Network World’s 20 Best Products of 2015

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Tough to choose

With so many great products on the market, it’s hard to pick the best ones. So we asked our experts, Network World’s independent product reviewers and bloggers to list their favorite products of 2015. What we got back was a list that covers the full spectrum of the networking world, with a little entertainment and gaming thrown in.

White-box switch
White-box switch

As major players in white-box networking, Accton and Cumulus Linux pose an existential threat to incumbent vendors of data center network hardware. The appeal is simple: Run open-source code on commodity hardware, and manage everything as you already do with your servers. It’s the same formula that defeated proprietary server vendors years ago, and there are reasons to believe that, at least in the data center, white-box will again triumph, this time over proprietary networking vendors. See David’s video review here.

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Epson Workforce Pro EcoTank printer

It’s been a long time since I got excited about a printer, but I love the new Epson WorkForce Pro WF-R4640 EcoTank printer. Technically it’s an ink jet printer, but one that conquers most if not all of the disadvantages of that format. Unlike the tiny cartridges that most inkjets use, the EcoTank is loaded with what look like silver hospital IV bags. Once in place, they can print for over 20,000 brilliantly colored pages before needing replacement, and the ink is engineered to sit in the bags for at least three years. It’s also fast, printing 30 graphical pages in two minutes and 29 seconds. YouTube video of my speed test.

iPhone 6s
iPhone 6s

Like clockwork, Apple in 2015 managed to release yet another new iPhone jam-packed with new features. In addition to the usual smattering of spec enhancements, the iPhone 6s introduced us to 3D Touch, a new method of user interaction based on the amount of pressure applied to the touchscreen. The potential ramifications for 3D Touch are immense. Combined with faster Wi-Fi, a better camera, and enhanced Siri functionality, there’s no question that the iPhone 6s is not only one of the top products of 2015, but one of the most exciting iPhone releases in years.

Ironkey Workspace
Ironkey Workspace

The Ironkey Workspace W700 looks like a normal 64G key drive, but is actually an entire portable computer that exists completely on the stick. All it needs is any USB port on almost any device and a display to allow users to tap into its Windows 10 operating system. Once you have booted to the on-board OS, you can work just like normal on your chosen desktop with your installed programs. And the W700 is designed so that no trace of its presence is left behind on whatever system is being used as its temporary host. Finally, data at rest on the W700 is protected by XTS-AES 256-bit hardware encryption.

Steam In-Home Game Streaming
Steam In-Home Game Streaming

As a gamer, I spend a lot of time using the Steam Online Service where PC gamers can purchase, download and play the latest games on demand. The addition of the Steam In-Home Streaming service this year really blew me away. When you play a game using In-Home Streaming, video and audio are sent through your home network from your high-end gaming PC to another device. You can even play games that normally would not work on, say, an older laptop, because the main computer handles the load. Windows games even work with Mac OS X and Linux devices now too, so almost anything can become a supplemental gaming device.

Windows 10
Windows 10

Yes, the latest Windows has gotten a lot of dings over user privacy concerns, many of which are legitimate, but we still have to say that the OS deserves to be regarded as one of the best new tech products of the year. Microsoft gets kudos for listening to the public who signed up to test and give feedback on preview builds of Windows 10, which helped shape and refine the OS’s development. Thus, when the final version was released on July 31, most of what had gone wrong with Windows 8 was rectified: Microsoft ripped out the reviled Start Screen, restored and updated the classic Start Menu UI, and added two major features: The personal digital assistant Cortana, and a better web browser, Edge, to replace Internet Explorer. To top off all this good stuff, Microsoft gave away Windows 10 as a free, downloadable upgrade to any computer running a legit copy of Windows 8 or Windows 7.

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Apple TV

With the fourth-gen Apple TV, Apple has finally released a set-top box that’s worth getting excited about. Sporting a number of compelling features, including Universal Search, a dedicated App Store, and a brilliantly intuitive Siri-enabled remote, the Apple TV may soon be the only device required for users to satiate their entertainment needs. It will only get better once developers start releasing more high-quality apps, and if Apple’s TV subscription rolls out in early 2016, as rumors have hinted. With cable costs now exorbitantly high, the value proposition provided by the Apple TV is now more attractive than ever before.

