Meet the Best Small Business Products of the Year

by SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff

Which products and services rose above the crowd in 2004? The readers of SmallBusinessComputing.com, ECommerce-Guide.com and Webopedia.com pick the best in 24 categories.

Intro   Hardware    Software/Services   E-Commerce

Small businesses have never had so many products from which to choose. And we're not talking about more of the same old products. It's now easier than ever for small business owners to find hardware, software and services tailored to their specific needs. No more getting by with less power, sacrificing features for price or trying to adapt big-business products to your smaller, but equally demanding, business.

This year's group of Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Awards winners features the best in 24 categories — familiar and reliable categories such as black and white printers and accounting software and fresh categories with emerging technologies such as server-based storage and collaboration applications.

So when it comes time to invest in your business technology, we suggest that you start with these 24 winners (picked by your peers), as well as all the finalists. It's a great place to begin your decision-making process.

A lot can change in a year, and that's especially true when you're talking technology. Last year, we asked you to vote on hardware products in six different categories. This year, we expanded that list to ten — and not just because we like awarding plaques. We see it as a sign of two important shifts. More hardware companies are focusing on small businesses as a viable market. At the same time, small businesses are looking for hardware that addresses more specific needs.

We expanded two of last year's categories — Storage and Printers — to acknowledge ongoing change within them. For example, last year color laser prices dropped to the $700-to-$800 dollar range, but it wasn't until this year, when prices fell below the $500 mark, that small business owners felt they could truly afford to integrate color laser printing into their business plans.

Desktop PC
Dell OptiPlex SX280
      IBM ThinkCenter S50
      Gateway E-6300
Notebook PC
IBM ThinkPad T42 (with fingerprint       technology)
      Toshiba Portege R100
      Sharp Actius MM20P
Color Laser Printer
HP Color LaserJet 2550L
      Lexmark C510n
      Xerox Phaser 8400
      Samsung CLP-500
Black & White Laser Printer
Xerox Phaser 3150 Desktop Laser       Printer
      Lexmark E323
      Brother HL-5140
Multifunction Devices
HP OfficeJet 7410
      Epson CX5400 All-In-One
      Xerox WorkCentre PE 120i
Desktop Storage
Maxtor OneTouch II
      Iomega REV SCSI 35GB/90GB Drive
      Microsolutions Lockbox
Server Storage
Dell PowerVault 745N
      IBM TotalStorage DS300
      HP StorageWorks Modular Smart       Array (MSA) 1000 Small Business SAN       Kit
Networking Product
Dell PowerEdge SC420
      HP t5510 Thin Client
      TalkSwitch 48-CVA
Digital Camera
Canon PowerShot S70
      Nikon CoolPix 4200
      Kodak EasyShare DX7590
Handheld, Smartphone or PDA
PalmOneTreo 650
      HP iPAQ h6315
      Dell Axim X50v
      PalmOne Tungsten T5

A similar change occurred with storage. Going from one storage category to two shows that desktop and server storage meet two distinct SMB needs — and that the industry has responded to them.

We also added two new categories — digital cameras and handheld devices or PDAs. Falling prices and increasing performance make it possible for SMBs to incorporate new technologies into their business.

And the Winners Are...
The desktop PC still lies at the heart of any small business, and Dell takes top honors for the second year in a row. The Optiplex SX280 caught our readers' imagination (and a whopping 64 percent their votes) no doubt for its innovative, space-saving design, but also because small business owners have come to rely on Dell's consistent quality and reliability. Available in up to a Pentium 4 processor, the Optiplex SX280 is a self-contained desktop you can pick up and carry with one hand. Coming in second with was the IBM ThinkCenter S50.

As noted in our review, "The OptiPlex SX280 should be a first-class business desktop for years to come. It's not cheap, but it's small, swift, quiet, and it provides flexibility for multiple monitors and USB peripherals if not traditional under-the-hood expandability, and it sure can clear up cubicle room." Read our review.

Security — an issue that impacts every small business — influenced our notebook PC category in a big way. The IBM ThinkPad T42 — the first laptop to offer a model with a built-in biometric fingerprint scanner — struck a nerve with voters and took home top honors. The notebook, priced starting at $1,699, is a prime example of how small businesses will adopt new technologies when they fit a definitive need at an affordable price. The Toshiba Protege R100, the runner-up in this category, cruised into second with slightly over 30 percent of the votes. Read more about the T42 here.

