Archived Product Reviews

Here are reviews that are over a year old.

Landlord Cash Flow Analyser Pro Software
Upton Tea Cosy
D-Link DUB-H7 USB Hub
Useful Utilities
Alphasmart Dana Wireless Laptop
Memory Enhancements: SanDisk 128MB SD and Samsung 128 RDRAM Modules
AWAI Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting
Norelco Advantage
Belkin Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) 500VA System
Digital Photography Products (Tamrac, SanDisk, and Verbatim)
Macromedia Freehand MX
Black & Decker SteamBuster Vac

Art Explosion 600,000/Genuine Fractals
Macromedia Studio MX
Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 Computer Upgrade Kit
Choicemail Spam Blocking Software
Belkin USB Pocket Flash Drive
Punch Professional Home Design-Platinum
Yamaha Music Stand
Kershaw Folding Knife
Black & Decker Dustbuster
Belkin USB DockStation
Bigbangproducts 180-degree earmuffs
Black & Decker Firestorm 12-Volt Drill
Black & Decker Cordless 3-Position Screwdriver
Kershaw Mini-Tasker
AlphaSmart 3000 Text Processor
DeLorme EarthMate and Street Atlas 6.0
Olympus D1000 Digital Voice Recorder
The Sigma 28-200mm f3.5-5.6 DL Hyperzoom Macro Zoom Lens
The Sensory Science Corporation DDV9750 Dual Deck VCR
VS64939 Contours Corner TV/VCR Stand
Onkyo DV-C600 DVD Player
Crushable Hats
Sony Walkman DEJ-815 CD Player
Brookstone and LifeSource Blood Pressure Monitors


Landlord Cashflow Analyzer PRO Real Estate Investment Software

Landlord softwareAre you thinking of investing in real estate? Are you wondering what your return on investment (ROI) would be? You can buy elaborate programs that have their own interfaces and bloat your system with 100 megabytes of storage space. Or you can purchase the well-designed Landlord Cashflow Analyzer PRO Investment Software from Landlord Software, which is basically an Excel spreadsheet on steroids. I've never seen anything like it. Weighing in at only 2 megabytes, this program allows you to enter all the important data about your proposed property before buying, to make sure you've covered all your investment bases. Use the mortgage section to enter details about the interest rate for your fixed or variable loan. An expenses button brings up another page that allow you to enter the yearly expenses of running a rental unit, like management fees, advertising, and utilities. You can even add three miscellaneous items yourself and rename them. Unfortunately, if you run out of items, it's difficult to rename the existing ones without unprotecting the spreadsheet. I would like to know how some of the calculations are arrived at, such as the depreciation rate. (But to do that, I'd have to be an Excel programmer.) Be aware that before using the program, you may have to change your program's Macro security setting: I recommend the medium to low setting. You can enter your income from property and factor in vacancy rates (like 8% for one month per year). You can also enter what you think the property is worth rather than its purchase price. I wasn't clear how the program calculated depreciation, although you can divide the purchase price between land and building. To do that, however, you would need to know the land-to-improvement ratio. This highlights the major weakness of the program: expecting it to do miracles with the data you enter. It's the old GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) dilemma. The results are only as good as you provide. You must provide accurate data, and sometimes it can't all be collected until you've started the process of zeroing in on a property. Start off by plugging in values that you know, like your own house. The report page is impressive, containing valuable information, such as sale profit after taxes and capitalization rate, and debt coverage ratio, which lets you know if you're morgaged too high or too low. A tax section allows you to specify state and federal taxes, although I could have used a better explanation of the fields. The designer does provide Excel bubble help for some fields, but not all. A "Documentation" page explains some concepts, but is too sketchy for educational purposes. It's probably best that you did some studying on your own for this program before using it. It's a daunting field, real estate investment. Perhaps the documentation should include links to educational real estate investment Web sites or suggest books.

Upton Tea Cosy

There are several ways to keep a pot of tea warm. The most common one these days is an electric tea warm-up plate. But this method has two flaws: First, you could leave the room, forgetting to turn it off. Now that's an accident waiting to happen. Two, even if you a vigilant about turning it on and off, you still slowly cook the tea while it's on the hotplate. This changes the flavor, and not for the better. A quilted tea cosy, available through the Upton Tea Company , is the best solution. Not only does this charming device provide a nice retro (as in 19th Century) appeal, but it gently keeps the tea warm for up to an hour. It also fits most 2-cup teapots, such as the Chatsford Bone China 2-Cup Teapot (also available at Upton). Go backwards in time, and try using a cosy.

D-Link USB Hub

Let's face it. The number of USB devices you can hook up to your computer is proliferating. Cell phones, cameras, scanners, PDAs, printers are all competing for those two or three ports that your computer comes with. Time to get a USB hub.

But why bother with one that has only four extra ports? Why not go with seven and lower the chances that you'll run out? The D-Link USB DUB-H7 has just that in a compact case about the size of a pack of cigarettes. (Is it still politically correct to say that?) It hooks up easily to your system and once you get it working, it just sits there waiting for you to fill it up with devices. It is an elegant and useful device.

