The Best, the Worst, and the Ugliest E.G. for Example: The Year in Review

Wed 12/19/01 — 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 IntelliMouse Explorer to HP’s Color Inkjet Printer cp1160, from powerful desktops to desktop alternatives like Dell’s Inspiron 4100 (and notebook alternatives like the AlphaSmart 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the armor, generating big buzz about its nForce integrated chipset, only to ship it months late with a disappointingly outdated GeForce2 MX graphics core.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 SysMark 2001 benchmarks prove it to be 3.2 percent 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?

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