2009 Awards: Readers Pick the Best Small Business Tech Tools

Monday Feb 2nd 2009 by SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff
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Our roster of winners includes the best tools to help small business owners curb costs and improve efficiency. Whether you're looking for hardware, applications, security or e-commerce technology, the top vote-getters deliver the goods.

Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Warren Buffett says that the answer to our national financial crisis, which he likens to an economic Pearl Harbor, will come from the American people. And we say no one is more resilient and creative about getting the job done than small business owners – especially when they have the right tools. Which brings us to the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Awards.

You and your peers chose the winners in 20 categories. These products and services have been tried and tested where it matters most: in the field and on the job. And they made your businesses better. No worries here about performance, reliability or effectiveness. These are simply the right tools to help you at a time when you simply can't afford to get it wrong.

You'll see familiar names and a few surprises throughout our list of winners and runners-up. This year marks the first time in the history of our awards that a non-Dell computer took top-desktop honors. And relatively new technologies are making their presence felt in both the Notebook and Backup and Recovery categories

While hardware may represent the biggest monetary investment, applications are the backbone of a small business. At a time when every dollar and every hour is a precious commodity, it wasn't surprising to see familiar brands taking top honors. However, there was a twist as Adobe is the only company to win two awards in the Software / Services category.

And it's no secret that you can find literally hundreds of free tools on the Internet to help you run your online business more efficiently in addition to saving you money. It's why this year we included a Free E-Commerce tool category.

At a time when you need to get every ounce of productivity out of your IT budget, these are the best tools to help you curb cost and improve efficiency. Of course, dissent is as American as, well, Warren Buffett, so feel free to go to our forum and tell your fellow readers where they went wrong.

Hardware
Desktop PC
Mac Pro (Apple)
      Runner-up: Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower
Notebook PC
Lenovo SL ThinkPad SL300
      Runner-up: HP EliteBook 6930p
      Runner-up: Dell Inspiron Mini 9

Printer
HP Color LaserJet CP1215
      Runner-up: HP Color LaserJet CP1518ni
Multifunction Device
HP Officejet Pro L7590 All-in-One
      Runner-up: HP OfficeJet J6480 All-in-One Printer
Mobile Device
iPhone 3G (Apple)
      Runner-up: BlackBerry Bold (Research in Motion)
Desktop Storage
Maxtor BlackArmor
      Runner-up:Iomega Rev 120GB Backup Drive
Network Storage
Netgear ReadyNAS Duo RND2150 (500 GB)
      Runner-up: Iomega StorCenter ix2: 225
Server
Dell PowerEdge T300
      Runner-up: Apple Xserve

Hardware

Desktop PC

Despite global notebook shipments recently outpacing desktops for the first time ever, desktop computers still remain the primary tool for small businesses – for now. Ever since we instituted the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology awards back in 2004, Dell has flat-out dominated this category.

But nothing lasts forever, and after five straight wins Dell's desktop reign comes to an end. What makes this year's winner even more interesting is that it isn't a PC at all. It's a Mac. The Mac Pro, to be precise.

Apple bills the Mac Pro as the fastest Mac ever. With standard features that include two Intel Quad-Core Xeon processors, 2GB of 800MHz DDR2 ECC memory, a 320GB Serial ATA hard drive, an ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card with 256 MB of memory and a new PCI Express 2.0 graphics slot, it's certainly equipped to handle any computing task.

Granted, with a starting price of $2,799, the Mac Pro is no one's idea of a budget PC. But for sheer muscle, elegance and ease-of-use it's tough to beat a Mac. And even in a nasty economy, a business owner can dream…and dream big.

Dell may have been displaced from the top spot, but it's hanging tough as runner up with the Vostro 220 Mini Tower. Designed especially for small business with simple networks, the Vostro offers a range of options with Dell's reputation for reliability and affordability.

Notebook PC

No repeat win for the MacBook Pro this year. Lenovo wins the top portability spot with the Lenovo SL ThinkPad SL300, the first ThinkPad designed and priced for small business. You can expect to pay about $1,000 for 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5670 processor, 2GB of RAM, Windows Vista Business, a 250GB hard drive and a DVD burner.

Whether you're in the office, at home or on the road, the ThinkPad SL300 is a business-savvy notebook that packs a multimedia punch, good looks and reliable service and support.

The runner-up position turned into a battle of extremes as Dell's first low-cost netbook, the Inspiron Mini 9, took on HP's top-of-the-line business notebook, the EliteBook 6930p. Both tied at 21 percent of the votes. That's an impressive showing for the Mini 9 and a big indication of just how popular the netbook category has become in a very short time.

