Apple set the tone for 2003 in early january, when it announced the Year of the Notebook. And the company certainly delivered, with releases of PowerBooks in multiple sizes to appeal to a wide array of Mac users. But 2003 also saw the launch of an Apple-backed online music service that made would-be rivals dance to Apple's tune. Meanwhile, Apple was busy readying a new generation of high-end desktops that would finally muscle aside the PC competition. And to say 2003 was just about laptops ignores the great programs -- from software giants, as well as from lone developers cranking out applications from their homes -- that continue to support the Mac. So with all the terrific hardware and software that became available in the last 12 months, maybe 2003 should be called the Year of the Mac User. After you examine the innovative and excellent products that earned our Editors' Choice Awards this year, we're sure you'll agree.
Innovation of The Year
It stands to reason that if you want to revolutionize online music, you turn to the company that pulled off the same feat with personal computers. And make no mistake -- Apple's iTunes Music Store (www.itunes.com) represents a revolution in how people find, buy, and share online music. Before the iTunes store launched last spring, you had two options for downloading online music -- get it legally from a source that severely crippled your right to listen to music you had bought and paid for, or use an illegal music-swapping service (if you could even find a Mac-compatible way to do either). Since the iTunes Music Store's debut, competing services have aped Apple's attractive pricing (just 99 cents a song) and its less restrictive approach to rights management. The imitators merely emphasize the obvious -- Apple has set the gold standard for the online music experience.
Hardware of The Year
Even the most fervent Mac partisan was having a hard time arguing that the Power Mac had kept pace with increasingly faster PCs -- until Apple unveiled the Dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 ($2,999; www.apple.com). The dual-processor G5 not only fares well against Wintel rivals, but also blows away the previous speed records of the Power Mac G4. Credit Apple and IBM for teaming up to develop the PowerPC 970, which increases the Power Mac's clock speed and brings the power of 64-bit processing to the Mac. The Power Mac G5 sports a winning design, from the innovative cooling system that keeps the machine from overheating to the easily accessible USB and FireWire ports on the front panel. But most important -- with even faster G5s on the horizon that promise to keep pace with the Wintel world -- the Power Mac G5 makes it exciting to be a Mac user.
Software of The Year
When 125 of the 126 e-mail messages in your in-box are unwanted ads for products claiming to increase or reduce the size of various body parts, you may want to run screaming from your Mac. The best way to keep these obnoxious messages at bay is the heroic Michael Tsai's SpamSieve 2.0 ($25; www.c-command.com ). It uses the Bayesian filtering system to learn how to tell the difference between noxious spam and e-mails from your loved ones. And SpamSieve learns very quickly, so you see results right away. Unlike other programs, which force you to check a separate program for mismarked mail, you use SpamSieve right inside your everyday e-mail program. Forget spam about reducing body parts, and use SpamSieve to reduce something else: your spam count.
Other Top Hardware Products
Best Digital SLR Camera
Digital SLR cameras offer top-notch performance, photo quality, and expandability. But they can also be very expensive. Until recently, the least-expensive digital SLR camera cost $1,499 -- out of reach for anyone but professional photographers. Canon's release of the Canon EOS Digital Rebel ( www.usa.canon.com ) changed that. At $999 ($899 without the optional 18mm–55mm lens), this impressive 6-megapixel digital SLR camera cracks the $1,000 barrier. The lightweight Digital Rebel accepts EF lenses and other accessories. It also offers full manual and automatic shooting modes, fast and accurate focusing, easy-to-navigate menus, and excellent picture quality.
Best Mac Notebook
For a long time, Apple's PowerBook philosophy was simple: The company sold one size. But in 2003, it split the PowerBook line into three models, with amazing results. Although each of Apple's new aluminum-clad PowerBooks has its own strengths, our favorite is the 1GHz 12-inch PowerBook G4 ($1,799; www.apple.com ), which is as light as an iBook but has pro features such as digital video out and a SuperDrive. For people who loved the iBook's size but desperately wanted the PowerBook's kick, the 12-inch PowerBook seriously delivered.
