Look Back in Contempt: The Worst Products of 2006

We're a pretty accommodating bunch over at PC Magazine Labs. We look at close to 2,000 products a year, and our analysts typically find something good to say about almost every one.

Why? Because just as no one product is right for everyone, almost every product is right for someone.

That's why, even though we rate on a five-point scale from Poor to Excellent, very few products rate lower than a two (or Fair) in our tests.

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That's not to say that two points is good. But riddled though they are with errors, inconsistencies, bugs, and shortcomings, most two-star products manage to get the job done — eventually.

Just 41 of the products we reviewed in 2006 received a Fair rating. These included the nearly awful B153 music player from MobiBLU and the less-than-secure security products McAfee Total Protection and Ewido anti-spyware 4.0.

They had a lot of defects, but at least they were usable — perhaps by someone in need or in a hurry.

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We're not here today to explore these pillars of mediocrity, though.

No, today it's time to plumb the depths of depravity, the bottom of the barrel, the reprehensible and the truly terrible.

Today, we explore the absolute worst of 2006 — the eight products that were so bad their ranking fell below Fair all the way down to Poor.

I present these products to you not because I think you should consider purchasing them — in fact, it's quite the opposite.

Should you spot one of these in a closeout bin, on Craigslist, or even sitting forlornly atop a pile of trash at the curbside, pass it by.

Why? Simply put, association with these meager bits of technical flim-flammery will only bring you frustration, sorrow, and, in the end, rage. And because life's too short to waste it on bad technology.

I bring you this list both as a guide to what to avoid and as a bit of salacious entertainment.

Who among us has not stopped to gape at a building in flames, or stare at a twisted automobile smoldering on the side of the road?

These technology disasters are no less enjoyable to gawk at. It's a guilty pleasure, but one we all share.

So join with me now, as we count down the eight worst products of the year, along with a stunning No. 1, as rated and ranked by PC Magazine's industry-leading labs.

8. PC Chaperone Professional 5.0
Category: Parental Control Software

Nothing is more important than our children and family, and shielding them from the terrors of the outside world is a serious responsibility.

Parental control software, which promises to keep our little ones warm and safe from the terrors of the Internet, requires special attention to detail.

Much like trigger locks or redundant aerospace navigation systems, they must work right — now and forever.

And that's what makes Chaperone's failures so egregious. It's not so much that it's hard to set up, or that it defaults to absolutely no security whatsoever. What it doesn't do is its biggest and most inexcusable failing.

First, it won't let you load a list of "bad" Web sites: Instead, it forces you to enter each and every blocked site yourself. Have you seen how many Web sites there are on the Net?

It does limited word filtering on Web pages, but checks only title tags and URLs in Firefox. It also has security holes you could drive a Roboraptor through.

For example, simply renaming a program from, say, "ViceCity.exe" to "ViceTown.exe" bypasses the program's restrictions altogether.

And its Web and instant-messaging restrictions are program-specific: Download Opera, which isn't covered, or rename a copy of one of the covered browsers or IM programs, and you can do whatever you like with impunity.

7. Dell W5001C
Category: HDTVs

It's clearly the year of the HDTV. And canny Dell, seeing an exploding market, jumped in with all four feet. The company's 42-inch version excelled on our tests, but alas, the follow-up stank.

Dell's 50-inch plasma was plagued by color mismatches, artifacting, terrible image quality via the analog inputs, and, worst of all, squished HD images via both the component and HDMI digital connector.

About the only good thing was that the speakers sucked less than those of other displays of its type.

With customers shelling out thousands of dollars for a great viewing experience, the W5001C's shortcomings were unforgivable. Far better sets were available for less, which left us wondering why anyone would buy one of these.

6. Helio Kickflip
Category: Cell Phones

I can't for the life of me figure out why this company exists — apart from its dynamic and charismatic founder, Sky Dayton.

I'm obviously not the target market, being neither hip, young, trendy, nor able to wantonly spend my parents' cash on overpriced cellular services.

But let's put all that aside for a moment and focus on the phone.

Helio's comely Kickflip had great promise. It coulda been a contender. Alas, it had all the markings of a product rushed to market.

With buggy software, poor audio quality and terrible battery life, even Mumsy and Dadsy would frown disapprovingly on this poor purchase.

Helio did manage to deliver better phones as the year went on, notably the Hero. But this first version of the Kickflip, alas, should never have seen the dark of a fashionable Rodeo Drive nightclub.

5. Samsung Techwin Digimax L85
Category: Digital Cameras

I suppose you can call it consistency, although it's nothing to be proud of. For the second year in a row, a Samsung camera has cracked the bottom list.

Last year it was the dismal Digimax V700. This year it's the marginally better Digimax L85.