The color laser printer category starts off with an overwhelming winner. The HP Color LaserJet 2550L trampled the competition, capturing two-thirds of the vote. The runner up — Lexmark's C5110n.

Breaking the $500 price barrier, the HP Color LaserJet 2550L prints 20 ppm in black and white and 4 ppm in color at a quality that impressed our printer guru. It's basic — you get the quality you need at a price you can afford. It's not a fast printer. However, the 2550L provides great-quality laser prints and can handle hundreds of copies per month at a price that's budget-friendly. (Read our review).

Lately, it seems that black and white printers have become commodities. They're virtually equal when it comes to quality and performance, and the only determining factor is the price.

Still, commodity or not, black and white printers are a staple of small businesses, and our readers voted the Xerox Phaser 3150 Desktop Laser Printer as their top pick — by a narrow margin. This laser printers sells for $349 and features 22 ppm at 600 optical dpi, 32MB RAM and a 166Mhz processor. The Lexmark E323 won second-place winner and makes an excellent alternative. (Read more about the Xerox Phaser 3150.)

Last year, when our small business readers wanted everything in one package, they looked to HP, and this year is no different. Multifunction devices, one machine that prints, scans, faxes and copies, still holds appeal for penny-wise SMBs, and HP took top honors a second year in a row with its OfficeJet 7410. Now, that might surprise some folks who view the 7410's $499 sticker price as something of a shock, but this does-it-all machine does it far better than most. Voters who took the product to a resounding victory seem to agree. The closest contender was second-place winner, the Epson CX5400 All-in-One, with 25 percent of the vote.

Perhaps voters were swayed by the HP's automatic double-sided printing, the standard USB, Ethernet and 802.11g wireless connectivity, or maybe it's the borderless photo printer with flash-card slots, six-color ink support and 2.5-inch color LCD. Of course it could be the excellent output or the industrial-strength print speed. (Review our review.)

It was the desktop storage category that had us thinking we'd need a Supreme Court ruling to determine an outcome in what turned out to be the closest race in these awards. Fortunately, close as it was, one winner prevailed. The Maxtor OneTouch II squeaked past Iomega's REV SCSI 35GB-90GB Drive.

Maxtor's OneTouch II offers massive storage capacity combined with excellent backup software (Dantz Retrospect Express HD) that lets you schedule automatic data backups (normally a frustrating, time-consuming task) easily in a matter of mouse clicks.

Of course, some small business owners prefer to keep their data backups off site. Now, you can unplug the OneTouch and take it home with you, but that's a bit awkward on a daily basis. That's where Iomega's more expensive REV drive shines. It copies data onto tape cartridges that you can easily store off site.

Both desktop products give SMBs lots of affordable capacity and the capability of backing up business data— one of the most crucial elements of keeping any business secure — without the cost and complexity typical of most networked storage solutions. (Read our review of the Maxtor OneTouch II .)

We added the server-based storage category to address the storage challenges facing SMBs that require vast amounts of storage. Many SMBs, particularly in the financial, medical or other data-intensive industries are big in the sense that they handle terabytes of data, but still small in the sense that they lack the budgets and IT support of large corporations.

This race turned out to be a fairly close competition, a sign that the companies involved have listened and responded well to the needs of their SMB customers. The Dell PowerVault 745N won the top spot, with 41 percent of the votes. Runner up IBM's Total Storage DS300 earned 30 percent of the ballots.

The PowerVault 745N network-attached storage server includes four terabytes of external SCSI -attached storage and a host of features that make it easy to install (in as little as 15 minutes) and manage for SMBs with little or no in-house IT staff. Price is another factor: the server's base price starts at $1,799. (Read about the 745N.)

When it comes to network products, the server is still king. No other piece of hardware can better integrate a company's business applications, databases and communication systems than a networked server — at least that's the consensus of our readers as they voted Dell's PowerEdge SC420 their top networking product with 34 percent of the votes. The HP t5510 Thin Client came in second with 23 percent of the votes.

Dell servers must feel at home in our winner's circle, as the PowerEdge 400SCs took top honors in this category last year. Of course, Dell has long been a favorite SMB vendor, known for its reliability, good support and low pricing.

This year's winner, the SC420, is priced and configured for SMBs looking for a first server. It accommodates from five-to-ten people for sharing files and printing tasks, but its design is flexible enough so that it can also handle e-mail and Internet responsibilities. The bare-bones hardware pricing starts at $499, and the price increases as you configure hardware features and add software. Fully configured servers range from $1,500 to $8,500. (Read more about the PowerEdge SC420 .)