A word of warning about the installation. The DUB-H7 doesn't require that you to install any additional software. However on some Windows XP machines (like our test unit), Windows may not be able to find the driver automatically. You will have to search for it. Luckily our USB detection wizard supplied the name of the driver it needed. A simple search in Windows Explorer revealed it hiding in the SYSTEM32/DRIVERS directory.

Useful Utilities

Several shareware utilities have come out recently that perform tasks that well-known utilities packages either do for a lot more money or don't do at all. Check these out.

Second Copy 2000. This $30 program allows you to create backup sets for your data, using removable discs, floppies, CDRW drives, or second hard drives. Unlike tape backup programs or heavy duty backup systems like Retrospect, it lets you create compressed backup sets in the popular ZIP mode. That way you can access them anytime without having to use a proprietary program that has its own compression scheme. Also, it allows you to create backup sets on the fly as often as every minute! Now there's no excuse to backup your files regularly.

DocRepair. Ever had a Microsoft Word document refuse to open or hang up your system while doing so? You can't even edit it with a text editor. Enter DocRepair to the rescue. This program's easy-to-use wizard finds the troublesome bits and neutralizes them, then creates another copy of your file. Unfortunately, it doesn't preserve the formatting, but most of us would be just happy to get the blasted file back.  Is it worth $79? Many pay a lot more to a software diagnostician.

The Ultimate Troubleshooter. This $20 program lets you peek under the hood of Windows XP and find out what's slowing things down, taxing resources, or is just plain unnecessary. You can then stop it from loading or, if it is a service, specify that it has to be loaded manually instead of automatically. For example, the Troublshooter's "consultant" said that certain components of Norton Utilities were guilty of causing many problems so I disabled them at startup. Updates are regularly available, but may take a while to download over a dialup connection. You can also mail in your own suggestions about programs whose quirks they haven't listed yet.

Xtreeme SiteXpert Professional Edition. In case you haven't heard, site maps to Web sites have become very popular. Not only are they popular around users who want to navigate your site, they are also popular with online search engines, who assign higher rankings to properly mapped sites. Xtreeme SiteXpert Professional Edition takes the pain out of creating your site map by brute force. It helps you create dynamic DHML menus that expand and contract, revealing links to your pages. It also can easily update your sitemap page each time you update your Web site. Product support is easily accessible through a tabbed page in the program itself. These people are very responsive, solving problems I initially had with the product in record time. Highly recommended.

Alphasmart Dana Wireless Laptop

Alphasmart Dana WirelessThe new AlphaSmart Dana Wireless is a quantum leap forward for this product line, whose previous incarnations (such as the Alphasmart 3000) were simple text processors. However, instead of turning their product into yet another IBM-Compatible (or even Mac-compatible) clone, they have decided to use the Palm platform. This has its benefits and drawbacks. First, the benefits. There is a wide variety of software available; anything that runs on a Palm handheld computer runs on this device. However, this wide-screen laptop runs best on Palm products that have been adapted for "landscape mode." Products like Datawiz's Documents to Go work quite well on the system and synchronize up to the desktop with ease. The AlphaWord, the native word processor on which I am writing this review, allows standard formatting capabilities, word count, a spell checker, and a thesaurus. It will also do spacing, justification, and indents. After synchronizing the file, you can later bring it up in Microsoft Word on your desktop with formatting intact. Dana's wireless ability is supported by an e-mail client and several browsers. It even has an applet called WiStat that searches for a wireless link in your area and reports on its strength. The DanaWeb browser is bare bones one, but does allow you to download Web pages at a speed resembling that of a 56K dialup connection. The documentation is fairly clear and allows you to get up and running. What the product doesn't allow you to do is multi-task. This means that, as with all Palm applications, only one can be in memory at one time. This shouldn't be much of a problem for most users.

The unit runs for 24 hours on one battery charge. The monochrome LCD screen is adequate in well-lit situations. However, the optional backlight is rather dim, similar to the Palm handheld's first green backlit screen of seven years ago. It will never win any awards on how it looks, although the screen is now twice as high as the previous model's, the AlphaSmart 3000. You can't use a mouse with it, although you can use its touchscreen for selecting boxes and graphics.

For more information: AlphaSmart.  

 

Memory Enhancements: SanDisk 128MB SD Memory Card and Samsung 128MB RDRAM System Upgrade

We recently received two memory upgrades, both very different from each other. How have they improved the functioning of the computers now using them?

The SanDisk 128MB SD memory card may not seem large when compared with SD cards that hold 1GB these days. However, it is more than adequate for many small devices. Most owners of digital cameras only need to capture from 50 to 100 JPEG pictures at a time, which fit on this card. The card is also more than adequate as an extra one for a PalmPilot or the new Alphasmart Data wireless, which is where mine is installed. Files are rapidly written to and retrieved from this disk. For word processing documents and spreadsheets, the size is perfect. Prices are quite reasonable these days for this size. I would not use this size, however, with a camcorder, since you really do need a great deal of disk space to record video files.