Printer

If you're a long-time reader, you may notice that we've consolidated color and black and white printers into one category this year. Color used to be a luxury, but improved technologies have led to a noticeable drop in the overall cost, which makes adding color a viable option for more small businesses.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone, HP wins this category yet again, this time with the HP Color LaserJet CP1215, a personal (read no networking) USB printer. HP has dominated our awards sweeping all but one of the printing categories for in six years straight (Xerox won best Black and White printer back in 2005).

We originally found the LaserJet CP1215's cost per page a bit high, but our readers looked past that hiccup to its first-class out put and decided that the CP1215's makes a great inkjet replacement for anyone who prints less than 50 pages per day.

Grabbing the runner-up position is ‑‑ wait for it – HP's Color LaserJet CP1518ni, a networked sibling to the CP1215. It offers the same print speeds and ink costs, but adds more features if you're looking to bump up to a printer you can share with others.

Multifunction Device

The 800-pound printing gorilla is still in the room and won't be denied. Yes, HP wins this category again – this time with HP Officejet Pro L7590 All-in-One.

Priced less than $300, it features fast print speeds, crisp output, duplexing, direct photo printing and Ethernet networking in addition to scan, copy and fax capabilities. This hard-working inkjet champion is a top-of-the-line, all-in-one printer suitable for both small and home offices.

And in case you haven't had your fill of HP, you can always check out the company's affordable runner up, the $169 OfficeJet J6480 All-in-One Printer.

Xerox, Lexmark, Epson, Brother? Olly, olly oxen free!

Mobile Device

The mobile market is smoking hot, and people in small business know that being able to connect with customers, clients and co-workers anytime from anywhere gives them the fighting edge they need to succeed.

Racking up a second straight win, Apple claimed the mobile throne by a wide margin with the iPhone 3G, thus proving that while business folks demand performance and professionalism, they love a good-looking smartphone as much as the next guy.

Speed is the major improvement over last year's model ‑‑ specifically broadband-speed Web surfing, downloading and e-mail using 3G, a high-speed mobile network technology. Major U.S. carriers such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint operate their own 3G networks.

Our reviewer called the iPhone's touchscreen, "the hands-down coolest of any smart phone we've seen," – and clearly, you agree.

Returning to the deja vue department, BlackBerry Bold held on to its runner-position.

Desktop Storage

What does every small business need more than storage? They need secure storage. This year's winner – the Maxtor BlackArmor – delivers more than cavernous capacity and data backup; it offers total drive encryption.

The 160 GB external drive is protected by 128-bit AES hardware-based encryption. Your password provides access to your data, and without it, no one can use the drive. If you travel with the drive and it's lost or stolen, no worries. Without that password, the drive might as well be a brick. Word to the wise; don't forget the password.

A long-time storage vendor to the small business community

Iomega's been fulfilling the storage needs of small business for years, and it scores the runner-up slot with the reliable Rev 120GB Backup Drive.

Network Storage

Network attached storage is another technology that's evolved over the years to become a small business workhorse. Having moved beyond basic backup and file sharing, NAS now adds streaming media, remote access and capacity expansion to its list of capabilities.

This year, the Netgear ReadyNAS Duo RND2150 (500 GB) earned our readers favor by providing hot-swap drives, support for disk quotas, and excellent media streaming capabilities. You can also access the Duo via an SSL-encrypted connection.

Add the fact that it works with Windows, Mac, and Linux or Unix clients, and it's no surprise that this versatile network storage device took top honors.

Iomega made a strong showing for runner-up with the StorCenter ix2. This two-terabyte monster, the first tangible result of Iomega's merger with storage giant EMC, combines many high-end NAS features at an affordable price.

Servers

Consolidating varied business systems onto a server creates efficiency, saves money and improves productivity. In the case of this year's winner (Dell, for its fifth server-win in six years), the sub-$1,000 PowerEdge T300 also requires less electricity, which helps drive down energy costs.

A general-purpose server capable of handling a wide range of resource-intensive applications, the T300 gets a big power boost from its quad-core Intel Xeon x5460 processor – the type that's usually limited to more expensive, higher-performing servers.

The hot breath Dell feels on its neck comes from the Apple Xserve, making its first-ever – and very strong –appearance as runner-up in our server category. The sub-$3,000 server has up to two Quad Core 3.0 GHz Intel Xeon processors, up to 3 Terabytes of internal storage and includes an unlimited client license for Mac OS X Server Leopard.

To request an .eps version of a Product of the Year Award logo click here.

