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.
Choosing only 10 products seemed like an impossible task at first
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.