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GameSpot Hardware - Best of 2004

Welcome to the GameSpot Hardware of the Year Awards, where we recognize all the great hardware products that have been released in 2004.

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By: The GameSpot Editors

Welcome to the GameSpot Hardware of the Year Awards, where we recognize all the great hardware products that have been released in 2004. A lot of products, ranging from the fantastic to the mediocre, have passed though our hands, but we've decided to limit our Hardware of the Year Awards to only four categories, focusing on the products that have had the most impact this year.

At GameSpot, we understand that gamers don't buy new hardware products as often as new games. It takes a really special product, one that significantly improves the gameplay experience, to get noticed. While we applaud novelty in games, novelty PC hardware and console accessories don't have as good a track record. The best products aren't new kinds of oddly shaped controllers--the best hardware products, aside from new platforms, are often those that work a lot like already existing products, but offer improved performance or increased functionality.

This year's categories include Best Game Accessory, Best PC Hardware Upgrade, Best Design, and Best Cell Phone. Most of these categories cover a wide variety of product types and exhibit a blatant disregard for platform distinctions. It may be odd to see a mouse go up against a 5.1 speaker set, but that's part of the fun of these awards. We did take product cost into consideration, but mainly in terms of value rather than absolute cost. If a product offers excellent performance for the money, then it's a good value.

Only products released in North America in 2004 received consideration, so products such as the Sony PSP will be considered for next year's awards. Also note that these awards come at the end of the year and are decided with the benefit of hindsight, so the highest review score doesn't necessarily make the winner. Read on for our picks of 2004, and check out the movies for a closer look at the winners.

Best Gaming Accessory

We're more than able to play games with the standard equipment that comes with the average console bundle or PC system, but there are plenty of add-on gaming accessories that can augment or even replace your regular equipment and make the gaming experience that much more enjoyable. Our finalists for the Best Gaming Accessory award represent the most useful gaming accessory upgrades available this year, and they all found their way onto the list by offering improved performance over existing solutions or added convenience, such as wireless technology.
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Plantronics GameCom Halo 2 Edition
The GameCom Halo 2 Edition headset sounds great and it's comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time. The over-the-ear unit features an adjustable swivel with several interchangeable earpieces for optimal placement, and the noise-canceling microphone has a flexible boom that allows you to position the mic right where you want it.
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Logitech Cordless Action Controller
The Logitech Cordless Action is the wireless controller of choice for the PlayStation 2. It operates on the 2.4GHz frequency and offers responsive, lag-free performance. The controller lasts for 50 hours on two AA batteries, and that's with the rumble feature enabled. Logitech also offers a similar Cordless Precision Controller for Xbox, but its lack of a Communicator port knocks it out of the running.
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Logitech Z-5500 Digital
The Logitech Z-5500 Digital is an upgraded version of the Z-680 speaker set. This 5.1 speaker system outputs over 500 watts and the subwoofer features a massive, 10-inch driver. The unit also features a digital control module that offers Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, and DTS 96/24 processing and it can accept an optical connection direct from a console.
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Logitech MX1000 Wireless Laser Mouse
The Logitech MX1000 features a new laser engine that's 20 times more sensitive than regular LEDs. The optical sensor is still only 800dpi, but the laser allows the mouse to track on glossy surfaces that no regular optical mice dare to go. The mouse also uses Logitech's Fast RF cordless technology for lag-free wireless performance.
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Razer Diamondback Mouse
The Razer Diamondback comes to bat with a 1600dpi optical sensor that makes the mouse two to four times more sensitive than regular optical mice. You can also adjust mouse sensitivity on the fly, and if you want even more specific adjustments, the software drivers allow you to set independent mouse sensitivities on the x and y axis.

Best Gaming Accessory

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Razer Diamondback Mouse
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The Razer Diamondback Mouse flew in under the radar to take our vote for Best Gaming Accessory of the year. Not many gamers pay attention to mouse technology improvements, but we've had two major advancements this year with the introduction of laser technology in the Logitech MX1000 and the ultrahigh resolution optical sensor featured in the Razer Diamondback. Logitech and Razer have shown the industry that gamers want more out of a mouse than additional buttons or a better scrollwheel design.

