How do you choose 10 great products from the thousands we've reviewed? Simple: you look for innovation, longevity and popularity, then back away slowly and let the arguments begin.
Trying to choose only 10 great products from the thousands we’ve reviewed is an impossible task. We’ve been testing and ranking all the technology we can get our hands on each month since PC Advisor launched in 1995. We’ve had a dedicated online reviews section only since 2004.
Perhaps in another 200 months Google Android will make the grade, or even Windows 8. But for now, you’ll find no BlackBerrys or products from tech giants such as Dell, Canon, Adobe and HP here. We’ve focused only on the products that have stood out for innovation and longevity. We looked for the devices, software and services that surprised us when they emerged, proved popular, and paved the way for future technology.
Not all of our 10 great products remain popular, although a surprising number do. It’s intriguing to note how few Microsoft products made our list – and how many of those that did are deadly rivals to Microsoft releases. Microsoft is at or near the top of a number of product categories, but the twin phenomena of PC Advisor’s lifetime have been Apple and Google. Hats off to them.
Google Web Search
You know something is a success when its brand name becomes the de facto noun for a generic type of product or service – think Hoover and vacuum cleaner. Google goes one step further: to ‘Google’ is the verb commonly used to describe a web search, by any means. Google doesn’t like this, but the fact remains that for many people, any web search is ‘Googling’.
So Google is a success, with its hundreds of millions of queries each day. But is it one of the 10 best products of PC Advisor’s lifetime? We’d say so. For all that web search remains an imperfect science, the internet without Google is a bizarre idea – like computers without the internet.
Launched in 1997 as the brainchild of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google orders search results by ‘PageRank’, a metric by which the search engine’s web crawlers rank pages on the net. Initially, Google Search’s success was down to three factors: it was nice to look at, easy to use, and it ranked sites in a way that more closely resembled the opinions of web users. Whereas other search engines paid attention to the keywords and URLs website operators uploaded, Google cared about user-led factors such as the links people place on websites and blogs.
Now Google is the biggest seller of advertising in the world. Website owners spend huge fortunes attempting to improve their ranking, and every time Google so much as tweaks its PageRank algorithm it has the potential to affect the bottom line of almost every business in the western world.
More importantly, the web user’s experience has changed forever. Google lets you search for synonyms, currency and metric conversions, weather forecasts, time-zone information and so on. Users interact with a much wider variety of online sites and services, knowing that if the information is out there, a Google search is likely to find it. And because Google meticulously records data on who is searching for what, when and where, we all know a great deal more about what matters to people, as it happens.
Google Web Search changed the world, and made several fortunes. And that’s not bad for something that was initially set up as a tool for academics.
Microsoft Windows XP
Like the footballer whose team loses when he doesn’t play, Windows XP looks better the longer it’s absent from the front line of desktop OSes. During its lifetime as Microsoft’s number-one OS, XP was respected rather than loved. A useful tool, present on almost all PCs – but not a product anyone got excited about – XP launched in 2001.
But XP is great because it represents a brief period when Microsoft focused not on what it might be able to do, but on building a product that worked. With none of the instability and incompatibility issues that plagued Vista and Windows 95, XP shines because it is better than both those OSes, as well as predecessors Windows 2000 and 98.
It is the best of Windows: relatively stable and full of useful features. And XP has stood the test of time. Only time will tell whether Windows 7 can come close to matching XP’s success – if it does, it will be a great product. After all, Windows is used on the vast majority of PCs throughout the world for a reason: when it’s good, it’s very good.
XP was the first Windows OS to include task panes, tiles and filmstrip views. It had built-in CD burning, and would let you search by document type. Windows Picture and Fax Viewer made their debuts alongside faster startup, better power management and various kernel enhancements that added to that sense of speed and stability. System Restore and Recovery functions were added, as well as USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 connectivity. The Windows Firewall made its first appearance in SP2, as did wireless-networking capabilities.
Built on the Windows NT kernel, XP was noticeably more stable than 9x versions of Windows. It also looks unlike any previous versions of Windows, featuring an overhauled graphical user interface.
What’s innovative and user-friendly to one person is a hideous change to the next, but XP’s popularity and longevity suggest its usability is considered good by most.
Windows XP made its bow in 2001, and was succeeded in 2006. And yet 27 percent of all visitors to PCAdvisor.co.uk still use XP – more than twice the number of those who use Windows Vista, Me, 2000 and 98 combined. XP remains the standard by which other Windows OSes are judged.
The original version of Apple’s smartphone hit shop shelves in 2007.
