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The Best of Technology 2009

Advisors can bank on these software and hardware picks.

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 12/10/2009

In keeping with the end of year holiday spirit, I've had a long tradition of using my December column to highlight some of the best products I've encountered over the previous 12 months. During the year, I heap both praise and criticisms on the products I review, so it is gratifying to have an opportunity to tune out the negatives and accentuate the positives. This year, as in previous years, we consider awarding candidates in three categories: hardware, software, and "rookie of the year."

Here are the ground rules: Software and hardware candidates can be either new products or improved versions of existing products that are capable of generating a positive impact on an advisory practice. Industry-specific products qualify, as do general-purpose products. Rookie of the year contestants are new products used by financial professionals that might not yet be perfected but either break new ground or hold great promise. In order to make sure that we only reward the most deserving products, candidates are not limited to products I've reviewed in this column over the past 12 months. In order to be considered, a product must be something I have tried and liked over the previous year; there are no other qualifications for consideration.

Before we go any further, let's not forget the annual disclaimer: Morningstar has no involvement in the selection process, so please direct all accolades and complaints directly to me. Morningstar or I do not necessarily endorse any product mentioned in this article. This is just my way of highlighting some products that are particularly worthy of recognition in 2009. And no, I don't present the winners with actual awards. Winners will have to be content with bragging rights until we do this again next year.

Hardware Product of the Year
It was a banner year for hardware in our little corner of the world. I had the opportunity to try quite a few new products, and I liked many of them. This made selecting a winner in this category more difficult than usual. In the end, though, I selected the EVGA InterView Dual Monitor System, which I reviewed last month, as the hardware product of the year.

In my tests, the EVGA InterView Dual Monitor System increased my productivity. It also provided me with me capabilities that I didn't have before. As an added bonus, this product was extremely enjoyable to use.

The system includes a pair of 17" LCD monitors capable of resolutions up to 1440x900. The stand has hinges, so the screens can be positioned however you like. When working alone, you can configure the screens side by side, or at a slight angle facing you. This creates one extended desktop. The software allows you to drag windows from one screen to the other, so it offers a great deal of flexibility when arranging your workspace. If a client or colleague is sitting across the desk from you, one of the screens can be flipped over, and the monitors can be set to mirror each other, so whatever you display on the screen facing you will also be displayed on the screen facing the other person. This functionality is great for one-on-one presentations or client review meetings.

In addition, the stand includes a built in webcam and a microphone, so conducting video conferences with this system is seamless. The stand also includes multiple USB ports for further convenience. Ideally, you want to pair this monitor system with a video card containing dual DVI connections, but if you don't have such a card you can purchase an adapter that will allow you to run the system in the dual-screen mode.

When I first tried out the EVGA InterView Dual Monitor System about two months ago, I was very enthusiastic about it. Two months later, if anything, I like it more than the day I first tried it. For productivity and flexibility, the EVGA InterView wonderful choice.

Before we move on to our software selections, it is only fitting that we pay homage to a few other hardware products that certainly deserve honorable mention. EVGA won this year by a slight margin, both of these products were very deserving of recognition as well.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 is the ultimate "prosumer" scanner. For solo practitioners and home office use, it is the best scanner deal on the planet. For as little as just under $400 delivered, you get a reliable, 600-dpi, 20-page-per-minute duplex color scanner with a 50-page automatic document feeder. Features include auto color detection, auto paper size detection, auto crop, and auto de-skew. In addition to the ScanSnap software, the S1500 includes Cardminder software for scanning and storing business cards, Abbyy FineReader optical character recognition software, and Adobe Acrobat Standard 9. The ScanSnap S1500 does not include TWAIN or ISIS drivers, so it will not work with all third-party software, but a number of vendors serving advisors, including CEO Image Systems and IAS, offer integration with the ScanSnap software.

Fujitsu also offers the ScanSnap S1500M for Apple computers. The software package for the M version is slightly different (Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 for Mac, Abbyy FineReader 4.0 for Mac, and Cardiris 3.6 for ScanSnap) but the price and features are equally attractive.

The 15" MacBook Pro also deserves honorable mention. The MacBook Pro is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most elegant, wonderful laptop I've ever owned. The aluminum unibody construction gives it a very solid feel. The multitouch trackpad makes it a joy to use.

It has been a number of years since I last owned an Apple computer, so I'm still getting acquainted with the operating system, but the MacBook Pro has a great screen and a great keyboard. Given their low cost, the iLife (included in the price) and iWorks ($49.00 preinstalled) software suites are incredible values. I was originally inclined to purchase a 13" MacBook Pro, but in order to get a discrete video card you have to purchase at least the 2.66 GHz 15" model, which is what I decided to buy. I'm glad I did. The 15" model is only slightly heavier than the model I originally favored, and I'm really enjoying the additional power and the bigger screen. There is no better all-purpose laptop on the market today than the MacBook Pro!

Software Product of the Year
When I first experienced Pershing's new NetX360 workstation platform earlier this year, I knew it had the potential to be a real game-changer. I seriously considered this platform for Rookie of the Year honors, since it is new and somewhat untested, but I'm so enthusiastic about the potential for NetX360 that I decided to award it Software Product of the Year instead.

This state-of-the-art, comprehensive technology platform integrates the Pershing back office with an ever-expanding number of third-party providers to offer a level of comprehensiveness, integration, and choice that is unprecedented among custodial platforms. Although still somewhat of a work in progress, NetX360 allows advisors to customize their workstations to meet individual needs. At the same time, advisors can effectively outsource software integration chores to Pershing. Over time, this system should lead to increased efficiency and lower costs.

Although the technology and list of third-party providers is impressive, what really sets NetX360 apart is the philosophy underlying the platform. Suresh Kumar, CIO and managing director at Pershing, envisions NetX360 becoming a sort of application store for advisor technology. Much as the Apple App Store has revolutionized the delivery of applications to the iPhone and iPod Touch, a NetX360 application store would allow advisors to pick and chose their software applications, pay for them as needed, and have them automatically integrated into their NetX360 Workstations on demand.

Today, NetX360 is a very formidable workstation, however if Kumar and Pershing can successfully implement their NetX360 application store vision, it will be truly revolutionary. In either case, NetX360 is now the custodial platform to beat, and it is our 2009 Software Product of the Year.

Rookie of the Year
What if I told you that you could purchase a single user license of an institutional-quality document-management system that includes a topnotch scanning module, security features, and a full audit trail for as little as $499, with volume discounts for larger installations as little as $399 per user? Well, such a system is now available from CEO Image Systems. The firm's new Image Executive software is capable of meeting the needs of a single user, but it is equally capable of meeting the needs of a 1,000-user system that stores millions of documents.

CEO Image Executive is built upon a modern SQL database, so it is fast. The scanning front end, long a CEO trademark, is sophisticated and feature-packed. The filing system is very customizable, so it can accommodate just about any filing structure. Each user is assigned a role within the system so the administrator can control and audit what each user can do within the application.

Drop-down menus, folder templates, and document templates can all be used to simplify and automate many common tasks. The application can accommodate retention policies, so the system can regularly purge documents that are no longer needed while protecting those that your firm is required to retain. Documents can be scanned and saved to a number of common file formats. The application can also be used to convert files from one format to another. Annotation features allow advisors to mark up documents, attach virtual sticky notes, etc. while preserving the integrity of the underlying original. This application's combination of features, usability, and price make it my selection for rookie of the year in 2009.

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