I was experiencing memory problems on my 256MB desktop system, which runs Windows XP and several high power applications. For example, whenever I tried to disconnect from my ISP, it took over a minute. My Dragon NaturallySpeaking software was misinterpreting my commands and producing random errors, such as sudden reboots. All of this change when I upgraded to 512MB using two Samsung 128MB RDRAM modules. Most of my weird problems disappeared overnight. I was able to run more programs in memory. I disconnected from my ISP in a matter of seconds. Programs loaded faster, sometimes by as much as by 50%. System shutdown and startup occurred quicker. One caveat: Do not expect programs to load twice as fast if you double your memory. That is more a function of processor speed. But if you are experiencing strange problems and you're running memory intensive graphics programs, consider doubling your memory before you go to the trouble of reinstalling your software.

For more information:

Sandisk
Samsung

Norelco Advantage 6735X

Norelco Advantage 6735XOne of the drawbacks to using a dry electric shaver has always been, well, dryness. The post-shaving experience usually necessitates applying moisterizing lotion, particularly during the winter months.

Norelco's latest offering, the Advantage line, seems to solve that problem. You insert a special packet of Nivea for Men lotion (or gel) in the back compartment, then press a button on the razor while shaving. A drop or two of lotion is released and coats the razor heads as they glide across your face. It's an elegant solution. Three or four presses of the button cover the average face during a shaving session. Note that you can not only wet-clean the shaver, you can also use it in the shower. In the Advantage 6735X that we tested, the lotion enhanced the shaving experience by producing a closer shave than one without dispensing the lotion. It is not necessary to use the lotion, if you run out. You may have to look for the special packets. Supermarkets I tried hadn't received any stock yet.

This shaver gives a close shave, particularly in the problem areas, like the neck line. It must be those rotating heads. The only disadvantage I can see is in the charger mechanism. Unlike other rechargable shavers, if the battery runs down, you cannot simply plug in the shaver and use an AC cord. You must recharge it on its stand after every use. However, I have found that once it is charged, you can jiggle it on its stand a bit and stop the recharging when it's done, if you want to save electricity. The unit also comes with a travel/storage pouch and a clip-on trimmer, which worked as advertised.

For more information: Norelco.

 

Belkin UPS 500VA System

Belkin UPS 500VAAs if backing up your data weren't enough! Now we have to worry about dirty power lines or ones that habitually drop or go to sleep. Not every program can be configured to backup your data every minute like Microsoft Word. Dreamweaver, for example, has no such capabilities. You could be working on a file for fifteen minutes and suddenly have your computer reboot itself because of a momentary power surge or drop. It happened to me last week and I decided to do something about it.

Uninterruptable power supply (UPS) systems are essentially batteries with pass-through outlets. The Belkin Universal UPS 500VA is one better, a line-interactive UPS. It has built in line conditioning known as AVR (Automatic Voltage Regulation) that cleans up dirty (unstable) power flowing through the utility lines. You plug your computer's monitor and CPU cabinet into one side, then plug the unit into the wall. You can then monitor its activity using the BULLDOG Plus online software. Specify how often you want it to test its battery or at what voltage drop or rise you want the battery to kick in. For example, I have mine set to 90 volts for low and 136 for high. If my power goes to 89 or 137, the UPS cleans up the power and issues an audible warning until the power is clean. So it's not only a UPS, it's also a line conditioner. You can also specify a computer shutdown or startup time (even in hibernation mode). There are many other options and features, including one to protect the phone line. The manual advises you against attaching a printer or scanner to the UPS grid, since they consume too much power in the event of an outtage. So no printing during a blackout.

How about if the power goes completely, like it did last summer? The machine works perfectly. I unplugged the unit with my CPU cabinet and monitor attached and a female voice with a British accent told me that there was no power and that the system would shut down in five minutes. This was more than enough time to save all my work and gracefully turn my computer off . In an age when blackouts and brownouts are occurring in every major city, more people need to use UPS systems. The Belkin model is one of the best.

For more information: Belkin Components.

 

SanDisk 512K CompactFlash Card and ImageMate Card Reader. If you're lucky, when you bought your digital camera, you got a 16M CompactFlash Card. That's good for one picture, taken in TIFF non-compressed mode. If you're serious about photography and your camera supports RAW or TIFF modes, you'll need at least one 512K card. That will give you approximately 35 high resolution TIFF pictures at 2592x1944 (roughly 5 megapixels), very close to the amount in a 36-shot reel analog camera. SanDisk's 512K card is fast and dependable; in one test, it saved a 14.9M TIFF file in 28 seconds. It has not failed or produced any glitches whatsover. SanDisk's ImageMate Card Reader is ideal for those who want to transfer files on flash cards from computer to computer, via a USB 2.0 port. By having the reader accept any size card, you are not limited to a particular size, such as a 256M memory stick. It has two connectors: a simple USB cable (for travel) and a stand with cable. Both of these SanDisk products are highly useful items, particularly if your camera's USB port is malfunctioning or nonexistant.