It lacks many of the aspects that make more recent models great, such as 3G connectivity, so why would the first-generation iPhone be one of our 10 top products?
Like other great Apple products, the iPhone took ideas and technologies available elsewhere and combined them in one desirable, reliable product. By creating a good-looking and intuitive gadget that anyone could use as a mobile phone, web browser and MP3 player, Apple re-invigorated and redefined the mobile market.
Apple already had the mobile audio players market sewn up with the iPod, and moved lock, stock and barrel its seamless music-playing ecosystem from ‘Pod to ‘Phone. iPhone web browsing was a world beyond that experienced on other handsets, and the original iPhone introduced Visual Voicemail, multitouch gestures, HTML email, threaded text messaging and YouTube video. Indeed, even ‘missing’ functions such as cut and paste, push email and multimedia messages made it on to the iPhone after a couple of software updates. And that’s before we get to Apps. Apple’s App Store is the home to a staggering array of software services, and it all started with this device.
Look around now and you’ll see smartphones of all flavours that resemble the original iPhone. The principal innovation the iPhone brought to the world was its use of multitouch input. It’s strange to recall that many sage observers at the time Steve Jobs announced the iPhone thought it couldn’t succeed without a hardware keyboard. The iPhone had then, and retains now, only a handful of hardware buttons – and now RIM is increasingly isolated in including qwerty keyboards on
its BlackBerry mobile devices.
When Jobs announced the iPhone, he described it as a “widescreen iPod with touch controls”, a “revolutionary mobile phone”, and a “breakthrough internet communicator”. That it was all of these things, and in each case successfully so, makes the first-generation iPhone one of the 10 best products we’ve covered.
Apple Mac OS X
We can’t praise XP without offering a paean to Windows’ great rival: Apple Mac OS X. OS X is, of course, a series of OSes, more fairly compared with Windows in general rather than XP as a particular product. But part of OS X’s charm is that although it has gone through seven releases in the time Windows has jumped only from XP to Vista to Windows 7,
each has been an iterative development rather than a radical overhaul.
That revamp may be due when Apple decides iOS is ready for the multi-platform primetime, but even if that happened tomorrow OS X has had a good run.
And iOS can be fairly described as the offspring of OS X in any case. When it launched, OS X (10.0 Cheetah) was a radical departure for Apple. Steve Jobs’ gift to Apple from his time with NeXT, OS X replaced OS 9, the final version of the even longer-lived ‘Classic’ series of OSes. It did so in a time of crisis for Apple, then running out of money
and losing market share.
The first desktop OS X launched in 2001, beating XP to the punch by a matter of months.
Its success is all the more remarkable when you consider that Apple’s previous inhouse attempt to replace OS 9 ended in failure, and with no product to show. But that was never likely to be the case with OS X, a product for which Steve Jobs retained an evangelical fervour, and over whose development he was notoriously picky. Based on NeXTSTEP, the OS developed by Jobs and his team at NeXT, OS X is a personal triumph for Apple’s late leader. An occasion where the myth matched the man.
Legends abound of Jobs insisting on revision after revision of OS X, so that when it appeared it was stable and reliable, intuitive, and better-looking than any OS that had gone before or since. In this Apple has the advantage of making both hardware and software, and XP’s success at a similar time suggests the world was waiting for stability at least. But, for many people, even after 10 years OS X represents the best of Mac computing – an end-to-end experience that is stable, intuitive, and just works.
It seems so straightforward now, but when it first appeared the Gmail proposition was staggering: a free webmail account, with up to 1GB of online storage (each message was limited to 25MB). Given that Microsoft’s rival market-leading product Hotmail was offering only 4MB in total, Google’s product seemed improbably large.
That 1GB limit started growing almost exactly a year after launch, has kept increasing since and, according to Google, will never stop doing so. At the time of writing it’s approaching 8GB. Full marks to Google for spotting the value of cloud computing good and early.
Gmail launched as an invitation-only beta in 2004, and pretty soon other webmail providers stretched their limits to try to match it. They had to try, but Google’s online mail service remains the daddy in this space, in part because Google can afford to innovate at scale. There are bespoke Gmail apps for mobile phones and tablets, and today Google claims around 260 million users – that’s a lot of email.
Gmail also pioneered features we’d now like to see in other email clients, including messages grouped together in conversations, the Priority Inbox that selects the emails you are likely to want to read, and suggested contacts to copy on to messages that appear as you compose. It remembers people without you having to add them to your contacts, and is unusually adept at weeding out spam, too.
How Google does this is not without controversy. Gmail, after all, introduced the concept of contextual advertising, whereby adverts are served at you within the message pane that relate to the content of your messages. This led to some commenters decrying Google for ‘reading private emails’. The reality is that if you don’t want Google to know what you’re writing, you probably shouldn’t use Gmail.
You could make a similar point about all cloud computing: by placing your data on someone else’s servers, you have to put your trust in that third party. In this, as in many other aspects, Google’s mail service pre-empted the move toward the cloud that is today reshaping the personal-computing landscape.
Firefox is a great product, with a strong financial model and a history of developing innovative features. But it’s chiefly famous for breaking Internet Explorer’s hegemony in the web-browsing world.
An open-source web browser born out of a frustration with the perceived over-commercial nature of Netscape, Firefox made its debut in November 2004. Initially far from a success, the Mozilla Foundation’s browser began to turn a corner when version 1.5 appeared a year later. Firefox 1.5 was stable and represented a viable alternative to other web browsers.
Of course, just being different would never be enough to guarantee success, but Firefox’s developers successfully introduced a string of innovations only later seen in other browsers. Tabbed browsing was popularised by Firefox, as were extensions and add-ons.
Indeed, these latter features – mini software programs that allow the user to customise their web browser – were crucial to Firefox’s success. While other browsers shipped with all functionalities bolted on, making them feel bloated in a still partially dialup world, Firefox was a lean, mean fighting machine. If you wanted to add a feature, the chances were someone had written an extension that met your needs.
Thus, as the internet became the primary computing tool for most users, many found that Firefox allowed them the opportunity to create a bespoke window on that world. And because cybercriminals tend to attack the lowest-hanging fruit, IE was more frequently targeted.
Mozilla funds its browser via search, feeding from the crumbs that drop from Google’s table, and doing very nicely thank you. Every time you use the search bar at the top of the browser window, or search from the Firefox home page, Mozilla gets a fraction of the revenue generated by Google (or other search provider). Tiny amounts of cash this may be, but Firefox has around a quarter of the world’s web-browser market, and it quickly adds up – Firefox 3.0 was downloaded
8 million times on its first day of release, for instance.
Chrome is catching up with Firefox in terms of market share, as Google’s browser claims the stripped-down, lightweight moral high ground (and Google’s marketers push their own product).
Truth be told, more recent iterations of Mozilla’s Firefox browser have started to feel a little bloated, and the increased release cycle may represent a product getting old. But the story of Firefox is a story of innovation, and a great product winning massive market share almost by word of mouth alone.
Launched in 2001, Apple’s iPod wasn’t the first portable digital music player to hit the market. But you know that a product has passed into legendary status when people who would normally run a mile from anything resembling cutting-edge technology start lecturing you about how great it is.
The iPod rapidly devoured the nascent digital music industry, and then spread the word the world over so that the terms ‘iPod’ and ‘MP3 player’ became one and the same, and digital became the way to access your tunes. Apple even convinced some people that leaky, poor-quality white headphones were a fashion statement. What would every other
tech company give for some of that magic?
What made the iPod such a success is classic Apple. Out of the box iPods are easy to use, and great to look at. Other MP3 players were unreliable, messing up track listings and duplicating songs, and horrible to use, requiring you to squint at a two-tone screen and fiddle about with tiny buttons to navigate. Apple solved these problems by moving the means of administering the portable device to your Windows PC or Mac, via iTunes, and introducing the iPod scrollwheel – one of many interface innovations that have given the house that Jobs built an enviable reputation for intuitive design. And, crucially, Apple didn’t release the iPod until all the elements were ready for a good out-of-the-box experience.
Subsequent to the first iPods, Apple has introduced flash storage and touchscreens, over-the-air updates, games and video. That the iPod is a success can be seen in the stratospheric sales figures and market share it has enjoyed, as well as the commercial and critical success of later product lines such as the iPad and iPhone. But the reason it’s so great and other digital music players of the time weren’t can best be summed up thus: when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, he described the initial 5GB device as ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. And with no messing about or fuss, that is exactly what it was, from day one.
Unless you’ve been in a deep sleep for the past 18 months, you may have noticed that the tablet market has exploded into life. Tablets have been around for a lot longer than you’d think, but their viability was uncertain for a long time. It took the iPad to unlock that potential.
Despite Microsoft’s long history trying to develop a tablet platform, it was Apple’s device that set the world of tablet computing on fire.
By taking the already phenomenally successful iPhone and stretching it to tablet size, Apple turned Microsoft’s ideas on their head. Less than 18 months after its launch, the iPad is the dominant player in the tablet market and the device that its competitors want to emulate – in terms of design, and also sales.
