PC World looked at many outstanding hardware, software, sites, and services this year, evaluating each one on its design, functionality, performance, and impact. Here is the cream of the crop, the 100 best of 2009. (Note that we chose not to rate products specifically on their price or value, focusing instead on their overall quality.)
Please let us know if you agree or disagree with our choices or have an unmentioned favorite by commenting at the bottom of this story or on the PC World Facebook Fans page (love to have you join us there).
1. The App Store (iPhone apps, prices vary) What can you say about a store--any store--that moves 2 billion products in just 16 months? We stand in awe of Apple's trailblazing App Store, which this year put the word app on the map, as customers flocked to download iPhone applications by the shopping basketful.
The iPhone is far from the first smartphone that could run third-party software. But one reason for the success of iPhone apps is that there's a store for them. By creating one easy-to-use marketplace for 85,000 free or (in most cases) inexpensive programs, Apple sparked unprecedented interest in phone software from both iPhone owners and developers.
It may seem as though an inordinately large proportion of the items available for downloading are dedicated to creating fart noises, but if you cut through the cheesy games and novelties, you'll find thousands of innovative, thoughtfully designed apps that can make your iPhone do things no smartphone has done before.
2. Google Voice (telephony service, free) Google Voice gives you a single number for all of your phones to use, e-mails you transcripts of your voicemail messages, and sports a host of sophisticated calling features. Set up conference calls for free, record calls, even switch phones in the middle of a call. And it's all free. Ma Bell, eat your heart out.
3. Intel X25-M Solid State Drive 160GB (internal storage device, $500) A new manufacturing process and a significantly lower price combine with great performance in this top-notch SSD. This model's speedy test results put it at the top of our chart; its price and performance make it a compelling flash upgrade for notebook or desktop users.
4. Nikon D300s (digital camera; $1770, body only) The first enthusiast model to include high-definition video capture, this camera is a joy to handle. Changing focus points on the D300s is extremely easy--and the camera takes excellent photos, too. Video output contained impressively smooth images; and the built-in microphone picked up audio well in a crowded environment.
5. Twitter (social media service, free) We loved Twitter enough last year to include it on our Top 100 list, and it has only grown stronger since. Twitter's uncomplicated API has led to an explosion of cool client apps and media sites that continually expand what it can do, including robust photo and music sharing. It's not just for pithy sentences anymore.
6. Dell Latitude Z600 (laptop, base price $1999) This superslim 16-inch laptop unites fashion-forward design and high-tech extras--with no cords. A 14mm-thick metallic-yet-rubbery case, a touch-inductive panel alongside the screen that lets you summon on-screen shortcuts, and an inductive-charging base station highlight this status symbol for business travelers.
7. Microsoft Bing (search engine, free) What sets Bing apart most strikingly from Microsoft's old Live Search and from the Google and Yahoo alternatives is the way it parses and displays search results. Whereas Google emphasizes a stark, quick-loading design and a list of highly relevant search results, Bing organizes its search results into Search Categories--subdivisions such as Web, Maps, Images, and Health. In a particular search, Bing creates Search Categories dynamically in response to the user's query. Bing also packs some new smarts: it attempts to figure out the searcher's intent rather than relying heavily on matching keywords to Web documents.
8. Canon PowerShot SX200 IS (digital camera, $350) It's pocket-size only if you have really big pockets, but the 12X-optical-zoom SX200 IS justifies its size by delivering astonishing versatility. With full manual controls plus a Smart Auto mode, 720p HD video recording, very good image quality, and that powerful lens, the SX200 IS is a budding photographer's best friend.
9. The Beatles Rock Band by Harmonix (game, $140 with instruments) Well, it probably should be number nine, but this gaming experience isn't just a straight setlist, it's a musical history lesson. As a member of the Fab Four, you start at the Cavern Club, jam at Abbey Road, sing on rooftops and go on trippy video experiences to an Octopus's Garden, rocking out the entire time. Amazingly, I find myself battling my wife--and the in-laws--for control of the mic.
10. Samsung LN46B750U (HDTV, $1670) This 46-inch TV turned in the best performance we've seen yet in our tests for motion handling. Its 240Hz refresh rate certainly helped, and the LN46B750U offers solid Web service connectivity, too. Want a smaller TV? Samsung's 40-inch LN40B650 ($1190) delivered even better overall image quality, and its 120Hz refresh rate put it just behind its 46-inch cousin in performance on our motion tests.
11. Microsoft Windows 7 (operating system, prices vary) With Windows 7, Microsoft hopes to put the bad press from Vista behind it. Windows 7 smooths out a number of Vista annoyances (User Account Control, anyone?) and makes the interface cleaner and easier to work with overall (for example, the new taskbar uses one icon per open application instead of accumulating individual buttons for each window). It's slightly faster than Vista, too, reversing the trend of software upgrades yielding performance downgrades.
12. Intel Core i7 (processor series, prices vary) When Intel launched its Core i7 line of chips last fall, desktops powered with these Nehalem-based processors quickly began to dominate our charts of top-performing power PCs. Early tests of the Core i7 laptop CPU point to similar results. And that's no great surprise: Aside from possessing a bigger cache, Core i7 chips have a Turbo Boost mode that automatically overclocks the processor when your system needs an extra burst of speed.
13. AMD Phenom II (processor series, prices vary) AMD's latest processors can't match the raw power of Intel's Core I7 line, but they're loaded with features that enthusiasts love. Upgrading from a Socket AM2+ processor to a Phenom II is easy and relatively inexpensive. And you can overclock some of the chips to an insane 6GHz or more; just make sure that your cooling is arctic.