A new category to our awards this year, digital cameras make great tools for many SMBs. Obvious industries that benefit include real estate, insurance and e-commerce, but digital cameras are also useful to have on hand for taking a visual inventory, making employee ID tags or for taking before-and-after shots to promote a service.

Today's cameras offer a wide range of features, image quality and price, but our readers didn't have a hard time picking the Canon PowerShot S70 as their top choice by a decisive margin. The closest runner up — Nikon's CoolPix 4200.

At $600, the PowerShot S70 isn't cheap, but its seven megapixel resolution, 3.6X zoom lens, separate controls for zooming and menu selection and outstanding sharpness and clarity — plus a 32MB CompactFlash card, make it a worthy investment. (Read more about the PowerShot S70 .)

An increasingly mobile work force caused us to add the handheld or PDA category. The capability to access information in the field, on a plane or at home can provide an SMB with a competitive edge. And talk about competitive — the PalmOne Treo 650 just edged out second-place winner HP's iPAQ h631.

PalmOne's Treo 650 was the first handheld to offer on-board flash memory so that you won't lose your data should your battery run down. That fact alone should be enough to claim winner-circle bragging rights, but the device also includes Bluetooth wireless technology, a built-in digital camera and MP3 capability. (Read more about the Treo 650 ).

Page 1: Hardware Winners | Page 2: Software/Services Winners| Page 3: E-Commerce Winners

Intro    Hardware    Software/Services    E-Commerce

When it comes to what small businesses prefer in software and services, voters tended to lean towards the tried and true. This year's Excellence in Technology Awards winners are an established — you might even say venerable — bunch.

WordPerfect has been a favorite of small businesses since DOS ruled the desktop. The brand hasn't been center stage for a long time, but its latest application suite may be poised to regain a share of the spotlight.

When we reviewed WordPerfect Office 12, we said that the greatest challenge its publisher, Corel, faced was to get people to consider WordPerfect, Quattro Pro and Presentations in a market ruled by Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It's clear that Corel met that challenge, as it was an easy winner in the Productivity Software category (comfortably beating runners-up FileMaker Pro 7 and OpenOffice.org 1.3 Office Suite). We can't be certain why you voted for it, but we know why we liked it. It's an affordably priced word processing, spreadsheet and presentation combo that mixes in friendly formatting help and built-in Adobe Acrobat PDF output (something Microsoft stubbornly refuses to add). (Read our review.)

Software & Services
WordPerfect Office 12
      OpenOffice.org 1.3 Office Suite
      FileMaker Pro 7
      SAP Business One
QuickBooks 2005
      Peachtree Premium Accounting 2005
      QuickBooks SimpleStart
      Business Plan Pro 2005
Norton Internet Security
      Ad-Aware SE Professional Edition
      Cloudmark Exchange Edition
      Trend Micro's NeatSuite for SMB
      Eset NOD32
Paint Shop Pro 9
      Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0
      CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 12
      Adobe InDesign CS
      PageMaker Edition

Sales/Customer Management
ACT! 2005
      SAP Business One
Wi-Fi Service Provider
Macromedia Breeze
      Groove Virtual Office 3.0
      Convoq ASAP Pro
Internet Tool
Firefox 1.0
      Microsoft Small Business Center
      EVault Small Business Edition
      Verio Remote Backup

QuickBooks 2005 was again the runaway winner in the Accounting/Finance category. It's not that there aren't other good accounting packages out there (just look at runner-up Peachtree Premium Accounting 2005), but they just can't seem to make a move on Intuit's QuickBooks. The latest iteration of the small business package features QuickBooks Enhanced Payroll, an optional, fee-based payroll service. The service supports state payroll tax forms and deposit slips for dozens of states and can fill in forms for payroll data, which you can print and mail to state tax agencies. The other new features simply make the perennial bestseller just a little bit better. (Read our review.)

We wish we could report that it wasn't a big year for security software and services, but spam, viruses, adware and other creatures of the Net continue to haunt small businesses. The good news is that with vigilance and the right tools you can keep the hounds at bay. It was not a big surprise to see Norton Internet Security takes top honors as SMBs continue to show faith in the integrated suite of anti-virus, personal firewall, intrusion detection, privacy control, parental control and anti-spam components. Readers also told us that fending off spyware and adware is a priority, picking Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Professional Edition as runner-up. (Read more about computer security.)

