If you're shopping for the things that make your working life that little bit easier, there's a lot of sources to sift through to find out what the best buy is. You're on the right track reading Digit online, so, we've rounded up the best of the rest - the ultimate list of vital but often-overlooked stuff.
Apple makes Windows applications about as often as Microsoft ships bug-free products, and if iTunes for Windows is any indication, that's a crying shame. The iTunes media player works on PCs the same way it does on Macs, right down to the handy feature that lets you share your music library with other PC or Mac iTunes users on your network. It looks great, it's easy to use, and it has a surprising number of useful features, like the abilities to generate rules-based Smart Playlists and to trim individual tracks.
Meanwhile, Apple's complementary iTunes Music Store has just launched in the UK. This offers subscription free downloadable music at very reasonable prices. With easy navigation, an impressive exclusive track selection, and such innovative offerings as audiobooks and radio show archives, iTunes Music Store is going strong. Competitors like RealPlayer Music Store made this a tough choice, but it's hard to beat a store that's built into the best media player software around. The major complaint: iTunes tracks are incompatible with digital audio players other than Apple's own iPod.
PalmOne Treo 600
Not too big for a cell phone and not too small for a handheld, PalmOne's breakthrough Treo 600 has raised the bar for Palm/mobile phone hybrids. We especially like the ease of single-handed phone use, the built-in VGA camera, and the small but usable domed keyboard that in many cases is smart enough to know when it's being used as a numeric keypad. It costs £445 plus VAT.
Logitech DiNovo Media Desktop
Finally, devices that put some teeth into Bluetooth. This suite of Bluetooth-enabled keyboard, mouse, and MediaPad (similar to a number pad) combines elegant design with high-end functionality. The MediaPad sports a small LCD to show what's playing, and has buttons to control music and video. The set costs £170 plus VAT.
Netgear WGT624 108 MBPS Wireless Firewall Router
Hassle-free setup and swift performance - thanks to accelerated G technology that can push data at 108MBps, twice the throughput rate of the 802.11g standard - distinguish the WGT624. But what really sold us are its generous security and privacy features.
Opera 7.23 is a fleet-footed Web browser package that provides innovative ways to view, analyze, and store Web pages. Opera's security options are strong and easy to configure. The beta for version 7.5 looks promising, too.
Microsoft Office Outlook 2003
Some users might consider Outlook's cornucopia of features overkill, but this PIM's email client is excellent, especially for the corporate set. Version 2003's spam filters kept out virtually all of our test junk mail.
Other search engines are giving Google a run for its dominance, but so far none have surpassed it in accuracy and versatility.
ExplorerPlus puts Windows Explorer to shame, thanks to features such as built-in file viewers, data management tools, and horizontal or vertical multipane folder views.
Microsoft Money 2004 Premium
Money's free services (such as two years' worth of bill-pay service) and excellent finance tools make it a better choice than its perennial competitor, Intuit's Quicken.
Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2004
PC-cillin outperformed the competition at removing infections, and its neat interface lets you access components easily.
Zone Labs ZoneAlarm Pro 4.5
Continuing to set the standard in the firewall category, ZoneAlarm Pro blocks most incoming and outgoing email viruses, manages cookies, and stops pop-up ads.
SpamNet delivered a catch rate of 98 per cent, and boasts an uncanny ability not to block legitimate mail. Use it for Outlook and Web-based, POP3, or IMAP email.
AT&T Privacy Bird
Spybot Search & Destroy
The free Search & Destroy scrapes bothersome software from your PC as you would barnacles from the underside of a boat.
StompSoft BackUp MyPC 5 Deluxe
BackUp MyPC provides a logical interface, a disaster recovery tool, and the ultimate in set-and-forget automation.
Network streaming device
Rockford Omnifi DMS1 Home Digital Media Streamer
Tricky setup, clunky interfaces - some of the gadgets that let you shuttle digital music from a PC to a stereo system aren't worth the bother. But the Omnifi DMS1 is easy to install and offers intuitive access to your music library via a wired or wireless net. Bonuses include integration with Real's Rhapsody music service.
Digital audio player
It's not as pretty as Apple's much-adored iPod, but what the Rio Karma lacks in sex appeal, it makes up for in clever, usable features. It supports numerous audio formats (including Ogg Vorbis and FLAC), ships with a slick docking station that includes ethernet capabilities, and offers the pleasantly addictive Rio DJ, an on-board feature that generates playlists based upon your own listening habits. Add to that a long-lasting rechargeable battery and a reasonable price, and you have a fantastic device.
For a 2.2-pound projector, the NEC LT10 generates impressive image quality. Rated at 1,100 lumens, it's best suited for small conference rooms that seat about 20 people. Text is sharp, even at a supersmall, 7-point font size. It does a great job of reproducing colours, with a warmth that makes flesh tones look accurate.
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum
Creative Technology's sweet-sounding 24-bit/192-KHz sound cards remain the only ones that play DVD-Audio recordings right out of the box. The THX-certified Audigy 2 ZS line excels at surround sound, with Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES support for movies, EAX4 for games, and CMSS 3D audio that expands stereo music tracks to play in surround sound. The Platinum version of the Audigy 2 ZS comes with a front-panel I/O box that includes digital-in and -out ports, along with FireWire and MIDI connections.
Newer units such as Klipsch Audio Inc.'s ProMedia Ultra set and Creative's GigaWorks line might sound just a trifle better; but for digital input with those models, you'll need to add an external decoder. Logitech's speakers sound great, they're digital right out of the box, and you can pick them for around £200. a terrific bargain for a high-quality 5.1-speaker system.
HP IPaq Pocket PC H4350
Hewlett-Packard's H4350 Pocket PCs is particularly elegant It runs Windows Mobile 2003. You'll pay a high price for this corporate companion, but it doesn't stint on features - it includes built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a small keyboard.
VeriChat manages IM with panache on both Palm and Windows Mobile (Pocket PC) handhelds. The service works on the major IM networks, and it lets you toil away in another application while swapping messages with your mates.
Remote access software
Citrix Online GoToMyPC
With a GoToMyPC account, you can turn any Web-connected PC into a clone of your distant machine, affording access to remote programs, files, and networks. Though pricey, the service's speedy, secure, and hassle-free approach remains unbeatable.