Sandisk USB flash drive
Sandisk USB flash drive

Released this summer, this flash drive is great if you use one of those lightweight, Windows notebooks that have an SSD, but which are only 64GB or 32GB. Just plug the SanDisk Ultra Fit into an available USB port on said notebook to gain additional storage for your large-sized personal documents and media files, and you can just leave this flash drive there. Because of its stubby-short form factor, the Ultra Fit sticks out just a little from the edge of your notebook, so it probably won’t break off or otherwise become unattached when you stow away your notebook into a backpack, bookbag, purse, or carry-on. When it was first released, the 128GB version retailed for $120, but now you can buy it for less than $30. The Ultra Fit also comes in 64G, 32G and 16GB sizes. It supports USB 3.0 and transfers data at a rate of 130MBps.

Cloudready
Cloudready

Have an old desktop or notebook sitting around that you’re not using? You can (possibly) turn it into an ersatz Chromebook or Chromebox by installing CloudReady. (“Possibly” because CloudReady may not work on computers with technical components that are older than 8 years.) CloudReady is built from Chromium OS, the open-source code release of Chrome OS. Developed by Neverware, it was released in February. CloudReady can be run directly from a USB flash drive, but it’s recommended that you install it onto the computer’s hard drive for better performance. There are some limitations; it doesn’t support audio in MP3 format, or video encoded in H.264 or MP4. Still, CloudReady made its mark in 2015 as an intriguing way to turn an old computer into an Internet-connected client. You can use it for free as an individual; businesses and schools are asked to pay. Neverware intends to make their money by selling enterprise and education licenses, and providing technical support.

hMailServer
hMailServer

HMailServer is an open source mail server for Windows. Unlike overly complex commercial products, hMailServer occupies a small footprint, and works reliably from the moment it’s fired up until you stop it or the hardware fails. Did I mention it’s open source software and therefore, free? I use hMailServer in production at our data center, and after a lot of initial configuration to get spam checking going, and other important rules established, it has been running flawlessly for four years and counting. I needed some custom rules and these were simple to write in VBScript, which hMailServer supports. Plus the documentation and forum support are great.

IPCop
IPCop

I’ve grown attached to IPCop, an open source Linux-based stateful firewall that’s been around since 2004. Even though we’re a Windows shop, there aren’t many good, inexpensive, non-OEM gateway products for Windows. But lacking a Windows-based version of IPCop isn’t an issue, since we use it as a dedicated gateway between our home office and the Internet. Configuration takes a bit of work, but once configured, this product is a workhorse that never quits. We bounce the server every once in a while to clear buffers and just because it’s a good practice, but it’s easy to forget to do this because it works so flawlessly. I love the easy web GUI (only available on the internal subnet of course).

MacBook
MacBook

In a year when Apple, Microsoft, and others highlighted new tablets that double as laptop replacements, Apple introduced an unapologetically pure laptop with a real keyboard and an innovative “force-touch” trackpad instead of a touchscreen. The MacBook’s retina screen is smaller than an iPad Pro’s, and it runs Mac OS X, not a mobile or hybrid OS. Plenty of people still need a real laptop to do real work, and the new MacBook puts to shame the MacBook Air—and will likely soon become ubiquitous in cafes and coffeehouses everywhere.

AWS Snowball
AWS Snowball

As the cloud becomes more and more mainstream, companies increasingly want to do more than run new jobs in the cloud – they want to migrate existing workloads and databases into the cloud. But that can take days or weeks and cost a lot of money. That’s why Amazon threw in Snowball, a 47-pound ruggedized storage appliance designed to take care of the entire process in one fell swoop. Each Snowball holds up 50 TB of data and includes automatic encryption, and you can rent one for as little as $200 per job. Plus, it looks totally awesome.