If there was a poster child for the try-before-you-buy shareware model, you could make a case for Paint Shop Pro 9. Small business owners seem to agree as they voted it the best Graphics/Multimedia application. It boasts almost everything Adobe Photoshop offers (and a few things it doesn't), and it does it for a fraction of the cost: For $100 you can download and use it for free for the first 30 days. (Read WinPlanet.com's review of Paint Shop Pro 9) Tying for the runners-up spot are CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 12 and Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0

Among a crowd of new-millennium, hosted CRM applications, readers stuck with an old favorite. The latest version of ACT! took the award for Best Sales/Customer Management product. ACT! 2005 represents the latest incarnation of an application that is virtually synonymous with the phrase "contact management." ACT! 2005 is available in two versions, one for single users and small teams of up to ten users and ACT! 2005 Premium for Workgroups that offers collaboration for workgroups of up to 50 users. As small businesses start to seek more CRM features (though they may not call it that), ACT! appears to be right in line.

While it takes a lot for an SMB to venture into new territory, Salesforce.com's (one of those new-millenium hosted CRM applications) is winning software-as-a-service converts. The Web-based CRM product had strong showing as a runner-up.

When it came to picking their favorite wireless service provider, small businesses were loud clear about their favorite. T-Mobile racked up more than twice as many votes as Boingo and Wayport combined.

No longer the biggest wireless service provider in the U.S. (Wayport just passed it in terms of number of hotspots), T-Mobile is the most secure as it's the first vendor to offer 802.1X authentication to all users. To use the new authentication, you need only get the new T-Mobile Connection Manager software (version 1.5). Using a subscriber's username and password, it authenticates the user using the 802.1X specification. This security goes the extra mile by encrypting data between the wireless client and the access point hardware in the hotspot once you're logged in.

T-Mobile HotSpot boasts more than 5,300 locations in Starbucks coffee shops, Borders bookstores, FedEx Kinko's Office and Print Centers and many airports and hotels.

While large enterprises have tapped collaboration software and services for years, the idea of Web conferencing is only starting to draw the attention of small businesses that are reluctant to get locked into high monthly fees. Macromedia took a step toward helping Web conferencing adoption with the release of Pay-Per-Use Macromedia Breeze Live. In addition to the 32-cents-per-user-per-minute, pay-as-you-go pricing model, small businesses apparently appreciate that Breeze Live, being a Flash-based application, doesn't require participants to download any additional software. (Macromedia claims that 90 percent of PCs in use today have Flash installed.) One of the attractions of Macromedia's new pricing policy is that once you establish an account, you can maintain meeting rooms, a feature designed to ensure that recurring sales and client meetings can take place without requiring setup and configuration each time. (Additional coverage.)

In keeping with the affordable and accessible Web conferencing theme, the choice for runner-up was GoToMeeting.com. The $49 per month service (for one meeting organizer plus up to 10 attendees) allows you to have as many meetings as you want to hold for as long as you want to hold them. (Additional coverage.)

It's no secret that Firefox 1.0 is picking up steam as an alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. So it should be no surprise that small businesses made the open-source browser their overwhelming choice for best Internet tool. At a time when the Internet seems more threatening than ever, there's no denying the sense of security that you'll find using Mozilla's FireFox. Claiming runner-up honors is Microsoft Small Business Center — formerly bCentral, the portal site that offers advice, information and a suite of online tools designed to make running a Web-based business easy and cost effective.

Page 1: Hardware Winners | Page 2: Software/Services Winners | Page 3: E-Commerce Winners

Intro    Hardware    Software/Services   E-Commerce

Full service ISPs and hosting providers are all the rage this year with small business owners wanting someone to design, host and maintain a Web presence at an affordable price. Oh, and SMBs don't mind service providers throwing in some marketing assistance, as well. Voted the winner in the Site Hosting category, Interland reflects the popularity of its Platinum Business Solutions service for $95 per month.

Interland's service includes a 10-page Web site, consultation with a designer, e-mail marketing, keyword advertising, blogs, online gift certificates, analytics, e-commerce capabilities, a new domain name for two years and e-mail with up to 50 mailboxes and hosting services. (Additional coverage.)