For more information: Sandisk.

Verbatim 1 GB 512K CompactFlash Card. If you're a professional photographer, you'll appreciate having a 1GB card, which holds about 67 high resolution TIFF images. If you use the RAW format, you get considerably more, usually twice that amount. The Verbatim CompactFlash card saved that 14.9M TIFF file in 26 seconds, two seconds faster than the SanDisk. Of course few "prosumers" fill up a flash card with that size and format unless they're taking art shots for blowup. Most will use the interrim JPEG compressions for snapshots, which save to disk a lot quicker, narrowing the margin of one card over the other. The Verbatim card also not failed nor produced any glitches.

For more information: Verbatim.

 

Digital Photography Add-Ins

With digital photography comes a whole new subset of add-ins you can use to enhance and simplify the process of taking digital photographs. Here are a few that I have recently tested with the Olympus 5050 my brother generously lent me:

The Tamrac 5693-Digital 3 Camera Case. This excellent nylon case is padded and contains a special front pocket for extra battery packs and flash cards. It even accodates the camera when it is still on, its lens semi-extended. Its clasp is designed for extra precaution. Not only does it close with a swatch of velcro, it also uses a standard plastic locking clasp. While I normally don't warm up to velcro, the velcro closure seems sensible for those in a hurry. The case is deep enough and its cover rounded sufficiently to allow you to close it over a bunched up camera strap. The belt loop also uses that dual safety approach: velcro clasp coupled with an old-style dual snap. My only criticism is why bother with any snap or velcro? No case belt loop need quick detachings; they should all be sewn shut. Let users unbuckle their belts. www.tamrac.com.

SanDisk 512K CompactFlash Card and ImageMate Card Reader. If you're lucky, when you bought your digital camera, you got a 16M CompactFlash Card. That's good for one picture, taken in TIFF non-compressed mode. If you're serious about photography and your camera supports RAW or TIFF modes, you'll need at least one 512K card. That will give you approximately 35 high resolution TIFF pictures at 2592x1944 (roughly 5 megapixels), very close to the amount in a 36-shot reel analog camera. SanDisk's 512K card is fast and dependable; in one test, it saved a 14.9M TIFF file in 28 seconds. It has not failed or produced any glitches whatsover. SanDisk's ImageMate Card Reader is ideal for those who want to transfer files on flash cards from computer to computer, via a USB 2.0 port. By having the reader accept any size card, you are not limited to a particular size, such as a 256M memory stick. It has two connectors: a simple USB cable (for travel) and a stand with cable. Both of these SanDisk products are highly useful items, particularly if your camera's USB port is malfunctioning or nonexistant. www.sandisk.com.

Verbatim 1 GB 512K CompactFlash Card. If you're a professional photographer, you'll appreciate having a 1GB card, which holds about 67 high resolution TIFF images. If you use the RAW format, you get considerably more, usually twice that amount. The Verbatim CompactFlash card saved that 14.9M TIFF file in 26 seconds, two seconds faster than the SanDisk. Of course few "prosumers" fill up a flash card with that size and format unless they're taking art shots for blowup. Most will use the interrim JPEG compressions for snapshots, which save to disk a lot quicker, narrowing the margin of one card over the other. The Verbatim card also not failed nor produced any glitches. www.verbatim.com.

 

Macromedia Freehand MX

Macromedia FreehandFor years, erasing vector objects, those done in draw programs like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw, wasn't so easy. You had to cover them with stroke-less white objects to give the illusion of obliteration. Now Macromedia Freehand MX has an elegant solution for this problem. An eraser whose "erasing tip" can be programmed, just like the one in Adobe Photoshop. It may not sound like much, but it's a big step in eliminating workarounds.

There are more tool enhancements in this release of Freehand MX, which was delayed from the Macromedia MX suite release a few months back. The gradient tool has grown up. Not only can you specify a gradient fill, but you can also manipulate its shape, making it rectangular or conical for example. The gradient handles that control the expanse and direction are easy to use. The trace tool is a powerful component, allowing you to specify its sensitivity in picking up adjacent colors or sections of a bitmap; however, the more complex the bitmap (such as a photograph), the more complicated the tracing becomes. I suggest using the tool at first with simple graphics of only a few colors. You can now add a host of effects, fills, and strokes to one selected object. For example, an object can have a 3-pt stroke and a bevel effect, all branched under the same Object Properties box. This powerful product is now integrated into the MX family, which means they all have the same look and feel. You can also import the files into Flash and Fireworks (but not Dreamweaver).

Macromedia Freehand MX. www.macromedia.com.

Black & Decker SteamBuster Deep Cleaner & Vac

Black & Decker SteamBusterIf you've ever spilled a soft drink on a sofa or had a cat deposit his hair balls on your rug, you know what a pain it is to clean up. Black & Decker's SteamBuster goes a long way in cleaning up such messes.