Best Accessory
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We enjoyed using all of this year's Best Gaming Accessory finalists, but the Razer Diamondback was the only peripheral that offered performance significantly better than the next best available option in its product category. The Logitech Z-5500 Digital, for example, could be considered a sequel product that's slightly better than the original Z-680s. The other finalists, all very good in their own rights, weren't able to blow away its nearest competitors the way the Razer Diamondback manhandled other mice on the market.

The Logitech MX1000 may be the best wireless mouse we've ever tested, but the Razer and its 1600dpi optical sensor offers a revolutionary mousing experience that makes other mice feel like mud. The Diamondback will perform well for fast-twitch and slow-twitch players alike. Razer's unique software drivers and on-the-fly sensitivity-adjustment ability also demonstrate that the Diamondback status as a "gaming" mouse extends beyond the product packaging.

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We weren't fans of the original Razer Boomslang mouse, with its odd shape and unconventional sensor placement, but the Diamondback shows us that Razer has definitely learned from its past mistakes. From the moment we first placed our hands on the mouse, the Diamondback amazed us with its fantastic feedback and excellent feel. The shape and optical sensor placement is also conventional enough to make it easy for longtime Microsoft or Logitech users to make the switch.

Overall, the Razer Diamondback is the most responsive mouse we've ever tested, and it's our choice for Best Gaming Accessory of the year. You only have to use the Diamondback for a few hours before discovering that there's no going back to other mice.

Best PC Hardware

To experience modern PC games to the fullest, you need the best hardware. Every component plays a key role in how a game looks and performs. Having a single component weakness in your system can push your gaming experience from utter enjoyment to sheer frustration. In such a broad category, with so many excellent choices, choosing a winner was quite difficult. We usually advise our readers to keep their systems "balanced," making sure that all components are matched for optimal performance, but if we had to pick a single PC hardware product to have in our systems, it would be the winner of this award:
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AMD Athlon 64
When it comes to gaming, we can say without any reservation that AMD's Athlon 64 is the best processor you can get for your computer. It outperforms the Intel Pentium 4 in just about every game benchmark, and it comes at a lower price.
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Nvidia GeForce 6800 Series
Nvidia's remarkable recovery from last year's unfortunate GeForce FX experiment is nothing short of astounding. Video cards based on the GeForce 6800 series support Shader Model 3.0, and provide excellent graphics performance across all price categories.
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ATI Radeon X800 Series
ATI's Radeon X800 series matches the performance of Nvidia's GeForce 6800 series, as the two trade wins in a variety of game benchmarks. However, the Radeon X800 series is able to offer the same level of performance with lower power consumption.
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Nvidia nForce4
The Nvidia nForce4 earns a spot on our final list by offering SLI support for the AMD64 platform, but the extra features cement its position. The extras include Nvidia ActiveArmor, SATA II, a revamped nTune feature set, desktop-revolutionizing RAID morphing, and hard-disk failure detection.

Best PC Hardware

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AMD Athlon 64
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In the world of desktop processors, there are only two real choices for gamers: the AMD Athlon 64 and the Intel Pentium 4. But once you look at the benchmarks, choosing between these two processor platforms couldn't have been easier. The Athlon 64 outperformed the Pentium 4 in every game we've benchmarked this year. Basically, 2004 was the year the Athlon 64 came into its own and established itself as the processor to beat in the gaming PC space.

Best PC Hardware
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The AMD Athlon 64 keeps improving as the platform matures. AMD's current flagship processor, the 2.6GHz Athlon 64 FX-55, represents the absolute pinnacle in gaming performance. Even if you decide to save some cash and get a lower-end processor like the Athlon 64 3000+, you'll still be rewarded with the best performance at your budget level. Regardless of price, AMD's Athlon 64 gives you excellent performance and value at every level.

