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BY THOMAS W. SHINDER, M.D.
Computers are everywhere today, and many of us are fascinated by -- even a little in love with -- these wonderful new "toys." Not many years ago, they were viewed as just workplace tools. Now they are sources of entertainment,information, and personal, as well as professional communication. Their allure is almost sexual, and the nomenclature (with references to gigantic hard drives and high performance RAM) perpetuates that image.
To make computing even more irresistible, more and more sexy new add-on components are appearing on the market. A decade ago, specialty products like large capacity storage media, scanners, and high-quality input devices cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Current low (and falling) prices bring these exciting peripherals into the home and small office.
No matter how big your hard drive, there never seems to be enough room for all your 'stuff'. Commercial programs are increasingly susceptible to the phenomenon of 'bloatware' (software that, with each upgrade, vastly increases the space it takes up on your hard drive). Then there are those files from the web or AOL or MSN which place themselves on the drive without even asking. Pictures (.gifs, .jpgs), zipped files, shareware programs, email -- all this stuff needs space. And what about backups of your important files? The idea of pumping fifty to sixty floppy disks into the floppy drive to return lost data isn't exactly my idea of a fun afternoon or evening.
The solution is one of the several low-cost, removable storage options available today, with intriguing names like Jaz and EZ Flyer. My favorite, and the most popular, is Iomega's ZIP Drive. This device works very much like a conventional floppy drive, but each ZIP disk can hold 100 megabytes of 'stuff' (or up to 200, compressed). That equals 69 regular 1.44Mb floppy disks. The drive is easy to install and use. All you have to do is plug it into the printer (parallel) port in the back of your computer, then plug your printer into the ZIP drive; you can still use your printer as usual.
Install the ZIP software, and your computer will recognize the drive as another floppy drive that you can move files to. Or it can be set so that the computer thinks it's another hard drive, and you can even run programs from it. The hardware comes with a set of programs called "ZIP TOOLS." You can use these to easily backup your important files from your hard drive to the ZIP disk. You can also catalog each ZIP disk, so you can effortlessly find that file you're looking for without going through each of your disks in the file manager or Explorer. And for laptop users, you can take your ZIP drive with you on the road, loaded with that 50Mb multimedia presentation, using the optional battery pack.
All this for $199.95 for the ZIP drive, and as little as $12.95 for ZIP disks (if you buy in bulk). Recently, Iomega licensed production of ZIP drives under the Epson name, and those have been advertised for as low as $99.95, after rebates. For more information on the ZIP drive, check out the Iomega site at http://www.iomega.com or the Epson site at http://www.epson.com.
If you're like me, you've probably dreamed of the "paperless" office. No longer would you have to wade through disorganized piles of papers "filed" in a variety of locations throughout your office, home, and home office. All you would have to do is fire up your computer and search for that vital document which was mailed to you 6 weeks ago -- the one that will make or break your business.
Although the dream of the paperless office has yet to become reality for most, Visioneer's Paperport (and similar desktop scanners made by Hewlett Packard and Logitech) brings us closer to that dream. Scanning technology used to be a 'large-footprint' affair, with flatbed scanners requiring several feet of valuable desk top real estate. The PaperPort changes all that. Only 4 inches high, 3 inches deep and 12 inches long, it uses almost no extra space, sitting just in front of or right under your monitor. Installation is as easy as with the ZIP drive. Just plug the cable into one of your serial ports in the back of the computer, turn the computer back on, and the software setup routine will configure the PaperPort for your computer.
Using the PaperPort is like using a fax machine. Each page is fed in individually and is scanned in only five seconds. The images are high quality and you can save them to folders within the PaperPort program, organized into folders so that you can find them easily. I like to scan in my bills, important letters, photographs, legal documents and magazine articles. There is an optical character recognition program included with the package that will convert the text you've scanned into editable copy in a variety of word processors, including Notepad, WordPad, Write, and Word.
I have seen the PaperPort Vx (black and white) available for as little as $229.95. Color versions are also available. There's even a model that comes built into a keyboard. If you find that stack of important papers and faxes on your desk growing out of control, look into this little miracle machine. You can get more information on Visioneer's PaperPort family of products at http://www.visioneer.com.
A keyboard and a mouse come standard with all modern computers. But not all keyboards and mice are created equal. The typical mouse has a rolling rubber ball on the bottom which you manipulate with wrist movements. Working long hours at the computer with a lot of "mousing" involved has been implicated in the development of carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS), a painful condition involving the median nerve at the wrist. Anything you can do to minimize the amount of wrist motion when mousing will reduce your chances of suffering from this debilitating condition.
Logitech's Trackman Marble can help. The Trackman Marble requires no wrist movement as you make mouse movements with your thumb. After just a few minutes of using the device, it feels much more natural than using the typical mouse. Unlike conventional mice or trackball devices, the Trackman Marble has no moving parts other than the ball itself; no longer will your cursor misbehave when the rollers get gummed-up with lint, dust, and natural oils from your hand. The Trackman Marble uses light sensors within the device to ascertain the type of mouse movements you are making. Not only does this provide smoother and more accurate mousing, but it increases the longevity of the device, saving you money in the long run.
The Trackman Marble is available at most computer stores for $99.95. While this is a bit more expensive than most conventional mice, it pays for itself in comfort and maintenance chores. You can get more information on the Trackman Marble and other Logitech products at http://www.logitech.com.
Most people dont give too much thought to their keyboards -- at least,until they start showing symptoms of CTS. But if you type for long periods at a time, you run into the same problems with carpel tunnel syndrome that you might have with using conventional mice. The risk is even higher if you spend several hours a day typing at moderate speeds. Ergonomics is increasingly recognized as an important factor in the computing environment, and Microsoft pioneered awareness of ergonomic considerations in the computing environment.
The Microsoft Natural Keyboard brought a major revolution to keyboard ergonomics. Rather than the conventional "straight line" arrangement of the keys, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard slants the key banks so that left- and right-hand groups of keys are slightly sloped in a "V" arrangement. At first, this feels awkward, since most of us are used to holding our wrists and arms in an unnatural position -- which is what leads to chronic neck, shoulder, arm, and wrist pain. The placement of your hands on the Natural Keyboard is just that: natural. After using the new keyboard for just a couple of days, you'll find that your typing is more accurate, effortless, and comfortable than ever before. You will never want to use the "unnatural" keyboard layout again.
The cost of the Microsoft Natural Keyboard varies from $69.95 to $89.95, depending on the retailer. However, there are other manufacturers who offer similar layouts for as little as $29.95. Some of these even offer built-in trackballs or touchpads, allowing you to perform mouse movements without ever moving your hands from the keyboard. You can get more information on the Microsoft Natural Keyboard and other Microsoft Products at http://www.microsoft.com. Low-cost ergonomic keyboards are also marketed by PC Concepts and Adesso.
These 'hot' hardware products will help you increase the productivity and enjoyability of your computing habits. The prices of all these products are well within the budgets of most computer enthusiasts, and dropping all the time due to the intense competition. As high-tech companies race to bring out appealing products, in their effort to woo computer users, we can look forward to more such provocation peripherals in the future.
THOMAS W. SHINDER, M.D. is a neurologist and a computer enthusiast, who finds the "mind of the machine" almost as fascinating as the human brain.
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