Best All-Around Photo Printer
If you want a printer that can give you attractive, detailed photos without leaving you twiddling your thumbs, look no farther than Canon's i960 Photo Printer ($200; www.usa.canon.com ). This six-color printer offers an unbeatable combination of quality and speed.
Best Consumer Digital Camera
Canon's PowerShot A80 ($499; www.usa.canon.com ) is a crowd-pleasing 4-megapixel camera. The swiveling LCD viewfinder makes it easy to shoot from your hip -- literally -- and from most other angles, indoors and out. Point-and-shoot users will like the automatic features, but there's also plenty of manual control for more-advanced users.
Few monitors do a better job at retaining consistent color from any angle than NEC's MultiSync LCD2080UX ($1,700; www.necmitsubishi .com ). The highly flexible 20-inch LCD monitor truly embodies the phrase "Editors' Choice": 15 MultiSync displays adorn desks at the Macworld offices.
Anyone involved in data-intensive work such as capturing and editing high-definition video should turn to Apple's 2.52-terabyte Xserve RAID ($10,999; www.apple.com ). The impressive 2GB Fibre Channel server has awesome data-transfer rates and redundancy in most elements, so the Xserve keeps rolling if any component fails. It also offers multiplatform support at an unheard-of price.
Other Top Creative Products
Best Video Editor
Video pros have embraced Apple's Final Cut Pro, with Final Cut Pro 4 ($999; www.apple.com ) providing further reason to rejoice. The new RT Extreme feature gives you access to more real-time effects. Users can now fully customize keyboard shortcuts. Final Cut can finally capture across time-code breaks, and Apple has rebuilt the app's audio features. Version 4 includes four additional applications: Cinema Tools 2 (previously a $999 add-on), Compressor, LiveType, and Soundtrack. Coupled with the program's improvements, these side applications make Final Cut Pro 4 an impressive update.
Suite of the Year
The new versions of Acrobat and Photoshop are particularly noteworthy, but the sum of Adobe's Creative Suite Premium Edition ($1,229; www.adobe.com ) is greater than its parts. Integration between the seven programs in the suite lets you edit Illustrator and Photoshop files placed inside InDesign and GoLive projects without resaving and reimporting the image files. The new Version Cue has some rough edges, but even its critics would concede that it's an ambitious step toward managing file iterations that could benefit creative pros working in group settings.
Best Motion-Graphics Application
It was easy to embrace After Effects Professional 6 ($999; www.adobe.com ), thanks to a $500 price cut. But there's more to this updated animation and compositing tool than a lower price. Adobe added vector-based painting and a new text system with titling and text-animation capabilities rivaling those of Photoshop and Illustrator. The company also implemented OpenGL standards to speed up the display of 3-D effects. The Keylight keying tools were another excellent addition; before version 6, the Keylight tools were available only for $5,000 from The Foundry.
Best 3-D Drawing Software
@Last Software's SketchUp 3.0 ($475; www.sketch3d.com ) puts intuitive and easy-to-master sketching tools into the hands of anyone who wants to create and visualize a 3-D structure, whether it's an 80-story high-rise or a tree house. Version 3.0's ability to export a QuickTime movie tour of any of your creations is a particularly impressive touch.
Best Digital-Audio and MIDI Application
Digital Performer 4.1, from Mark of the Unicorn ($795; www.motu.com ), offers an attractive interface for creating music in an OS X world. Its new Freeze feature lets you mix multiple audio tracks down to two tracks to reduce processor load and to work with more tracks.
Best Little Multimedia Tool
Granted Software's ReVision 1.1 ($30; www.grantedsw.com ) is an easy-to-use tool for synchronizing music from Propellerhead Software's Reason or Ableton's Live with QuickTime movies -- an otherwise expensive and complicated task. It offers full transport control and a window that floats on top of your music session so you can visually match up your edits.