The Athlon 64's superior architecture provides the best gaming experience in today's 32-bit Windows environment. The processor's on-chip memory controller and speedy HyperTransport bus will make sure you get more done in less time. The Athlon 64 also prepares you for Longhorn, Microsoft's upcoming 64-bit edition of Windows. However, you'll likely be on your next processor by the time Longhorn actually comes out.

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In the end, the Athlon 64 outshines our other finalists by virtue of its strong gaming performance and its dominance over the competition. Choosing between the GeForce 6800 and Radeon X800 series of cards is a hard decision in itself, but neither video-card platform outperforms the other as much as the Athlon 64 outperforms the Pentium 4. Athlon 64 chipsets made by VIA or Nvidia are still crucial components, but they don't affect gaming performance to a great extent. You can swap similar chipsets and video cards with minimal performance loss, but straying from AMD's powerhouse would be a mistake.

Best Hardware Design

Our best hardware design award goes to the single hardware product that combines intelligent functionality with an eye-pleasing exterior. Products considered for this category must demonstrate advanced or highly polished features as well as an intuitive, user-friendly design. And, of course, the product also has to look good when it's sitting on our desks, in our hands, or on our ears. Microsoft's Xbox Live came into its own this year, and peripheral manufacturers capitalized on Xbox Live's success by offering superior headset solutions. Our finalists for this year actually include two Xbox headsets in addition to the Nintendo DS, Nokia N-Gage QD, and the redesigned Sony PlayStation 2.
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Nintendo DS
The Nintendo DS may be on the hefty side, but it more than makes up for it with a bevy of new features, including wireless connectivity, a microphone port, dual-LCD displays, touch-screen technology, and backward compatibility with GBA games.
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Nokia N-Gage QD
The Nokia N-Gage QD is head and shoulders above its side-talkin' predecessor. The system plays N-Gage titles, but the improved D pad and button controls also make the N-Gage QD the mobile phone of choice for Series 60 smartphone games.
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Plantronics GameCom Halo 2 Edition
The GameCom Halo 2 Edition headset is all about comfort. The earpiece features an adjustable swivel and several interchangeable earpieces for optimal comfort, and the noise-canceling microphone has a flexible boom for easy adjustment.
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Logitech Cordless Headset for the Xbox
The Logitech Wireless Headset is the perfect complement for Xbox wireless controller users. The stylish 2.4GHz wireless headset frees you of messy communicator wires and lasts for up to seven hours on a single charge.
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Sony PlayStation 2 Slimline
Sony released its slimmed-down PlayStation 2 just in time for the holiday season. The new unit is one-fourth the size and weighs less than half as much as the original PS2 system. The new system also features integrated LAN and modem functionality, and it is much quieter thanks to a redesigned cooling system.

Best Hardware Design

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Sony PlayStation 2 Slimline
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Picking a single hardware product out of such a wide variety of product categories is a daunting task, but it became apparent early on that almost all the GameSpot editors heavily favored one product in particular. Our editors managed to encapsulate their ardor for our winning product in passionately delivered, two- or three-word statements: "it's tiny" and "it's so tiny."

Best Design
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It may not be a next-generation console, but the new, slimline Sony PlayStation 2 has captured our hearts with its svelte design and increased functionality. We didn't realize that the original PS2 design was lacking until we laid our eyes on the new PS2. The system occupies a quarter of the volume of the original model, but includes integrated networking functionality that was only available as an expensive add-on accessory for the previous PS2 model. The reduced size is also great for gamers on the go. Transporting the system is as easy as carrying a hardcover book to a friend's house, although this book also has a power brick, two controllers, and a memory card or two.

The new system also runs much quieter because Sony has removed the loud system exhaust fan found in the rear of older systems. The loud whirring noise has been replaced with an almost inaudible hum. The new unit still has an internal fan, but the new PS2 runs whisper-quiet compared to its predecessor. However, you do have to be more careful about keeping the rear exhaust port clear for airflow.

