Sorting through Santa's sack of goodies
reveals plenty of high-tech possibilities - Dec 23 1997

By the time you read this, Christmas should
be about here. Instead of offering suggestions for presents to buy for others, I'd like to propose that you take advantage of the season and get something for yourself. That way, you can be sure that it's something you want.

In keeping with the nature of the column, these are all high-tech gadgets. And they're all things that I'm sure you can justify as being business-related, and so tax-deductible. Be prepared -- none of these are under-$20 items like a mouse-pad with a picture of your loved one(s). If you're going to be getting yourself a gift, you might as well make it worthwhile!

In looking for items for this list, I've searched for things that could be productive, but also fun to mess around with. So I've ruled out items that you might find simply fun (such as game software) and also things that are simply productive (like, say, a faster modem or a tape backup drive). Much of what I was left with seemed to involve graphics, since there's a bit of the wannabe artist in all of us.

* Digital cameras have become increasingly popular and affordable. Check models ranging from about $400 to around $1,000. Nice features include big LED viewfinders and resolutions of 640x480 or larger, allowing you to take shots that will display as full-screen on your computer monitor. Everyone ought to have one of these. The only reason to wait is that they're a rapidly evolving product category -- which means that next year's models will almost certainly be better.

* Hooking your computer up to the TV cable allows you to capture still pictures from video, watch the business news in a window on your computer, pipe through the audio... Check a replacement for your current video-card such as ATI's All-in-Wonder-Pro (about $300 -- PC only) or devices that simply plug into the back like AverMedia's TV-Genie. (Some Macs already let you attach a TV cable directly to the computer.) Hardware such as Play Inc.'s Snappy (under $200) plugs into your printer port (PC only) to let you snap pictures from any video source. But you can't really use it to watch TV on your computer. There's no sound and it only updates the screen every few seconds at best.

* Once you get your digital pictures, make sure you have some sort of software to let
you clean up your shots. MetaTools' PhotoSoap, Microsoft's Picture-It and Adobe PhotoDeluxe are all worth a look and all priced under $100. If you want more power for more money, and want to play at being a real graphic artist, look at products such as the industry standard Adobe PhotoShop or Corel PhotoPaint (available on its own or part of the Corel Draw package). MetaTools PowerGoo (as low as $29) describes itself as "realtime liquid image funware," treating your photo as if it was printed on putty. You can pull, pinch or reshape it freely. Easy to use, the effects are better seen than described. Can you convince your accountant it was for business use? Well, maybe (remember, we all have a creative side).

* Recordable-CD drives have taken a drop in price, from around $1,000 to around $600. And blank discs have dropped from around $25 each to about $5. Since nearly all new computers can read CD-ROMs, CD-writers have many potential business uses, such as producing near-permanent archives of your files. But they can also be used, for example, to make your own compilation audio-CDs, getting your favourite tracks from multiple discs onto a single disc. Products such as Adaptec's Easy-CD-Creator (under $150) promise you can put your old LPs onto CD, filtering out the pops and scratches in the pro-
cess. And while the last-generation CD-writing hardware I reviewed in this
column just a few short months ago re-
quired an add-in SCSI card, new products such as Hewlett-Packard's CD-Writer Plus 7100 plug right into the IDE adapters that are already in most PCs.

* You may use your computer to play games as well as for business. If so, check out the Sidewinder Force Feedback joystick from Microsoft. With it, you not only control your game action, but you literally feel the force -- the vibration of the motor of that race car, for example. It really does add a whole new dimension of realism to game-playing. It does require games to be specially written to support it (several are included in the package) and it does cost a couple of hundred dollars or so. And I guess it will be hard to convince Revenue Canada that it was a legitimate business expense.

But you've worked hard all year. Treat yourself to something good.*

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