Best Photoshop Plug-in
This simple but powerful Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in, from Adobe ( www.adobe.com ), won raves from professional and hobbyist digital photographers for giving them a simple but powerful way to tweak the raw image data captured by some high-end cameras. The former plug-in is now built into Adobe Photoshop CS.
Best Natural-Media Program
Corel's Painter 8 ($299; www.corel.com ) only gets better with age. The interface in this latest version is more intuitive, with palettes moved and replaced so it's easier to find tools.
Best Web-Design Tool
Macromedia's Contribute 2.0 ($99; www.macromedia.com ) arrived for OS X this year, and Mac users with minimal Web-design skills couldn't be happier. The Web-page editor lets nondesigners easily maintain a Web site, no matter what program the designer used in the first place. Even for Web-site administrators who keep a tight rein, Contribute is a dream -- different users can receive different sets of permissions, and it supports the encrypted Secure FTP method.
Top Consumer Products
MacSoft's Dungeon Siege ($30; www.macsoftgames.com ) offers a fresh take on an old genre by mixing the character-driven elements of role-playing games with heavy doses of action that requires squad-based strategy. The game's innovative graphics engine lets you keep the action going without having to wait for levels to load.
At a time when most new handhelds offer only minor updates, Palm's Tungsten T3 ($399; www.palm.com ) combines great new features such as an expandable, rotating display and excellent usability changes to Palm OS.
Best Internet Client
As 2002 ended, the Web-browser situation on the Mac remained static. Internet Explorer was functional, but it wasn't that far removed from its OS 9 days. What a difference a year makes. As 2003 ends, Safari 1.1 (free; www.apple.com ) provides Mac users with a fast, stylish, and remarkably Web-compatible browsing experience. (Some quirks with certain financial and restricted-access sites remain, but given Apple's rapid development of Safari, we expect to see these problems fixed shortly.) From its integrated Google search bar to its productivity-boosting tabbed browsing, Safari has become our default Web browser. And let's not forget WebKit, the technology underlying Safari that lets other Mac applications display Web content with the same facility as Safari itself.
Best Messaging Client
Apple's iChat AV (free with OS X 10.3; www.apple.com ) may look like a simple chat client, but combine it with a FireWire-enabled Web cam such as the $149 Apple iSight, and you get a top-notch videoconferencing tool. The sound and images you receive from iChat aren't the usual jittery blurs you may expect from online sessions -- iChat supports full-duplex audio, so the sound won't drop, while its H.263 codec provides full-motion video at up to 30 frames per second in true 24-bit color.
Best e-mail Client
Sometimes what separates a great program from a good one is how well it plays with others. Mailsmith 2.0, from Bare Bones Software ($99; www.barebones.com ), offers plenty of features that appeal to power users -- such as AppleScript-enabled customization and an improved database engine for easy message retrieval. But the e-mail client also offers tight integration with Apple's iChat and Address Book, so users can alert recipients to urgent e-mails and easily maintain one central address repository. Mailsmith also addresses concerns about privacy and junk mail: PGP and SpamSieve function seamlessly within the program.
Best Development Software
HyperCard, with its stacks metaphor, has a new heir in Runtime Revolution's Revolution Studio 2.1 ($299; www.runrev.com ). It's the simplest write-once, deploy-everywhere solution, and it has enhanced support for OS X interface elements. Wonderful documentation and ambitious support for Internet infrastructure top off the package.
Best Fax Software
We had almost lost hope while we waited for a Mac program that could send and receive faxes with a minimum of fuss. With its intuitive interface and reliability, SmileOnMyMac's Page Sender 3.0 ($30; www.smileonmymac.com ) put an end to years of lackluster fax software.
Best Organizational Software
OmniGraffle 3.0 Professional, from The Omni Group ($120; www.omnigroup.com ), provides nearly every tool you need in order to create a chart or diagram, including some that rival those found in illustration programs. An improved Help menu and the ability to link multiple canvases together into a slide show make this application an organizational must-have.