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The PS2 system features full compatibility with all the existing PlayStation 2 games, with the exception of one or two titles that make use of the ill-fated PS2 hard drive accessory that is no longer supported by the new system. With its integrated features, improved acoustics, and attractive size, the new PlayStation 2 is a beautiful system that's difficult to resist. Many of our editors have actually traded in their old PS2 systems to upgrade to the new model. Others have purchased the new system outright, as "back-up" systems in case their older units ever fail.

Best Gaming Phone

This hardware category is intended to recognize the year's best cellular handsets for gaming purposes. Choosing a phone is often a tricky affair, due to the wide range of options available. The process is further complicated by carriers' limited handset inventories, which greatly restrict the choices available to most consumers. All these considerations aside, if you were to start from scratch and buy a new phone purely for its merits as a gaming machine, you would be buying the winner of this prize. Secondary considerations for this award include handset features, design, and value. Here are our nominees for Best Gaming Phone:
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LG VX7000
The LG VX7000 is Verizon's new flagship handset, and with good reason. It's a significant upgrade on the aging LG VX6000, complete with an ARM-9 processor, a video camera capable of taking 15-second clips, and a larger screen. If you're a Verizon customer, this is the phone for you.
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Nokia N-Gage QD
Nokia's second shot at the N-Gage is leaps and bounds more successful than its first try. The QD has a pleasantly sturdy form, and it's also far and away the least expensive Series 60 smart phone you're going to find. Overall, the new N-Gage's combination of value and gaming functionality is tough to beat.
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Sanyo PM-8200
This phone is a great option for gamers who use the Sprint PCS mobile service. It's a very balanced handset because it doesn't skimp on important features like camera image quality and a speaker phone. It won't put a crimp in your wallet, either.
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Sony Ericsson K500i
This phone is a close cousin of the K700i, with a few notable differences. Yes, it lacks Bluetooth capability and has a lower-resolution screen--but it's also significantly faster and much less expensive.
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Sony Ericsson K700i
This candy-bar phone for GSM carriers (T-Mobile, Cingular, and AT&T in the US) has an incredibly sleek form--and it packs a huge gaming punch, with a razor-sharp screen and a robust, 3D-capable processor.

Best Gaming Phone

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Nokia N-Gage QD
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Nokia's N-Gage QD, the Finnish company's top-down redesign of the pariah N-Gage Classic, is our Best Gaming Phone of 2004--but not for the reasons you'd assume. In fact, our choice has nothing to do with the N-Gage platform whatsoever. Even if you never play a single N-Gage game on your QD, it's still one of the best purchases you can make, due to its Series 60 smart-phone capabilities, its gaming-oriented design, and its absurdly low price.

Best Phone
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The new N-Gage QD features a more compact 4.7 by 2.7 by 0.9 inch design, and weighs in at 5 ounces. Nokia has abandoned the sidetalkin' experiment and the N-Gage QD now features an earpiece on the faceplate that allows for more conventional usage methods.

In an effort to jump-start sales, Nokia has offered carriers and retail outlets huge subsidies to knock the N-Gage QD's price point to ridiculously low levels. It's easy to find a QD for $99 or less when you purchase a new service contract at most GSM carriers. In several highly publicized cases, Nokia is offering enough of a rebate for QD buyers to actually make money on their purchase.

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We can't speak to this plan's viability as a long-term marketing strategy, but we can't dispute the kind of value the N-Gage QD offers. The N-Gage QD might lack a built-in digital camera, but it does everything else that you'd expect from a Series 60 smart phone. For instance, the QD can play MP3s using a special downloadable application; it can play video; it can use any number of Series 60 and Symbian-native applications, which include everything from instant-messenger clients to productivity software; it can accept SD storage cards to boost its memory; and, of course, it can play any number of great Java games.

In fact, the QD is our primary reviewing handset for Java mobile games, mostly because of the handset's gaming-oriented design (it may be the only phone with a dedicated controller-style D pad). You might be wary of the N-Gage QD due to the platform's past history, but the reissued version is unequivocally a great phone at a great price.

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