The most recent of the 10 best products in this round-up, the original iPad launched in early 2010. It was bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a laptop – a connected web-browsing and home-entertainment gadget, portable enough to slip into your bag, but ideal for surfing the web on the sofa. And the iPad is equally suited to business tasks and gaming.
The iPad concept introduced a putative third device to the arsenal of all tech fans. And yet its success is such that for many people it is now the one device to rule them all.
Rival manufacturers have queued up to take on the iPad. It’s no surprise: in the first year it was onsale Apple sold 15 million units, wiping other tablet makers off the face of the earth. But only latterly have tech giants such as Samsung and Sony been able to get close to what consumers now expect from a tablet. And in at least one of those cases, Apple alleges the credit is all its own.
Apple has earned a deserved reputation as the maker of some of the most elegant and user-friendly computers, music players and smartphones in the business. Yet the iPad may be the most impressive piece of Apple hardware we’ve handled. More important than that: the iPad has both redefined and reinvigorated the tablet market, and then took it all
for itself. A staggering achievement.
Asus Eee PC
The first Asus Eee PC, the 701, was a milestone in personal computing. It was the original netbook.
Small, low-cost laptops, netbooks became for a while the de facto weapon of choice for business road warriors, students and first-time computer buyers who needed a simple device on which to surf the web. Tablets and cheaper full-spec laptops have now taken back those markets, but even today netbooks have an interesting afterlife as first PCs for children, and student word processors.
Asus announced its Eee PC 701 and Eee PC 1001 models in 2007, sending shockwaves around the rest of the computing world with both their low price and tiny size, almost single-handedly queering the pitch for makers of Ultra-Mobile PCs. Initially running Linux, the 7in Eee PCs ran underclocked Intel Celeron M processors, eventually graduating to Intel Atom chips. They had tiny SSDs for storage, and cramped keyboards at around 90 percent of a standard model’s size.
This combination of cheap price, small size and low power consumption was popular, with Asus selling almost 2 million models in a little over a year on sale. Pretty soon it was releasing 8in and 10in Eee PCs running Windows XP, and other PC makers were scrambling to catch up, producing eerily similar models.
But Microsoft wasn’t keen on XP gaining a new lease of life, and limited the spec allowed in order to force vendors and purchasers to select the unloved Windows Vista. As time went by the makers of ‘proper’ laptops found it easier to make cheaper and lighter Vista and Windows 7 models than be restricted by Microsoft’s stringent rules, and as component prices dropped full-sized laptops became a better deal.
By the time the iPad arrived and pointed users in the direction of tablet PCs, netbooks were good at nothing more than being cheap.
An underpowered device in an outmoded category, when placed next to more recent portable computing devices such as the iPad, the Eee PC looks like a relic. But when Asus first launched this low-power, lightweight laptop, it changed the world, introducing what became known as the ‘netbook’, driving a massive amount of PC sales, and setting in train the drive toward true mobile computing.
Facebook is so good they made a movie about it, although its inclusion here won’t be universally popular. Whether the service constitutes a ‘product’ is one issue, and whether it is a good one is another, given the security issues that have bugged the site as it has grown. But Facebook itself is hugely popular and, unlike almost every other similar service, it continues to grow at a rapid rate more than seven years after it was born.
According to Facebook’s stats, it has more than 800 million active users. The user demographic holds a healthy number of users in age groups from 13 up to 64 and over, each of whom can exchange messages and share photos, join common interest user groups, play games, promote events and more.
Not only the most popular online social network in the world, Facebook is the biggest photo-sharing site on the planet. It’s the fastest-growing gaming platform around, and a staggeringly popular means of communication for users on every corner of the planet. Of course, that very success means that it is the world’s biggest timesink, and a world-class medium for spreading scams and malware. It’s also home to the profiles of at least 7.5 million children, in violation of Facebook’s own terms of service.
And all this from a site founded by Mark Zuckerberg with his college roommates in 2004. Not even Zuckerberg could have seen Facebook’s potential, but after initial success with his fellow Harvard students, Facebook was opened to other US college students, then high schools and, finally, the world. A combination of good technology and perfect, fortunate timing, it’s often forgotten that Facebook’s very existence was revealed to great numbers of the outside world only when Virginia Tech students live-blogged the massacre of 32 of their fellow students by a crazed gunman in 2007.
But Facebook’s biggest achievement is handling an exponential growth in users and features, without imploding or selling out. Facebook is an incredible achievement.