Gizmos and gadgets and gear-- Oh my!

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, December 1999

December?the time of year when our minds naturally turn to peace, goodwill to all of humanity, and such. Or do they turn to gizmos and gadgets and gear (oh my!)?

Here are some of the later that might really make me sit up if they appeared in my stocking.

-- You may not easily remember the name of Sharp?s VN-EZ1 Internet ViewCam, but the gadget itself is pretty memorable. It?s a video and still digital camera that easily fits into your shirt pocket. It uses MPEG-4 compression to save video and audio clips, making small enough files to post on a Web site or send as e-mail attachments?clips can be played back with Windows Media Player. Capture the kids under the Christmas tree and e-mail the video clip to Grandma?

The camera uses a postage-sized SmartMedia card?a 4 meg version is bundled with the camera, while 16 and 32 meg cards are available from third-party sources. Files are transferred to a PC by slipping the card into a holder that fits in the computer?s floppy disk drive. A set of four standard alkaline batteries are good for about an hour?s recording time.

The tradeoff for compact file size is in resolution and quality. Don?t expect to use this to film the next Blair Witch Project. The camera offers a maximum of 320x240 (1/4 VGA screen) video clips, and 640x480 stills. And at that maximum video size, the frame rate of 2 to 5 images per second will result in pretty jerky movement?but for home movies viewed over the Net, that?s about state of the art.

The price hasn?t been set at mid-October, when I got my turn to play with the ViewCam, but Sharp?s Michael Weinstein expects it to be somewhere around $1000.

Too rich for your blood?

Microsoft has offered a series of keyboards promising ergonomical correctness while looking like they were ripped from the cabin of the Starship Enterprise. The latest is the Natural Keyboard Pro, which continues the sculpted 3D look and feel, while adding 19 hot keys for common Internet activities (back, home, and the like). It works with standard PS/2 or USB ports, so it can be used with both PCs and newer Macs. About $99?other models offer fewer features for less money.

The company also has a new take on the mouse?the IntelliMouse Explorer has no mouseball (no jokes, please), and no moving parts?so it doesn?t get dirty and always moves smoothly and accurately?and eliminates the need for a mouse pad. The $99 model is titanium coloured and includes additional, programmable buttons and a visible coolly glowing red light. A $79 model looks like the previous generation of IntelliMice, only with the red light instead of the ball.

And fans of first-person gaming?the games where you?re a character moving through a violent, 3D environment, will be intrigued with Microsoft?s SideWinder Dual Strike?a controller that combines traditional game pad functions with controls that up to now required keyboard and mouse movements. The odd, black design has two halves joined in what seem to me like the ball and socket joint that attach our thighbones to our hips. That lets the game player twist and turn the two halves independently, turning the character?s head independently from the rest of his or her body?at least in games that support it, like Sierra?s HalfLife. About $80.

I know your kids want games?but get them a CD-ROM encyclopedia instead (or as well) and their homework will thank you. Check out Microsoft?s new Encarta Reference Suite?a 5 CD package (or one DVD disk) that includes the newest version of the multimedia encyclopedia with an interactive world atlas and what Microsoft claims is the only completely new English language dictionary of the past 30 years. Besides giving English language usage worldwide, the dictionary includes Roget?s Thesaurus, an almanac, a book of quotations, and more. $149 before a $50 mail-in rebate.

If, like many PC users, you?re just thinking of using the USB port on your computer, you may feel overwhelmed by the variety of USB gadgets on the market. Xircom ( offers a neat way to tie them all together?literally. The new PortStation isn?t a single product, but a set of USB products, which snap together like a line of Lego blocks. Buy the pieces that you need now, knowing that you can always get additional modules to snap into place when you need them.

Modules have varying costs that are in line with stand-alone units. Xircom is currently offering 4 and 7 port USB hub modules, serial and parallel port modules, 10-base-T Ethernet modules, and 56k modems in the snap-together format. Promised but not yet available are 4-port Ethernet hubs, and ISDN, DSL, and cable modem units, and a home phoneline networking module. Mix and match or choose from several pre-selected starter kits.

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