Awards by Category:
Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Software / Services



Software & Services
Productivity
Adobe Creative Suite 4
      Runner-up: Google Apps Premier Edition
Accounting/Finance
Intuit QuickBooks Premier 2009
      Runner-up: Business Plan Pro 2008 (Palo Alto Software)
      Runner-up: Freshbooks

Sales/Customer Management
ACT by Sage 2009
Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager
      Runner-up: SugarCRM

Collaboration/Communication
Adobe Acrobat 9
      Runner-up: Google Apps Team Edition
      Runner-up: Zimbra Collaboration Suite (Yahoo)

VoIP
Junction Networks OnSIP
      Runner-up: Microsoft Response Point

Accounting / Finance

There are certain things you can count on in life -- death, taxes and Intuit QuickBooks winning the best Accounting / Finance software category in the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Awards. This year, QuickBooks Premier defended Intuit's crown, capturing 44 percent of the vote.

While Intuit still keeps its QuickBooks Online offering separate from its software product, the latest version of QuickBooks now offers online services such as free Web site creation and hosting for one year, improved online banking and integrated access to the QuickBooks online community for support. A new dashboard is designed to let QuickBooks users see in real-time which of their customers owe money, and it also lists outstanding bills and compiles a to-do list.

Keeping pace with text-messaging world, QuickBooks users can also now instantly communicate with co-workers with the new QuickBooks Messenger. Additionally, they can also IM with their accountants.

Claiming runners-up honors are two products that have carved out nice niches for themselves. Palo Alto Software's Business Plan Pro has pretty much built a monopoly in the business planning software category. It's earned that status and has never rested on its laurels. Version 11 allows you to quickly switch between financial tables and underlying spreadsheets. And a new progress-tracking feature makes it easier to see where you are in the overall planning process and how much further you have to go.

Most small businesses want to look larger than they really are. A professional billing system is one way to achieve that goal. Voters gave FreshBooks a thumbs-up for its free Web-based service that lets you can create invoices and estimates in your browser. It also offers fee-based services that let you send printed copies via U.S. Postal Service. The paper invoices even go out with return envelopes that have your address preprinted, making it slightly easier for your clients to pay you.

Productivity

Last year, Microsoft Office 2007 dominated the Productivity category, which was no surprise. The runner-up, though, was a bit surprising as Adobe Creative Suite 3 Design Premium placed second. This year, the latest in Adobe's sleek graphics suite (Adobe Creative Suite 4) took top honors, capturing 33 percent of the vote.

Clearly, not every small business needs the professional quality design and graphics software represented by InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Acrobat and other applications in an integrated suite. What's just as clear, however, is the fact that those businesses that do use Adobe Creative Suite 4 love it.

The runner-up award goes Google Apps Premium Edition, which got the nod from 23 percent of small business votes. Google Apps, which includes Google Docs' word processing, spreadsheet and presentations, Google Calendar, Gmail and Google Sites, has been building up a user community and also serving to even further strengthen small businesses confidence in Web-based applications.

The jury is out about whether Google can seriously challenge Microsoft for business applications supremacy. However, another sign that Google is serious is its recent announcement that it will create a channel sales program to help sell and support Google Apps for small businesses.

Customer / Sales Management

Getting and retaining customers has never been easy. But with the economic downward spiral showing no signs of ending, knowing your customers has never been more important. For that reason, the Customer / Sales Management category holds particular relevance this year. Tying for the top spot with 27 percent of vote are two familiar names: perennial favorite ACT defended its crown, but this year has to share the title with Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager.

Extending the reach of its features, ACT by Sage 2009 now offers "En masse e-mail attaching." This lets you select multiple Microsoft Outlook e-mails — from different senders — and quickly attach them to the contact of your choice. From within Outlook, you can click on an ACT button to attach an e-mail to an ACT contact. You can also use Outlook rules to configure your system so any e-mail from a particular contact automatically becomes a part of a contact's ACT history.

While ACT has focused on integration with Outlook, Microsoft itself continues to make Outlook more of a customer-management product in its own right with Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager, which Microsoft began offering as a standalone product in early in 2008.

Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager is designed to make it easier for small businesses to organize contact, prospect, and customer information in one place (i.e., Outlook); manage sales leads and business opportunities; create, personalize and track direct marketing campaigns; and centralize project information and task management.

Outlook with Business Contact Manager is also available in Microsoft Office Professional 2007, Microsoft Office Small Business 2007 and Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007. The software also now offers integration with Microsoft Office Accounting 2008.

