GHz

computer to run Word and Excel — and blaming slow tech sales on the “new

economy” crash or 9/11 only postpones the development of either a compelling

new use for CPU cycles or a radical redesign of the 20-year-old PC. (And no, I

don’t mean the clipboard “tablet PC” that’s existed for years and shows no

signs of breaking out of its vertical market niche, even if it is a bee in Bill

Gates’s bonnet.)

Segway-level hype for a $399 MP3 player: Lovely to look at, adored by

obsessive fans, attracts breathless headlines with every move, pretty

insignificant in terms of real-world results — I’d hoped in April that the

attractive, not-overpriced iBook signaled a new attitude, but it seems Apple is

content to be the Anna Kournikova of the computer industry.

Product of the year runner-up: AMD Athlon XP. Hate the model numbers;

wish it ran a little cooler and would move to 0.13 micron a little quicker;

wish AMD wasn’t tarred with the brush of third parties’ rough-around-the-edges

chipsets; but gotta love the price/performance.

Product of the year: The trend in 2001 was for formerly unattainable

productivity at value prices, and the best example is the Intel 845 chipset —

partly its original SDRAM version, and especially this week’s faster DDR

upgrade.

Am I crazy, or begging for flame mail from AMD fanboys? Neither — I’m

honoring a solution that sparked one of the few sales booms in a PC bust, and

that brought the Pentium 4 down from its artifically overpriced aerie to the

mass market, meshing with Intel’s rapid ramp-up of the CPU’s clock speed to

create a platform both businesses and consumers (except maybe 98th-percentile

performance gamers) could appreciate.

You think Pentium 4 desktops cost too much? So did I, when they were only

available with RDRAM. You complain that the P4’s architecture does less work

per clock cycle than the P-III’s? So did I, when the chip debuted at 1.3GHz.

You jeer the i845D because it uses PC2100 memory (DDR333 support comes next

summer) and Sys

Mark 2001 benchmarks prove it to be 3.2% slower than the expensive

i850? Fine; go sulk while consumers enjoy great PC bargains.

Worst TV commercials of the year: Intel went from the Blue Men to

animated space aliens. Can’t these people buy a decent ad?

Eric Grevstad is Hardware

Central’s managing editor. A former editor in chief of Home Office

Computing and editor of Computer Shopper, he’s been covering PCs and

peripherals since leaving the liberal arts for TRS-80 and Apple II magazines in

the early ’80s.

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