It comes with a removable water tank that acts as a resevoir for the steam. There are two steam settings, which I call regular and intense. Its 15' power cord easily reaches across any room. Using the squeegee attachment, you can quickly clean water spills on floors. A brush attachment is good for breaking up hard or encrusted stains, but be careful using it with older rugs, whose fabric can be easily bruised.

I own two cats, so I put the vac through its toughest tests. I found that it works well, even on cat vomit with, shall we say, varied textures. If the material is still wet, its best to vacuum up the solid material first, then use the steam for removing stains and liquid. If the material is dry, it needs to be loosened with blasts of hot steam, preferably on the intense setting. The vac works best on rugs with low naps. One rug with a high patterned nap was hard to clean. One feature the SteamBuster lacks is a little rubber door over its mouth that closes, preventing solid material from escaping while you're still vacuuming. The large capacity dirty water tank slides off for easy cleaning, but you should clean it near a toilet. I'm not sure how long the filters last, but they seem to be made of durable material. The product is a success. I hope the company comes out with a larger version for standing up chores.

Black & Decker Steam Buster . www.blackanddecker.com

Art Explosion 600,000/Genuine Fractals

art explosionRecently I was going crazy trying to find an image for a country & western dance poster. I was having no luck prowling the internet--too many of the pictures were poorly drawn, too many photographs shabbily composed. Had I a copy of Art Explosion 600,000, I would have over 250 dance images to choose from, a few of which could have adapted for my purposes. This impressive collection has 29 CD-ROM discs (The Mac version comes with both CD-ROM discs and far fewer DVD-ROMs.) The first eight contain vector drawings of people, road signs, tools and hardware, and even crests & emblems. Since these are vector drawings, they can be scaled to any size with no loss of resolution. Five discs contain high resolution images: by high they mean 240 dpi, which is suitable for most printing jobs (although 300 is the industry standard). Here you can get the natural world of plants and animals, food, and aircraft. Another 14 discs contain raster drawings and photographs. The resolution is only 72 dpi, so if you find an image you want to print, you have to doctor it. For that, you need Genuine Fractals (see below). Buy this product if you need an impressive array of outstanding images (as well as a hefty helping of hokey ones), web graphics, fonts, and technical symbols.

Genuine Fractals is another impressive product. That picture I eventually used for the poster? It was supposed to be printed on a 11 x 17 poster, yet was only 72 dpi. Using Genuine Fractals, I was able to scale the 2" x 3" picture up to 300 dpi and 6" x 8", improving the resolution so much that I was able to get rid of the jaggies entirely. The program works by interpolating what the pixels should be at a high resolution and does a fairly good job of it. The documentation doesn't say that it's advisable to incrementally increase the size with several generations rather than going from postage stamp to poster in one swoop. The interface is a bit confusing, producing error messages that don't really tell you what to do. "All fields must have values in them before you can proceed" is my favorite, because it pops up (I think) when you've tried to increase the size in the wrong section, not when you have blank fields. But once you've learned its quirks, Genuine Fractals quickly becomes a digital camera owner's life saver.

Art Explosion 600,000. www.novadevelopment.com
Genuine Fractals. wwwlizardtech.com

Macromedia Studio MX

macromedia MXIf you have been working with Dreamweaver 4.0 or if you're considering doing so, this is the package for you. Unlike Photoshop 7.0, it is a major upgrade to the Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and Flash programs. For Dreamweaver, the upgrade provides a spiffier interface. No longer do you have to switch back and forth between viewing the HTML file editing panel and the file list panel. You can display them both on the same screen; however, I would only recommend this feat if your screen is set to at least 1024 x 768 resolution. Otherwise, I would use the tab clicking feature to hide one panel. Another feature: you can turn on grids and rulers for determining where you are on the screen. An improved CSS design panel now has a tree structure that makes it easier to distinguish locally defined styles from global ones.

Dreamweaver MX integrates seamlessly with Fireworks, the MX web graphics component, and Flash, the animation component. Like Adobe Photoshop's ImageReady component, Fireworks allows you to slice up a graphic and create hotspots and buttons. This designer's dream helps you avoid that boxy HTML code look that many amateurish web sites have these days. When you are done designing the graphic, you can then save it as an HTML file that you can call up in Dreamweaver. An HTML table delineates the components of the Fireworks graphic. Select the table, click Edit in the Properties box, and you are back in Fireworks, where you can hone your graphic even more. If you've never used Flash before, run the excellent tutorial because this product has a fairly steep (but rewarding) learning curve. You are in effect editing a film, whose components involve time segments rather than graphic or textual ones, although you can edit these other two components within the program. Flash too has greatly improved from its previous incarnation. Within its powerful Timeline, you can resize and cut multiple frames. Flash now locates many common functions within the Properties panel rather than in multiple windows, panels and boxes. There are many other enhancements that make this a premier product suite (like the Freehand vector graphics program and Cold Fusion), but space limitations prevents me from talking about them further. Try Macromedia Studio MX yourself! It gets the work done.

