A few thoughtful additions to an old computer
can make it seem like a slick new machine- April 23 1998

Sure, computer prices have been tumbling, but did you know you can get a whole new computer for a couple of hundred bucks or less?

Well, not really. But with the right upgrade, your existing computer might feel like a whole new computer.

Take keyboards. Most of the time, whether you buy bottom-of-the-line or cutting- edge, you get the same, stock $29 keyboard. And considering the keyboard is still the primary way we enter data into our computers, and that we may be using it hours a day, we can do better.

A few years ago, Microsoft, with one of its rare hardware products, produced its original Natural Keyboard. Looking like an exile from a Star Trek movie set, this keyboard breathed "futuristic." The keyboard is divided in the middle, with the two halves angled away from each other. There's a generous wrist rest below the space bar. And it's sculpted in three dimensions, with the two halves of the keyboard sloping away from each other.

But the original Natural Keyboard was simply too big. And if your desk is anything like mine, space is at a premium. This year, Microsoft released a new model, labelled the Natural Keyboard Elite. The Elite keeps the space-age look of the original, but does it in about the same space as a large standard keyboard. Microsoft managed this by shrinking the size of the function keys, and reducing the distance between the number keypad and the main typewriter keys.

This change fixes one of the problems with the original model, which was so wide that it left the mouse lost somewhere in right field.

While these keyboards almost scream ergonomic, Microsoft is careful not to claim any health benefits from the design. For me, though, what matters is that the odd design is simply more comfortable. Try this test: with your arms dangling loose and relaxed, bend your arms at the elbows, bringing your forearms forward and letting your thumbs touch. Notice how you naturally hold the rest of your fingers: if you're like me, your relaxed hands angle away from each other, thereby fitting the slope of Microsoft's keyboard.

Sure, you can adjust them to fit a standard flat keyboard, but I find that when I have to type for several hours, it's much more comfortable working on a keyboard that fits my hands, rather than one that forces me to adjust my body position.

Another neat way to give yourself a "new" computer is to update its video capabilities.

Toronto-based ATI Technology (www.atitech.
) leads in sales of video adapters -- the cards in your computer where your monitor plugs in. Like keyboards, many off-the-shelf computers ship with a low-end (read cheaper) video adapter. It works. You can see stuff on the screen, but you can do better.

Last year, we looked at ATI's All-in-Wonder card, which adds TV in-and-out capabilities, allowing you to show those PowerPlay presentations on a large television screen, to capture video-clips or stills from the TV cable or a camcorder, and to watch TV on your computer screen while the boss isn't looking.

The company's Xpert@Work adapter leaves off the TV functions, but offers high performance in a package aimed squarely at a business market. (A companion product,Xpert@
Play, packs similar hardware with a different software bundle aimed at home users.) It comes with either four megs or eight megs of video RAM. The additional memory doesn't make it work any faster, but allows more colours at higher resolutions, useful for packing more on screen on large monitors.

Featuring ATI's custom RagePro video chipset, it features some of the fastest 2D performance in a general-market video card. Should you care? Faster video makes your computer work faster every time it updates the screen, speeding up all sorts of common activities, such as scrolling through a word processing document. In fact, rather than buying a new computer, adding system RAM and upgrading the video card to a product like this -- for about $275 -- can give enough of a boost to your two-year-old model to keep you from mooning over the new models for quite a while longer.

ATI boasts of this card's 3D performance, and includes several applications (Micrografx's Simply 3D and Zygote's 3D Models) to allow users to produce 3D graphics. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I just don't see this as a big need for business users, at least not now. And if you're a home user, with a computer shared between business use and gaming, it still won't cut it. Most of the hot games require a specific 3D accelerator and a 3Dfx card, and won't be able to make use of ATI's variety. So don't buy this card expecting that it will make your game-fanatic teenager happy.*

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