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ISSUE 529: The high-tech office- Dec 14 1999

ALAN ZISMAN

Flashy mouse stirring in Microsoft's house

Microsoft probably already plays a big role in your computing life. If statistics are to be believed, most of you are running some version of Microsoft Windows on your desktop, and most of you are also running some Microsoft applications, probably Microsoft Office for your word processor and more.

But not satisfied with just holding these roles, Microsoft wants more. They want to provide at least some of the presents under your Christmas tree as well.

How about a new mouse? Microsoft has been selling mice for PCs since the mid-1980s. Microsoft Word was one of the first DOS programs to support one of those rodents, and the company started off bundling mice with copies of Word or with early versions of Windows.

Recently, Microsoft released an innovative rethink of the computer mouse. Yes, Microsoft does more than repackage Apple innovations! These new critters get around the biggest problem people have with computer-mice--grunge.

As standard mice roll around their little pads, they pick up dust and grime which makes them lose accuracy. You can (and probably should) open up the retainer ring on the bottom, take out the ball (no jokes please), and clean out the little rollers. Or take a look at Microsoft's new $99 Intellimouse Explorer.

This mouse is like none you've seen before. It comes in a distinctive grey case. But what makes it stand out is the glowing red light on the bottom. These mice have no roller balls--and in this case, it's an improvement.

Instead, the red light rapidly strobes to detect movement. With no ball, there's nothing to trap office dirt. It doesn't even need a mouse pad--it can be used on nearly any flat surface, even a wall or your leg.

The $99 model also includes a pair of programmable buttons on the side, where your thumb rests. By default, it is set to go backward and forward in your Web browser. A $69 version trades the grey case for the white case and comma shape of a standard Microsoft mouse. It loses the extra buttons but still retains that glow-in-the-dark light. Both models retain the wheel of previous models, for easy scrolling up and down document pages.

Other new gadgets from Microsoft include $69 and $99 models of the curvy, ergonomic Natural Keyboard. Or, if you like the buttons but not the curves, the new low cost ($45) Internet Keyboard lets you have things your way. By including USB connectors along with the more standard plugs, both the mice and keyboards can be used with newer Macintoshes as well as with PC models.

Game players on your gift list will be intrigued with the company's SideWinder Dual Strike game controller. This $79 product focuses on improving control in 3D action games, by offering a rotating ball mechanism. It looks like something out of an anatomy lesson, perhaps a shoulder's ball in socket joint, but the off design makes it easier to control a game character's movements.

Then there are games. Microsoft offers a number that will appeal to users turned off by the "shoot everything that moves" computer game clich?s.

Flight Simulator 2000, the latest update of this flying classic, now makes it possible to fly all the way around the world with realistic scenery. Golfers may like to try their hands at Links LS 2000, now with Scotland's St. Andrews Old Course among its offerings, or Links Extreme which is described as golf with an attitude. (Though golf fans using the popular handheld Pilot should stray from the Microsoft franchise, and check out Electronic Arts' Tiger Woods PGA Tour--18 holes on a computer that fits in your pocket!)

With the original Age of Empires, Microsoft let users build a civilization from the end of the Stone Age to the Fall of Rome. Age of Empires II carries on from there through to the end of the Middle Ages.

Pandora's Box, from the Russian creator of the ever-popular Tetris, is a visually beautiful puzzle game, which appeals to many people who simply can't see the point of most computer games.

However, I'd recommend staying away from Microsoft's sports games. Their latest baseball, basketball and football releases are simply not up to the standards set by Burnaby-based Electronic Arts. Your recipient would much prefer to get one of EA's releases. *

While U.S. Judge Thomas Jackson was recently highly critical of tactics used by Microsoft to gain and keep control of the operating systems market, if Microsoft gets a strong share of your computer Christmas list, it will be on the basis that it offers an appealing range of products at an affordable price. *



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan