ISSUE 588: Currentz- Jan 30 2001

Alan Zisman

Gear Guide

Computers are yesterday's news

But things that attach to computers are hot. Or, as Dorothy might have said, "Gizmos and gadgets andgear -- oh my!"

Fine print

For instance, take multifunction printers (aka "all-in-ones"). While separate printers, scanners,copiers and fax machines offer higher quality, many consumers -- as with audio gear -- prefer theconvenience of getting all their components in a single unit.

Quality and ease of use have been improving, making these worth checking out, especially forspace-limited home and small offices. Hewlett-Packard's Officejet line is a market leader.Their K80 ($750) and G95 ($1,500) models share the same print engine, offering identical print qualityand speed. The higher priced model includes a flatbed (like a photocopier) for better quality copyingand scanning and is designed to work with an office network.

Two things to watch for: these units are Windows only. In fact, Mac-owners have few choices in thisproduct category. And retailers are a bit mystified; should they display them with the printers? Withthe fax machines? With the scanners? Look around.

On the front burner

Also hot are recordable CD drives (aka "burners"). Built-into some new computer models, they are alsoavailable as after-market add-ons from a wide range of manu-facturers.

They owe their popularity to a number of factors. Both the drives and blank disks have gotten muchcheaper. (CD-R blanks holding 650 MB have dropped from $25 each to a dollar or less, while 100 MB Zipdisks, for instance, still cost $10 to $15 each). And unlike backup tapes or other formats, no specialhardware is needed to read them. Just pop a disk into a common CD-ROM drive.

Moreover, they're popular with home users to create audio CDs and copy software CDs, even though thelegality of both these actions is questionable at best. But as a convenient and affordable way tobackup your business data or distribute information to co-workers or customers, CD-Recordable drivesare your best bet.

Higher-capacity DVD-R drives and disks are still priced out of reach of most of us, thoughApple's recent inclusion of this technology in their high-end model is a sign that this maystart to change.

Plextor makes the best-regarded, though pricey CD-R drives; as prices drop, so does recordingspeed and reliability. Check the software included; I prefer Adaptec's Easy CD-Creator andDirectCD.

Not music to the ears

MP3 audio files, downloadable over the Internet, have given the music industry a scare. But once youhave them, what do you do with them? Listening to music on your computer isn't my idea of a good time.You could always use those downloaded files to burn standard audio CDs, but gadgets designed to workdirectly with MP3s haven't, in my opinion, quite gotten it right.

A number of companies make digital MP3 players. But with 32-64 MB of memory, they can only holdan hour or so of music, making them impractical for long car or plane trips. And at $300-$500, Ican't justify buying one. (They are popular with runners, since with no moving parts, they don'tskip).

Last fall, Creative released the Nomad Jukebox, with a 6 GB hard drive letting it storehundreds of songs but, at about $800, it's strictly a luxury item.

Instead, I'm waiting for RCA/Thompson's $249 RP2410, due in the stores any week now. Looking much like a standard portable CDplayer, this promises to play homemade CDs filled with MP3s. Since these songs are compressed, asingle CD can easily hold 100 tracks or more. (And it's one more justification for that CD burner!)

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