14. Palm Pre (smartphone, $150 with two-year Sprint contract) The Pre wowed us with its engaging (and fun to use) WebOS software and eye-catching hardware. Thanks to the Pre's responsive multitouch screen, its intuitive gesture-based controls, and WebOS's beautiful way of organizing information, this smartphone is a pleasure to use. The keyboard may not be perfect, but that's a minor trade-off for everything else the Pre offers.
15. Amazon Kindle 2 (e-book reader, $259) This skinnier remake of the original Kindle boasts an improved interface and a redesigned keyboard. With 2GB of onboard storage (room for 1500 average-length books), this reader has everything but the faint rustling of paper pages turning. Text is crisp and tight, and the screen technology is noticeably better than in version one. The device charges via USB, and you can use it as a mass-storage device.
16. Facebook (social media service, free) Facebook wasn't the first social networking site, but it may be the first one that pushed social networking into the lives of mainstream Americans. The Facebook site is a cross between your personal digital scrapbook, and a running discussion with your friends. On Facebook, you can post pretty much anything about yourself, from songs to photos to movies to religious beliefs, and then invite your friends to check it out. It's also a great way to reconnect with people from your past, including some you might rather had stayed there. In any case, Facebook has undeniably changed the way human beings interact with one another in the 21st century. When we say goodbye to our friends, don't we now sometimes say "See you on Facebook"?
17. HP Mini 311-1000NR (netbook, base price $399) The first netbook to sport nVidia's Ion platform, which marries an Intel Atom processor to a discrete GPU produces a reasonably powerful combo that lets you run high-def video and games.
18. Samsung LN40B650 (HDTV, $1700) Thanks to its very good picture quality, Internet and home network entertainment features, and general user-friendliness, this LCD TV ranks as the best 40-42-inch HDTV we've tested this year. The LN40B650 displays very sharp and crisp images, and according to one judge in our testing panel, looked "very pleasing, overall."
19. Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200 (Wi-Fi card, $100 or $150 with two-year Sprint or Verizon plan) Tired of hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots? With the credit-card-size Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200 and a wireless broadband plan, you can create your own hotspot wherever network coverage exists. This ultracompact Wi-Fi router lets up to five users share bandwidth from a single mobile broadband account via standard Wi-Fi utilities, without any special software--a real money saver for small groups of travelers. Gadgets don't get much cooler than this.
20. Kodak Zi8 (digital camcorder, $180) This is the first ultracompact HD pocket camcorder to offer 1080p recording and digital image stabilization. Test videos we shot with the Zi8 had stellar image quality in well-lit settings. The only things holding it back are its sometimes-slow interface and controls. Otherwise, it runs circles around the pint-size competition.
21. HTC Hero (smartphone, $180 with two-year contract from Sprint) HTC's third Android OS-based smartphone is loaded with features and offers plenty of customization options with HTC's Sense user interface. Nevertheless, the Hero's performance can be sluggish and its video is unreliable.
22. Microsoft Zune HD (digital media player, prices start at $220) This is the Zune we wish Microsoft had released last year: It's faster, it's easier to use, and it has a sexier design. Whether you use the Zune to watch HD video on your TV, pair it with Microsoft's splashy Zune 4.0 software, or listen to HD radio on it, the Zune HD is a multimedia powerhouse.
23. G-Data Internet Security 2010 (security software, $30 for one PC) The best security suite we've tested this year is this little-known package, which racked up excellent scores at malware detection. Despite having an advanced interface, it's friendly enough to avoid alienating causal users--and it's attractively priced, too.
24. Lenovo ThinkPad T400s (laptop, $1999) Early in 2009, Lenovo released a rock-solid all-purpose laptop. For the T400s, however, Lenovo reduced the earlier notebook's thickness by half and (more recently) added a multitouch panel option to take better advantage of Windows 7. If you're a frequent business flyer, this laptop makes a trusty sidekick.
25. Boxee (online video service, free) There are many great online sources of video these days, and Boxee's software for Windows, Mac, and Linux pulls them all together, for free. The many different partnerships, licensing agreements, and rivalries among content companies can sometimes make watching online video seem like stepping into the middle of a range war. But Boxee consistently looks out for the interests of viewers, as evidenced by its continuing effort to show Hulu content, which offers commercial-supported streaming video of TV shows and movies.
26. SanDisk Extreme Pro CompactFlash Card (memory card; $896 for 64GB, $560 for 32GB, $336 for 16GB) With read/write speeds of up to 90 megabytes per second, the Extreme Pro CompactFlash card is wicked fast. It's a bit pricey, but worth it for photographers who want to capture every a shot. I especially loved how I could easily shoot .jpg and .raw files without missing critical moments that I wanted to capture for posterity. For taking full advantage of your digital SLR's UDMA (mode 6) interface, this Flash card is worth its premium.
27. Apple iPhone 3GS (smartphone; $200 for 16GB, $300 for 32GB, with two-year AT&T contract) The faster processor and the improved camera are merely incremental upgrades, but the iPhone 3GS's new hardware augments some highly innovative software. Gaming runs more smoothly on the 3GS, making the iPhone a superior entertainment device. And being able to record video and upload directly to YouTube (finally!) adds a new dimension of fun. Battery life could be better, but the iPhone 3GS solidifies Apple's hegemony in the crowded smartphone landscape.