Macromedia Studio MX. www.macromedia.com.

Wacom Intuos2 Graphics Tablet

Intuos Graphic TabletIf you do any work at all with graphics or desktop publishing, you need a graphics tablet. It is simply too difficult to draw with any accuracy using a mouse or those glide tablets you use with your finger (commonly used with laptops). The Wacom tablet uses a special pen. You can not only draw with it, but also make extremely accurate corrections to those problematic graphics that need touching up. If you use Adobe Photoshop, you're in for a pleasant surprise. The pen is also pressure sensitive. For example, if you are using Photoshop's airbrush tool you can apply more intensity to your corrections. For more dramatic corrections, bear down longer and the graphic is altered with a more decisive dose of your foreground color. You will find that you don't have to fiddle as much with Photoshop's Intensity setting. This pen even has an eraser. Turn it around and apply the "eraser" to the graphic and the troublesome spot is erased with the your selected background color (such as white). It works the same way: the more pressure you apply, the whiter the spot gets.

Like other graphic tablets, this one allows you to program the pen to function with either absolute or relative positioning , which Wacom calls Pen mode and Mouse mode respectively. With Pen mode, the position on the tablet mirrors the computer screen. If you touch the upper left, the cursor goes to the upper left corner of the screen. In Mouse mode, you must pick up and move the pen like a mouse. Wacom's driver has a daunting array of options that you can use to specify sensitivity, acceleration, speed, programmable tablet buttons, even the thumb switch on the pen (which is set at right-button click by default). The manual explains things relatively well, although there were some advanced features whose execution I couldn't penetrate.

Note that the product also comes with a "2D mouse," which is simply a mouse that works with the Wacom graphics tablet settings. Aside from being cordless and batteryless, I don't know why anyone would bother using it. (Unlike other graphic tablet pens, this one is also batteryless.) Wacom also offers other graphics tablets on both the higher and lower ends than the Intuos2. Check them out on the web site.

Intuos Graphic Tablet .www.wacom.com.

Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 Computer Upgrade Kit

Belkin USB 2.0 Upgrade KitWant to take advantage of your new USB 2.0 scanner, but you don't have a USB port? Try this kit from Belkin. It installs remarkably easily. The hardest part was disconnecting my computer and opening it up to plant the card in an available PCI 2.1 slot. Once I did that and plugged it in, all I needed to do was run the software installation. The documentation was helpful, telling me that several processes would have to run on my system, which indeed they did. I hooked up my USB 2.0 enabled scanner and was impressed how quickly it parlayed the results to my computer (480Mbps; of course, USB 2.0 doesn't make the device scan faster.)

Handy port-status LEDs display which ports are in use and if they are working at all.

This upgrade kit is also downward compatible; that is, it works with USB 1.1 devices like your light pen. The hub connects up to four devices and has a small footprint so you won't clutter your desk any more than it already is.

USB 2.0 Upgrade Kit. www.belkin.com.

Choicemail Spam-Blocking Software

ChoicemailJunk mail drives you crazy. It drives everyone crazy. Filtering programs like Spamkiller try to apply logic to it and filter based on factors like triple explanation points and obscene taglines. That helps a bit, but it doesn't eradicate it. Choicemail applies the only technique that can work in the shifting battlefield of spam incursion: make them ask permission to contact you. Here's how it works. When you install it, Choicemail places itself between your mail client (like Eudora) and your mail server. You have already provided it a list of people who have access to you, which Digiportal calls a "whitelist." Whoever tries to get in that's not on your list receives a registration request asking them to fill out a form to contact you. If they don't, their mail gets wiped away from Choicemail's list in four days and is forever banned from entering your realm again. Since 99% of spam is shotgunned, they don't respond so they die on the vine. If you watch Choicemail filtering out the spam and adding to its list of "unrecognized senders," you can spot a new person whom you haven't added yet and put them to the whitelist. Unfortunately, even if you're quick on the "Approve sender(s) (add to whitelist)" command, they get the registration request quickly followed by your acceptance notification. BTW, you might want to edit the registration request text to justify the process to people ("I was getting 200 spams a day!"). Some of my associates were confused by it. According to CTO David Jameson, a future version will provide for a delay before the registration request is sent. With that feature arrives, you will be able to accept strangers before they get the note.

You can also add entire domains to the whitelist, a handy feature if you don't want to manually add everyone from your company. You can even specify that mail from a list server gets through, even though the "From" field of an e-mail message may contain the name of someone not on your whitelist. This is a well-thought-out product. My spam stays pretty constant at 100 messages waiting to expire in the 4-day time span. This is because most spammers propagate new email addresses with each mailing. It's kind of like swatting mosquitoes. No matter how you try to get rid of them, more arise to take their place. But at least Choicemail is there with its net. You hear them still buzzing above you, but you don't get bitten anymore.

Choicemail. digiportal software. www.digiportal.com.


