The right stuff right now -- right here

SAN FRANCISCO (11/24/2003) - Wrapping up the year with a December hardware issue is a PC World tradition. Even by special-issue standards, though, this one is... well, special. Inside you'll find dozens of lab-tested products, our best-ever Reliability and Service survey, and a new section on the next wave of gear.

Our "Ultimate Hardware Guide" begins with "The Best of Everything." Time was when you might have assumed that a PC World hardware extravaganza would center around reviews of desktops and laptops. But you've consistently told us that evaluations of products that make PCs better are at least as useful as reviews of PCs themselves. So "The Best of Everything" also covers digital cameras, rewritable DVD drives, LCD monitors, and much more.

Of course, savvy hardware-buying decisions are only partially about the hardware -- they're also about the manufacturer behind it. Does the vendor have a history of building reliable equipment? And when problems crop up, does it fix them? To answer these questions, our Reliability and Service survey has reported on computer vendors, as rated by readers, since 1994.

We've upped the ante by adding printers, cameras, PDAs, and wireless gateways to our coverage of PCs in this year's "Reliability and Service Report Card." The news is surprisingly positive: Readers reported fewer woes with peripherals than with the computers they plug them into. And for the first time in years, our survey shows a modest uptick in overall PC reliability and service.

While "The Best of Everything" and "Reliability and Service Report Card" cover lots of territory, they're ultimately about traditional PC equipment. But these days, once-unshakable walls between product categories -- from the PC to consumer electronics to mobile communications -- are tumbling down. And as tech is evolving, so is PC World.

Consider the evidence: Media Center PCs are gunning to replace your stereo and VCR. Newfangled consumer electronics products such as TiVo look suspiciously like specialized PCs, which, in fact, they are. Cell phones are tackling digital photography. And networking -- wired and unwired, local- and wide-area -- is tying everything together.

Shift to "Fun Tech," the last chunk of our guide, for a dozen products that reflect some of these trends. Then move to the inaugural edition of Next Gear, our new monthly section on the unified world of electronics. Next Gear will cover topics you might not expect to read about in PC World: This month's edition includes next-generation TV sets, satellite radio, and universal remote controls. But we won't stray from our mission of helping you choose and use tech products and services. And in many cases, seemingly non-PC gear will have a PC angle after all.

Case in point: Among the multiplicity of inputs on many big televisions is a VGA port, which lets you turn a cutting-edge TV into an equally cutting-edge PC monitor. These models aren't cheap. Still, buying one huge, honkin' display could be smart if you're ready to put a PC at the center of your entertainment world.

One thing is for sure: In the months and years to come, personal-tech categories will continue to blur in unexpected ways. We can't wait to cover what's next, in print and on the Web -- and we hope you'll be along for the ride.

Harry McCracken is editor of PC World.

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