And, of course, what would a software category be without a healthy dose of open source software. SugarCRM is strong runner-up in the Customer / Sales Management category, capturing nearly 20 percent of the vote. The latest version of SugarCRM shows it's keeping with the times by offering new cloud services, social networking features and mobile administration.

VoIP

VoIP delivers professional features typically found on the phone systems of much larger companies but with lower costs and simplified management. That's a good thing, because anyone with even a passing familiarity with telecommunications knows that phone systems can be a royal pain in the receiver.

This year's top spot goes to Junction Networks OnSIP, a hosted PBX service that not only lets you pay-as-you-go, it charges you based how much you use, not by licensed seats or extensions. A simple portal interface makes it easy for you to add extensions, configure call-forwarding rules, create call groups and more.

For companies with local and 800 numbers in foreign countries, OnSIP's Inbound Bridge service lets callers use phone menus, transfer calls, put callers on hold, etc. Without the bridge, inbound callers would be disconnected when they tried to navigate the menus or transfer to specific extensions.

Microsoft claims the runner-up position with its Response Point communications software. Sold as a bundle with the phone system hardware from vendors such as Aastra Technologies, D-Link, and Quanta Computer, Response Point supports both VoIP as well as analog phone lines. Features include interactive voice response capabilities, find-me-follow-me options, unified messaging and integration with other Microsoft products, such as Outlook.

Collaboration

Let's face it: The days when collaboration meant attaching and e-mailing files that you could then discuss over the phone are over. These days collaboration means one document reviewed in real-time by multiple workers who share a vested interest.

If Adobe Acrobat doesn't spring to your mind when someone says "collaboration," you aren't among the 28 percent of readers who voted it Best Collaboration product. Adobe Acrobat 9 is designed to let businesses use commenting tools to share feedback and collaborate live within a PDF document by working with Acrobat.com, a suite of hosted services. Also, because Adobe Reader is free, you can share feedback and responses with just about anyone.

Taking runners-up honors, with 22 percent of the vote each, are Google Apps Team Edition and Zimbra Collaboration Suite 5.0 (the company's first product release after it was acquired by Yahoo).

Announced early in 2008, Google Apps Team Edition includes Google Docs to create and share documents, spreadsheets and presentations; Google Calendar for meetings, schedules and events; Google Talk for instant messaging and free PC-to-PC voice calls.

Also, released early in 2008, Zimbra Collaboration Suite 5.0 adds IM capabilities to the Web client enabling you to have multiple conversations as well as group chats. It's also interoperable with the major IM providers. Zimbra also supports Apple's iPhone.

To request an .eps version of a Product of the Year Award logo click here.

Awards by Category:
Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Security

Security
Security
Norton Internet Security 2009 (Symantec)
      Runner-up: Norton AntiVirus 2009 (Symantec)
Backup and Recovery
MozyPro
      Runner-up: Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8

Security

Security software is must-have tool to protect your business from online threats. But it can be frustrating when the software that's meant to protect you turns out to be a resource hog that drags your daily productivity to a crawl. This year's winner, Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2009, is the exception to the rule.

NIS 2009 made great strides in the performance department, which may explain why it won our readers' votes. Everything about the software says streamlined: performance, interface and even installation. All the heavy lifting – like scanning for malware or updating virus definitions ‑‑ runs unobtrusively in the background where it belongs, leaving you both productive and protected.

Benefiting from the same slim, inconspicuous performance improvements as its Symantec sibling, Norton AntiVirus 2009 easily earned runner-up status. While NIS 2009 is a full-protection suite, NAV 2009 focuses solely on antivirus protection.

Backup and Recovery

Keeping your critical data safe and being able to retrieve it should disaster of any flavor strike is paramount for any business. Best practices say you should store backup copies of your data both on and off the premises, which is a whole lot easier ‑‑ and cheaper ‑‑ to do with the advent of hosted online storage.

This year marks the first time an online backup and recovery service has won the top spot, and honors go to MozyPro, a company recently purchased by storage giant EMC. MozPro can handle the storage needs of up to 250 people, which will set you back $3.95 per month per person plus 50 cents per gigabyte. You can use it for a central file server at $6.95 per month and $1.75 per GB.

The name of this year's runner-up is nearly as long as its feature set. Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8 was designed to perform system restoration or full "bare-metal" recovery for servers, desktops or laptops in minutes instead of hours or days. Happily, it was also designed with a very user-friendly interface.

To request an .eps version of a Product of the Year Award logo click here.