Best Synchronization Utility
For synchronizing files or doing a simple backup, Weber Ventures' ExecutiveSync 1.3 (single user, $20; www.jasonweber.com ) edges out the competition with its ease of use, clear interface, and Time And State synchronization method, for an accurate backup or sync.
Other Mac Bests
Best Simulation of Telekinesis
If you've got a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or Palm handheld, you've got all the hardware necessary to control your Mac remotely. Instead of adding a pricey remote-control gadget, just add Salling Software's Salling Clicker 2.0 ($10 to $15; www.salling.com ). With Clicker, you can run a slide presentation, control iTunes, or do just about anything else you can think of -- from afar.
Best Labeling Tool
Whether you're creating music compilations for the car or burning home movies to DVD, presentation counts. This year, Epson introduced an innovative line of photo printers that let you print labels directly on CDs or DVDs. Our favorite label-producing printer is the Epson Stylus Photo R300 ($179; www.epson.com ). This six-color printer also produces attractive photos, offers individual ink cartridges, and includes media slots that let you print without involving a computer.
Best Method for Livening Up Those Labels
SmileOnMyMac's disclabel 1.2 ($30; www.smileonmymac.com ) provides a familiar, feature-rich interface (think Apple's iTunes or iPhoto) for creating CD and DVD labels. You can create your own original designs, or download templates shared by other users and modify them for your own use. Even better, disclabel can import track lists directly from iTunes, iDVD, and iPhoto. Add in disclabel's impressive text-manipulation abilities, as well as its support for AppleScript and a wide variety of labels, paper, and CD printers, and you get a winning package.
Best News Source for the Deskbound
Your days of aimlessly drift-ing among Web sites to gather up news are over, thanks to Ranchero Software's NetNewsWire 1.0 ($40; www.ranchero.com/netnewswire ). The headline-fetching software lets you select from an extensive -- and still growing -- list of Web sites with RSS feeds to collect the latest headlines. More important, NetNewsWire's preview pane lets you decide whether you really want to click on a headline. And the ability to avoid jumping to an article you don't want to read is the best news we've heard in a while.
Best Tool for Grading on a Curve
If you're a teacher, Orbis Software's Easy Grade Pro 3.6 (single user, $49; site license, $249; www.orbissoft.com ) offers numerous time-saving features to help get you excited about heading back to school. This easy-to-use grade-book software lets you track multiple classes in one file -- a rarity for this kind of program. Easy Grade also creates custom reports of all a student's classes, and it makes trading assignments and grading options between classes a cinch.
DVD Studio Pro debuted in 2001 with minimal ease of use and a lackluster interface. Apple improved things considerably with DVD Studio Pro 2 ($499; www.apple .com ). Borrowing freely from iDVD, Apple added button and menu templates, button styles, and easy access to iTunes and iPhoto libraries. The program can now encode video, so you don't have to do that step before importing it. DVD Studio Pro also comes with a new MPEG-2 encoder that does multipass variable-bit-rate encoding, getting better results at lower bit rates. And it costs half the price of its predecessor -- you can't find a better app for the job.
Best Use for That Old VHS Tape
What would you rather keep on a one-hour videocassette -- a couple of Friends reruns or 10GB of your Mac's data? DV Backup 1.1, from Coolatoola ($30; www.coolatoola .com ) lets you use your FireWire-equipped video camera as a tape-backup system. It works with many DV and Digital8 camcorders and provides a simple interface for backing up and restoring data.
Best Way to Put Characters in Motion
Making its Mac debut, Kaydara's MotionBuilder 5 ($995; www.kaydara.com ) redefines the process of animating 3-D characters. Its unique story editor provides a clean, intuitive method for mixing action, audio, and other elements into a smooth composite animation. Because the software works hand-in-hand with most other 3-D apps, it fits neatly into almost any production pipeline.
Mac products released between November 1, 2002, and November 1, 2003, were eligible for this year's Editors' Choice Awards, which are based on a survey of Macworld editorial preferences, primarily focusing on new features of products released during this year's eligibility period.