The Best, the Worst, and the Ugliest of 2003

Was it good for you? The year, that is: After hobbling through a pretty dismal ’01 and ’02, the tech industry happily showed signs of life in 2003 — even though “life,” as usual, often meant “vaporware.” Yes, it’s a bit early in December for an end-of-year article, but it’s not like Intel’s “Prescott” and Microsoft’s “Longhorn” are going to ship yet this month.

Anyway, it’s time for the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk’s third annual tally of thumbs-up and thumbed noses. Let’s kindle the flames by revisiting a couple of categories from last year:

Breakout hits of the year: The products in this paragraph in ’02 — digital cameras — became ubiquitous, mainstream, taken for granted in ’03. That means this year’s stars — LCD monitors — will become commonplace in ’04. And we’ll be saying the same thing about color laser printers a year from now.

Missed entrance cue of the year: This is too easy — 12 months ago I jeered AMD’s long-delayed Hammer, and now it’s Intel’s turn with Prescott. After last year’s rocketing clock-speed acceleration, the Pentium 4 this year climbed all the way from 3.06GHz to 3.2GHz (although April’s bump to an 800MHz front-side bus made it the year of DDR400 memory). Meanwhile, the processor’s 90-nanometer-process successor slipped and slipped again — and now I hear it won’t even get a flashy new name like Pentium 5, instead dubbed Pentium 4 with Special Extensions or something. Where’s the fun in that?

A welcome step up: Another item in 2002’s Best, Worst, and Ugliest bemoaned the persistence of poky integrated-graphics chipsets and outdated video cards in otherwise well-equipped (fast CPUs, big hard disks, etc.) desktops. This year, many retail PCs finally got reasonably game-worthy graphics, and Dell, Gateway, and HP even joined the likes of Alienware and VoodooPC in offering high-end setups acknowledging the existence of enthusiasts and gamers. Along with Microsoft’s superb, second-generation Media Center PC, it marked a refreshing change from generic commodity computers.

Righteous revolt: Monopoly Microsoft got away with the piracy-fighting, customer-inconveniencing addition of product activation to Windows and Office, so Intuit tried it with TurboTax — and, after a firestorm of consumer complaints and defections (not to mention a $100 million drop in projected revenue), not only removed the feature but made abject apologies in full-page newspaper ads.

Think the same thing will happen with Symantec’s 2004 Norton antivirus, firewall, and other utilities? Memo to software (and music and video) vendors: Honest consumers dislike being treated as thieves, and will vehemently reject copy-protected products if given the slightest alternatives. We learned that with DOS dongles 20 years ago, for chrissakes. Speaking of which …

Be afraid, Bill: The Sony Vaio TR1A came close, but frankly, the product that made the most stunning, slack-jawed impression on me this year was not hardware but software.

Remember how long it took the last time you installed or upgraded Windows? Insert the Knoppix CD, boot your PC, and in 90 seconds you’ve got a complete, great-looking, virtually virus- and worm-proof Linux system — not only the operating system, which auto-configured itself for almost all your hardware (and I’m not talking “Wheel mouse detected,” I’m talking “Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop detected”), but the excellent 1.1 suite and full set of other applications. It doesn’t touch your hard disk or Windows installation, though you can dual-boot it if you’re nerd enough to know a bit about disk partitions, and it’s all free.

Knoppix is the hobby of a guy in Germany; there are similar live CDs popping up from Texas to Australia, and $30 to $100 will get you commercial Linux distributions — again, both OS and applications — with extras like CrossOver Office to run the Windows programs you can’t bear to part with. Amazing. And this momentum’s supposed to be stopped by telling us Longhorn will be really swell in 2006?

Honorable mentions: To be sure, the Vaio TR1A wasn’t the only loaner unit I hated to ship back. Some other products that made an impression are the Magicolor 2300W laser printer from Minolta-QMS (now Konica Minolta, and now a rock-bottom $499 after rebate); the handsome AG Neovo E-19A flat-panel display; the svelte Gateway 200XL notebook; the affordable Lexmark X6170 inkjet printer/scanner/copier/fax; and the innovative yet simple TypeMatrix EZ-Reach keyboard.

A slow start for last year’s product of the year runner-up: The nifty, swivel-screened “convertible” notebook form factor is pulling ahead of purist “slate” designs, and Version 2.0 of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition looks promising for mid-2004. But there’s still not much software apart from vertical-market stuff, and Tablet PCs are still too heavy and too expensive: You can get a nice laptop today for $1,000, while smaller-screened Tablets start at $1,700. Still, the category’s gotten a boost from this year’s …

Product of the year runner-up: Intel’s Pentium M. Yes, the Centrino marketing blitz is NetBurst 2003, a transparent try to make consumers think “wireless e-mail or Internet equals/requires Intel” (especially since Intel’s still hawking 802.11b wireless while other vendors offer faster 802.11g). But the CPU is outstanding, giving lightweight laptops a real boost in both performance and battery life (and confirming that the Pentium III core is one of the great processor designs of our time).

Product of the year: I’m honoring AMD’s Opteron over its Athlon 64 sibling right now, because I don’t yet see real demand for 64-bit processing on the desktop (certainly Microsoft’s in no hurry to ship 64-bit Windows XP) and AMD’s Socket 754/940/939 roadmap seems to have one or two forks and dead ends.

But the slightest glance at the server and supercomputing cluster markets will show the Opteron’s had a huge impact — not only a jolt but a thunderbolt to Intel’s big, costly, drink-our-64-bit-Kool-Aid Itanium strategy (not that the Itanium 2 isn’t hitting its stride as an enterprise Sun/PA-RISC/Xeon replacement, but you know what I mean). And the AMD64 revamp of the venerable x86 architecture is a flat-out landmark for businesses looking to migrate to tomorrow’s applications at their own pace, without junking today’s investment. This site strives to avoid being lumped in with online AMD fanboys, but I know when AMD deserves an ovation.

Adapted from

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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