Awards by Category:
Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Ecommerce

E-Commerce
eBay Alternative
Bonanzle
   Runner-up: eCrater.com
Online Marketing
Google AdWords
   Runner-up: Clickable Pro for Advertisers
Storefront/Shopping Cart
SearchFit eCommerce Platform v8
   Runner-up: Volusion
Free E-Commerce Tool
Google Analytics
   Runner-up: Widgetbox
Site Merchandising Tool
PowerReviews
   Runner-up: Bazaarvoice

eBay Alternative

The challenges of becoming a viable eBay alternative are daunting, and yet this year we saw a host of startups take on the task with gusto while other more established ones did a stellar job of gaining market share and adding new features.

The runaway winner in the eBay Alternative category is Bonanzle. This startup combines an easy listing process with cutting-edge features such as on-the-fly image cropping and live chat and an avid seller community. The founders are scaling up to meet increasing traffic, and we can only hope it continues to thrive.

In second place is eCrater.com, a free Web store builder and marketplace that includes free Web site hosting, a free sub-domain and automated posting to Google Product Search. It's notable for its simple listing process, affordability, uncluttered interface and a vibrant seller community.

Online Marketing

Google scored top honors again with Google AdWords. Given the search engine's dominance and popularity of its Analytics, it's not surprising that AdWords got the most votes.

Even with the power and resources of such a large company behind it, AdWords wouldn't be so popular with our readers if it weren't simple to use, affordable and flexible enough to meet the needs of small businesses.

The AdWords site includes tools to help you determine the cost of keywords as well as choose them. Once you are enrolled, Google sends you a monthly report listing where your ads appeared, the number of clicks, cost and conversion data. You can also check results weekly, daily, or even hourly — and instantly add keywords or remove ones that you feel aren't working or don't need anymore.

Second-place goes to Clickable Pro for Advertisers, an online advertising Web service for creating and managing search marketing campaigns from a single interface. This relative newcomer to e-commerce search marketing had one goal in mind when launching in 2006: to bring simplicity to search marketing for small and mid-sized businesses. The company seems to be doing just that.

Storefront/Shopping Cart

Perhaps no other decision you make as an e-commerce business owner is as important as the software you select for your storefront. Fortunately you can find a variety of storefront offerings that include every service you need to run an online store.

The latest trend is integrating SEO into the storefront technology, in essence an "SEO shopping cart" that offers product page naming and flexibility in setting up title tags, alt tags and meta tags and so on.

This year's winner, SearchFit eCommerce Platform v8, does all that and more, and we look forward to watching the trend take hold as the year progresses.

No stranger to our annual awards, Volusion, placed second this year with its Gold Plan edition, which offers a new social commerce feature. With clients such as Barack Obama, whose campaign used the platform for its official online store, Disney and a slew of smaller online boutiques, this company offers affordable plans and features to suit any budget or e-business.

Free E-Commerce Tool

Google Analytics wins the top spot with nearly four times as many votes as the runner-up, Widgetbox. Google Analytics strikes the perfect balance of being easy to use, if you're not very tech-savvy, and yet having enough advanced features that you don't need to invest in a third-party program.

And though Google Analytics is free, it offers many of the features that enterprise-level analytics programs provide. For instance, seven new features, including advanced segmentation and custom reporting, make this analytics package even more formidable in the data-tracking arena. The new toolset gives users more detailed data on who is looking at their ads and then let them segment the most relevant information into charts, reports and graphs that are easy to read.

Widgetbox, a free online directory of Web widgets, scored the runner-up position. It lets you search for widgets, and, once you find a good match for your e-business, lets you customize the mini-application and add it to your own Web site or online publishing spaces.

Site Merchandising Tool

Site merchandising means different things to different people. For some, it's how you display your inventory online, for instance, by showcasing your most popular products or showing specific sets of items for certain demographics.

For others it's offering products based on the customer's behavior on the site. Yet another way to merchandise your site is by letting customers review the products you sell, and both the first- and second-place winners this year are pioneers in the field.

PowerReviews narrowly beat out Bazzarvoice to win the day. Both companies have been in the forefront of making customer-review technology accessible and easy to manage. Price was the one obstacle that kept small online storeowners from adopting the technology. Now all that's changed as PowerReviews offers its Express plan for only $80 a month.

For its part, Bazaarvoice has continued to add new features to its service to remain ahead of the latest trends. The ratings company now also offers Bazaarvoice Ask and Answer, a customer support app, Bazaarvoice Stories, which lets customer share testimonials, and a mobile application called MobileVoice.

To request an .eps version of a Product of the Year Award logo click here.

Awards by Category:
Hardware     Software/Services     Security     E-Commerce    

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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