USB Pocket Flash Drive

USB Pocket flash driveThat is a pen-clip you see in the photograph to the left. This USB pocket flash drive is literally that small. It is shorter than a pen, yet can store between 16 and 128 MB of data (depending on model). It is so easy to use I am carrying it around whenever I have to transport large files to client's houses. The first time you plug it into a Windows Me, 2000, or XP computer, the system automatically installs the drive recognition software. You can then copy files back and forth, using Windows Explorer. Subsequent times that you plug it in, the system instantly recognizes it without further delay. This elegant product epitomizes the way a hardware product should operate: fast, easy, and practically transparent. Belkin even includes special software so that legacy systems like Windows 98 can use it. Hats off!

USB Pocket Flash Drive. Belkin Components, 501 West Walnut St., Compton, CA. 310.898.1100. www.belkin.com.


Punch! Professional Home Design -Platinum

Punch ProfessionalThis product saved me from hours of confusion and woe. My mate and I were consolidating our two domiciles into a large old house in Boston. How do we decide where to put everything? What objects must we get rid of? What won't fit where? We tried two other home design products, but they weren't sophisticated enough. Punch Professional Home Design allowed me to create a mockup of the house's three floors, specify the correct dimensions, then create models of each piece of furniture for provisional placement around the house. Unlike other packages, it has an extensive library of furniture types. Better still, they are 3-D models, so you can choose to view them in 3-D. Not only that, but the product contains 3-D Custom Workshop, a graphics editor for changing dimensions and colors, and even creating new objects. Unfortunately, once placed in the model, you can only move the objects in 2-D mode. There is where the product stops being a true CAD tool. Also, you cannot simply drag and drop a chair from one floor to the next. You have to select the object, then choose its floor from a drop-down box. I also recommend you use this product with the fastest and most memory-crammed computer you can afford, since the 3-D rendering rapidly takes up system resources. Designing the backyard plants is a fascinating what-if procedure. You can select the plants and trees you're thinking of planting then see how they would grow in , say, five, ten, or 15 years. Better not get that maple! If you're building a house, you can plan your electricity, plumbing, and HVAC locations. The documentation is good, the technical support . . . well, adequate. There is a relatively steep learning curve, particularly if you've never used a product like this before. But the rewards are well worth it.

Punch! Professional Home Design -Platinum. www.punchsoftware.com.

Yamaha Music Stand

Yamaha Music StandThe Yamaha portable music stand is one of the best I've ever used. It separates into two pieces, folds neatly up, and when in the case, comprises an easily transportable 1.5-pound bundle. It can be used both sitting and standing, although if you're tall, you must extend it to its limit, feet included. That can cause some wobble if you need to turn pages often. The 1 1/4" lip supports 99% of music scores and never folds up or buckles while you're playing, even if you nudge it. The hard rubber feet seem durable, not the thin-skinned type that wear through in a few years. The Japanese instructions are illustrated well enough so that you can figure out how to set it up. Without them, it's tricky. For example, to adjust the tilt you must grasp the neck while pushing the knob. However, once you've learned the trick, it's as easy as punching out a phone number.

My only quibble is that I wished the illustrations would have been more comprehensive about putting the two pieces into the polyethelene carrying case. It took me five minutes of tinkering in front of an audience!

Yamaha. www.yamaha.com.

Kershaw Boron Black Chive Folding Knife

Mini-Tasker Folding KnifeChive Model 1600
Steel - 420 high carbon
Blade - 1 15/16 in. (4.9 cm)
Closed - 2 7/8 in. (7.3 cm)
Weight - 1.9 oz.
Kershaw got everything right with this "gentleman's folder." Of course its compact size will not make it a favorite among ham-fisted customers, but men and women who want an easy-to-use, unintimidating knife should purchase it. It has Kershaw's patented "Speedsafe" torsion bar mechanism, which flicks the blade out like a bolt of lightning. This model can be opened both from a thumb stud and from a finger lever, which is actually part of the blade itself. For a small knife, it weighs more than you'd expect but feels solid in the hand for rapid opening. It has a strong clip that seems sturdier than those of previous models, like the Mini-Tasker. I believe it should maintain its integrity even through extended use with thick-seamed pockets. While not cheap ($80), this piece of art really maintains its edge.

Black Chive Knife. Kershaw Knives. www.kershawknives.com.


 

Black & Decker Dustbusters

V9650 9.6-volt DustBusterBlack & Decker has come out with two new dustbusters-- the model V9650 (pictured at the left) and the CFV9600 (pictured below). The V9650 has a classic dustbuster feel to it, but it has the added attraction of 9.6 volts, which is about 50% more power than the previous models. With that much more power, I was able to pick cat hair off the couch in one or two passes instead of six. The attachments all fit into the wall hanger in a special slot so that they don't get lost. It stays charged from 10-15 minutes, depending on how hard you make the motor work. For example, vacuuming a couch cushion takes more juice. The filter is no longer a flimsy paper one but a solid plastic one that you can remove to clean. The company recommends you replace it "every six to nine months," but I imagine many will use it a lot longer than that, out of inertia. It remains to be seen how long the nicad batteries can continue to hold their charge. Two years? But when they go, you can either replace them at a Black & Decker service center or replace the unit.