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Facebook M

Facebook M, the company’s new virtual assistant for its Facebook Messenger system, is a lot more than a challenge to Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana. This bold hybrid of human and artificial intelligence is designed to do just about everything for users, including many of the things software alone still struggles to accomplish. Just as important, the service—now in private beta for a few thousand lucky Bay Area users—is intended to serve as a training ground to help software learn to solve those issues on its own without human help.

Google OnHub router
Google OnHub router

Before the Google OnHub, wireless home routers were frustrating during setup and even more maddening when they broke. With more and more home devices connecting to the Internet, the router is increasingly important. Designed with 12 dual-band antennas, plus one to manage traffic, Google’s OnHub router reliably delivers fast and long-range connectivity even in radio signal-congested urban environments. An Android or iOS app simplifies setup, approaching an almost plug-and-play experience. The device also houses radios for Bluetooth, Smart Ready, 802.15.4, and Weave, which Google can make use of with over-the-air updates.

Docker
Docker

Enterprises facing digital disruption are fighting back with Docker, an open standard implementation of Linux containers. It bundles an application with all of its code libraries and executable files, isolating it from the OS and other applications. It removes the friction between development, test, and deployment. Before releasing version 1.0, it recorded the strongest buying intention score in the last six years, according to a survey (PDF) of 685 CIOs by ETR. Docker lets enterprises run private and public clouds like platform companies Google, Salesforce, and Airbnb do.

360 Total Security Essentials
360 Total Security Essentials

Free antivirus programs often require users to create a membership, or bombard them with pop-up windows pestering them to upgrade to the paid version. Often, the free price tag simply isn't worth the headache. 360 Total Security Essentials doesn't require you to log in to an account. No popups nagging you to upgrade. It's small and unobtrusive and doesn't slow your system at all. In tests, it found Trojans hiding on multiple systems. And it updates regularly and doesn't hit you with false positives.

Wise Care 365
Wise Care 365

There are lots of system maintenance utilities, but I've found Wise Care 365 to be the more effective and most comprehensive. It combines a bunch of individual utilities from WiseCleaner into one product. It does a great job of keeping your system clean, running daily checks for junk files, cleaning the browser cache, optimizing boot speed, and fixing the Registry. But Wise provides a ton of extra utilities as well, including a very good memory optimizer (often freeing up to 1GB of memory), has secure delete, a program uninstaller, secure erase, file search and hiding folders and more. For $29.95, this is a steal.

Western Digital 6TB My Cloud
Western Digital 6TB My Cloud

This one’s a little dangerous. It’s a 6TB external drive appliance that’s USB3 connectable to your personal desktop or notebook—or even server-- if you must, but why not use its Gigabit Ethernet jack? It warns you that its “embedded” certificate is bad. Why do you care? Because you can hit this drive across an ocean at whatever link speed you can muster. It swallows files without complaint and it’s been seen in refurbished editions for well under $200. It’s every Data Loss Prevention Specialist’s rogue nightmare. I love it. Sitting in a Wi-Fi Hotspot in Istanbul, I could take my photos and send them to the lab in Indiana in about three clicks and a drop. Yes, it’s your own personal gargantuan disk resource, and you can access it via your smartphone. It’s a share on your NetBIOS network, too. It has horrific user security, in my opinion, but it’s become a huge storage pit of photos, old ISO images, and more. I’m not quite embarrassed that I own it.

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VMware Fusion 8 For Mac

We reviewed this Type 2 Hypervisor for Mac and really liked it. It does some fairly unique tricks, and you get still more if you’re heavily invested in the VMware ecosystem. If you use VMware’s vCenter, Fusion for Mac 8 becomes an alternative to a browser remote control launch (VMRC) of VMs located within a VMware ESXi infrastructure. It’s a DevOps and infrastructure engineer’s delight. Click on a VMRC link within VMware vCenter and suddenly, Fusion is doing the VDI/remote control for the VM hosted in our data center. Have a bunch of VMs? Open them up and tab among them to watch interactions. No fussy multiple browser windows, just Fusion managing things in the place of VMware’s usual browser window madness. There is a limit to the number of VMs you can open up this way. If you’re a VMware geek, infrastructure construction artist, coder/developer/QA person, it’s a startlingly handy hypervisor.