ISSUE 480: The high-tech office

January 5-11, 1999


Computerized phones, CD-Rom business cards are among the best gadget offerings this season

Gadgets, anyone?
If you're reading this column, I'm going to assume you like gadgets --little things that attach to your computer (in itself, perhaps the ultimate gadget) and maybe let you do something better.

Here are a couple that have recently won my heart.

* Anybody with a notebook knows that they just don't have access to many of the wide range of PC add-ons. Hopefully, as the Universal Serial Bus (USB) catches on as a way to attach things to computers, this will change. But, for now, most notebook owners are limited to gadgets that can be built the size of credit cards, to fit into skinny PC Card or Cardbus slots.

And because the devices are so tiny, attaching the cables can be a problem.

Like many users, I needed to connect both a modem and a network adapter to my notebook. I was using one of the popular X-Jack modem cards, a clever device with a pop-out jack for a phone plug. The network card right below it took a special adapter to connect to the network cable.

The two didn't get along very well. The phone plug, at right angles to the PC Cards, pushed down on the dongle hanging from the network card.

The result was that every few months I had to replace the network card's adapter -- at a cost of about $45 and a lot of aggravation. And I was always waiting for the wrong move that would break one or the other right off, or I'd unplug from the network and leave the adapter behind, on the end of the network cable.

No more. Xircom's RealPort Integrated PC Card series offers a clever design that combines both a high-speed modem and 10/100 Mbs networking in a single card and allows users plug two phone cords (one for the modem, one for a phone) and a networking cable right into the body of the card. There's even another jack to connect to a cell phone for wireless connections.

They do this by fattening the card's housing at one end, making it wide enough to hold all those plugs. As a result, this single card fills up both of the two PC Card slots available in most notebooks.

At a price of around $500, it's pricey -- even as a replacement for both a modem and a network adapter. But it may be worth it for the ease of use and an end to having to worry about damaging or losing hard-to-replace connectors.

Xircom isn't as well-known a modem manufacturer as some, but for years they've been well respected for producing a line of high-performance models.

This gadget is no exception, producing some of the fastest so-called 56-kbs connections I've seen, especially for a PC Card product, where typically miniaturization comes at the cost of performance.

* Microsoft is better known for its software than its hardware, but the company is ex-
panding its range of computer peripherals.

In addition to its well-known computer mice, it sells keyboards, game controllers and speakers. Its newest product is aimed at home and small office users: a telephone.

At first glance, this seemingly unlikely offering from the company is a more or less standard 900-Mhz cordless phone, with charging cradle and base station -- like lots of other products for sale wherever you buy your phones. However, the name on the box, the Microsoft Cordless PC Phone System, may be a giveaway.

This phone is designed to plug into a PC. The base station includes a serial cable for that purpose. (I would have preferred a Universal Serial Bus connector.) And it comes with software.

Once it is installed on your PC (no Macs need apply), your computer takes over call management.

Building on the phone company's Caller ID, you can create customized greetings for different callers, block unwanted callers or allow high-priority callers to ring through while taking messages from everybody else.

Voice recognition technology allows users to speak the words "Call dad" into the phone and have the computer look up and dial dad's number, along with a range of other voice commands.

Your computer can create voice mailboxes for multiple users at home or work and store thousands of messages. The computer also logs all calls coming or going -- at least those made through Microsoft's phone. The telephone costs $289.

* Here's a business card that will really stand out.

I recently received a plastic card about the size of a credit card with a hole in the middle that turned out to be a real, working CD-ROM disk. With a little careful placement, right in the center of the computer CD drive, it played a Macromedia Director multimedia promo of the company's products (in this case, Okidata's colour laser printers).

It's cheap enough to hand out widely -- though maybe not to enter draws for a free restaurant lunch.

Until everybody's using them, it's a chance to have an eyecatcher of a business card neatly combined with 100 megs of whatever information or publicity you want to put on it.

No, I don't know who makes these -- if any reader does know, please drop me a line.


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