Affinity Internet came in a close second to Interland after debuting a number of small business services in 2004, including the $49.95 per month ReadyWeb package and a new marketing service called "ValueTraffic," which takes the load of online marketing off the shoulders of small business owners.

Site Hosting Service
      Affinity Internet ValueWeb
Design Tool
Macromedia Contribute 3 for eBay
      Affinity Internet ValueWeb ReadyWeb
      ShopSite 7.1
Store Front
Kurant StoreSense 5.7
      OScommerce 2.2 Milestone 2
      LaGarde StoreFront 6
Web Analytics
WebTrends 7
      Urchin 6
      ClickTracks Pro 5.0
Constant Contact
      WebTrends + ExactTarget
Customer Support/Service
      Avidian Prophet 2004
After cozying up to eBay even more in 2004, Macromedia takes home the award for Best Site Design Tool with its Contribute 3 for eBay. The budget-friendly $99 lets customers shop on a Web site created and hosted on non-eBay servers, yet still connect transparently to eBay for processing a sale. For those who aren't HTML-savvy, Contribute 3 is as easy to use as a word processor to design a fully functional, professional-looking Web site. (Additional coverage.)

Affinity Internet's ValueWeb/ReadyWeb service was the runner up in this category. Voters seem to like the package that includes a homepage, contact page and up to three additional pages for any small business Web site.

The winners in the Store Front category were neck-and-neck with voters this year. Kurant's StoreSense 5.7 came out on top as the e-commerce platform of choice for advanced users. In fact, Kurant's products are so well liked that eBay gobbled them up not even two weeks ago.

StoreSense lets e-commerce sellers post products on eBay, manage auctions and handle billing and shipping through the same interface used to manage their online storefronts. (Additional coverage.)

osCommerce 2.2 Milestone 2 was the runner-up. The open source (read: free) storefront software is a full-featured online sales and payment package designed more for the technically inclined entrepreneur. Available for either Windows or Linux systems, osCommerce 2.2 has more than 2,100 user-contributed enhancement modules — one of the benefits of using an open-source tool. However, given the time needed to install and configure this full-featured product, most SMB owners will likely opt for something easier and more convenient, even if the costs are higher.

WebTrends 7 takes home the winning prize for Best Web Analytics. As one of the original developers in this market, WebTrends kept pace in 2004 with version 7 of its popular analytics tool. With the announcement of 7.1 this week, new features such as detailed e-mail campaign analysis and search page optimization tools figure to keep WebTrends at or near the top of the heap. (Additional coverage.)

The economically priced Urchin 6 comes in this year as the runner-up in the Analytics category. JupiterMedia analyst Eric Peterson said Urchin was, "a good package for the small-to-medium-sized online merchant. While its functionality is not top tier, it offers a good value for a lower price." Apparently, voters agreed with him.

Constant Contact, a Web-based e-mail marketing service that helps business owners stay in touch with clients through customizable, opt-in newsletters and marketing campaigns, wins the reader's vote this year for best Marketing Tool. Its ease of use, content-customization and visitor-sorting (according to their interests) is apparently hitting home with marketing-savvy SMBs. (Additional coverage.)

This category's runner-up comes from both Web Trends and on-demand e-mail marketer, ExactTarget. The two companies teamed up in late 2004 to create an integrated solution that provides e-mail marketers with a comprehensive, straightforward view of how respondents react to specific creative elements within an e-mail and their Web site. This partnership was designed to provide e-mail marketers sophisticated scenario analysis, allowing e-tailers to pinpoint both e-mail and on-site conversions and to identify actions needed to improve results.

AuctionVideo, which lets auction sellers on eBay, Yahoo or other auction sites add further appeal to any item by posting one-minute video clips, is the voters' top choice for Customer Support or Service. AuctionVideo stores the video clips on its own servers for e-tailers to use in any auction for up to 30 days. (Additional coverage.)

Claiming the runner-up spot is ThinkingVOICE. The company's hosted CallActivator service is designed to let shoppers who visit your online store click a link to initiate a text chat or a phone call with you. You can customize the link and then embed it on your site, on an eBay listing, in a Google ad or in an HTML e-mail.

Page 1: Hardware Winners | Page 2: Software/Services Winners| Page 3: E-Commerce Winners

Compiled by Devin Comiskey, Dan Muse and Lauren Simonds. Vangie Beal, Eric Grevstad, Eric Griffith and Chris Saunders contributed to this report.

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This article was originally published on Friday Jan 28th 2005
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