What's the problem here? Well, it starts with shutter lag: the time between when you press the button and the shutter snaps.

A lot can happen in this time — a smile turns upside down, a fly ball is dropped, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker flits away. The L85 has the worst lag of any we've tested.

It also has an abysmal recycle time, which keeps you from taking another shot to make up for the one you just missed because of the abysmal shutter lag.

It's like watching a bad foreign film where the dubbed dialog never catches up to the action. But bad shutter lag wasn't enough to pull this camera down to the dregs.

Nope, the L85 also suffers from terrible autofocus performance, poor resolution for an 8.1-megapixel camera, and a ridiculously high price, generally retailing for between $275 and $350.

It may have been bad, but Samsung can console itself with at least one bright spot — it wasn't the worst camera of the year. Check out No. 3 for that honor.

4. Video Without Boundaries MediaREADY 5000
Category: Media Hubs & Receivers

Over the past year, I've really warmed up to Microsoft's Windows Media Center.

With an HD ATSC tuner, it's actually decent, and Vista adds a coat of lipstick to what's no longer a pig.

Linux also came a long way this year, with SageTV delivering decent performance on a broad array of hardware.

Alas, that array does not extend to the MediaREADY 5000. This TiVo wannabe combines Linux, SageTV, an analog TV tuner and a DVD player into a set-top box.

It aspires to be the entertainment hub of your living room. It delivers nothing but heartache and eyestrain.

The substandard analog TV tuner can't even get colors right, DVD playback is poor, the remote didn't work right, and it suffered from the same video-squashing disease as the Dell plasma TV at No. 7 on this list.

For $700, you can get a lot more, including an HD receiver and DVR from TiVo, five years of DVR rental from your cable company, or a better home-built option.

Robert Heron put it best as he summed up the review and the product, calling it "a box full of half-finished junk."

And now we graduate from the merely bad to the truly atrocious. These last three products belong in their own special circle of technology hell.

3. Polaroid PDC 5080
Category: Digital Cameras

Gosh, an $85 digital camera! Wow, it's got 5.1 megapixels! And it even comes from that brand I've trusted for decades — Polaroid!

Whoops, better temper that enthusiasm. Polaroid slaughtered its brand name by releasing a steady stream of terrible products, from portable DVD players to flat-screen TVs.

But even among this parade of Polaroid putrescence, the PDC 5080 stands out.

Let's get the little problems out of the way first: no optical zoom, no lens cap, and a recycle time nearly 50 percent longer than that of the Samsung Digimax L85 (No. 5 on this list).

But wait, there's more. The 5.1-megapixel rating comes with about 50 percent of the actual resolution of most similarly rated cameras.

How were the photos? As if you had to ask! Poor contrast, inconsistent color, fringing, and noise were all constant partners on our journey into photographic purgatory.

But the worst crime of all? The camera actually lost images somewhere between the shutter and the SD card.

Poor pictures are one thing. No pictures at all put this camera into a league of its own.

2. GQ MX-3203
Category: Laptops, Notebooks

Yeah, we should have been warned. The GQ notebook we picked up at geek superstore Fry's was named not for the popular men's magazine but as a shorthand for "Good Quality". And for $350 we weren't expecting much anyway.

But we got way less than we bargained for. With a Via processor and 256 MB of RAM, it's surprising that this notebook could even boot into Windows XP.

Once it did, though, it didn't stay long: The battery life lasted about as long as a flight from San Francisco to Oakland.

And don't even think of using any of those new-fangled wireless Internet connections: the GQ lacks internal wireless and a PC Card slot where you could add your own.

What else? Performance was atrocious, port layout Paleolithic, and the case quickly got warm enough to fry an egg.

Don't fall for the GQ: It isn't even good-looking enough to attract geek-hunting babes.

1. Iomega ScreenPlay
Category: Hard Drives

Unlike the other top two worst products, which aspired to nothing more than mediocrity, the ScreenPlay both aimed high and crashed hard.

The idea behind the product was good — a portable external hard drive that plays video, music and photos on any TV.

But to work right, a device like this must support nearly every widely used audio and video format.

Alas, the ScreenPlay played reliably only the older MPEG-1 video format. There was no support for WMV, QuickTime, or Real.

It lacked broad audio support as well, eschewing WMA, M4P, Ogg and FLAC. There was no playlist support, which meant playback was limited to folder structure.

But the worst part of all is that it was glacially slow. It took nearly 15 minutes to boot up and 5 minutes to move from one media format to another; navigating through 600 songs took forever.

Even those who like to watch paint dry will quickly grow bored. And at $220 for a 60 GB hard drive, it's not cheap either.

For aiming so high and landing so low, I'm happy to award the ScreenPlay the absolute worst product of 2006.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.