9600 Cordless Floor Vac

The CFV9600 is a three-in-one tool. Fully assembled, it is an effective 9.6 volt cordless sweeper vac with a beater brush that can handle most carpets, although shag rugs can be a bit of a problem. The beater brush is one of two switch settings. (The other is for bare floors.) It is light and easy to handle and hangs up tidily on a hook. The "Hand Vacuum with Brush" mode is essentially a DustBuster with the beater brush. This arrangement works well for carpetted stairs, formerly a nightmare with a full-featured electrical vacuum. And then there's standard DustBuster mode. The unit snaps out easily for quickie jobs like spilled cat litter, one DustBuster task that nobody likes to talk about. Note that this model doesn't yet come with handy accessories like the V9650, but I've been told future models will have them.

To summarize, both of these products are helpful additions to the DustBuster family.

Black & Decker. 701 E. Joppa Rd., Towson, MD 21286. www.blackanddecker.com.

USB DockStation

USB DocStationThe invention of USB has a dark side. Laptops manufacturers now package their units with a lone USB port and no parallel or serial ports. These stalwart components of the computer industry have been consigned to the status of "legacy ports." So how are you going to print to your parallel port printer or use your old serial mouse with a new laptop, such as the Sony VAIO? One answer is Belkin's USB DockStation.

This station has a USB "downstream" port that you use to connect it to your computer's USB port. Once you have installed the software and connected all the wires, you can use its two PS/2 ports, four "upstream" USB ports, one parallel port, and one serial port. Note that the unit does us a power adapter.

Installation went relatively smoothly. The packaged software accommodates the Windows 98 and Windows 2000 operating systems, but not Windows Millennium edition. To configure for that, I had to call technical support, who told me Belkin's Web site has a downloadable link for Millennium edition software. This bothersome task should have at least been documented in an addendum. Once I downloaded the appropriate software, it gracefully installed a special driver for my printer so that it could access my computer via the USB port.

I like the fact that the DockStation has four upstream ports for connecting other USB devices to the laptop. One is never enough, yet that is what so many laptops come with. I also like the fact that once installed, the docking station just sits there. You can ignore it completely. How elegant!

USB DockStation. Belkin Components,, 501 West Walnut St., Compton, CA. 310.898.1100. www.belkin.com.


Bigbangproducts 180-degree Ear Warmers

180-degree Ear WarmersConcerned that you can't wear a hat and attach earmuffs at the same time? Or maybe you're the vain type who can't stand messing up your hair. These earmuffs offer a solution to these fashion dilemmas. They are constructed with a frame that wraps around the back of your head, providing a reasonably snug fit (if you don't shake your head too vigorously). I haven't had a chance to test these Warmers in the cold yet, but I will keep you posted.

The Ear Warmers also have special pockets into which you can fit Big Bang's optional stereo headphones for use with CD, MP3, and cassette players. These headphones offer fairly good sound, producing about the same quality as those of a similar price at Strawberries or other national stereo equipment outlets. Note that you can use these earphones only with this product.

Big Bang Products. 720 S. Montford Ave, Baltimore, MD 21224-3654. www.bigbangproducts.com.


The Black & Decker Firestorm 12-Volt Drill

Firestorm 12-Volt DrillThis drill is one of the best I've ever used. It has two main power modes, High Torque and and High Speed.

Here are other notable features:

Both drilling and screwdriving operations proceed easier with this drill than with others I've tested.

Black & Decker. 701 E. Joppa Rd., Towson, MD 21286. www.blackanddecker.com.


The Black & Decker Cordless 3-Position Screwdriver

9073 Cordless ScrewdriverOnly the most hidebound carpenter would turn down a cordless screwdriver. These recent devices are the handiest inventions since electric drills. Even though most electric drills have screwdriving capabilities, cordless screwdrivers still have a niche. Electric drills often have too much torque for the average job. Some weigh two pounds or more, making them unwieldy for light jobs. The Black and Decker Cordless 3-Position screwdriver (model 9073) solves most of these problems. Since it weighs only 13 ounces, you can use it for long intervals without getting a tired wrist. It uses 2.4 volts and operates at 150 rpm.

The most notable feature is the handle adjustment button. This feature allows two additional operating positions beyond the one pictured. When you press the handle adjustment button, you can set it to one of two pistol grip positions. This is handy for jobs in which you must reach into tight places, such as cabinet work. The 9073 is an expansion of a previous model, the VP750 PivotDriver. Using 3.6 volts and operating at 180 rpm, the VP750's more powerful than the 9073, but also weighs half a pound more, is three inches longer, and has only one pistol grip position. Neither unit has a clutch to vary drill bit rotation, but I doubt that really matters if you develop good toggle switch control.

I would have designed the 9073's power switch differently. You'd expect a pistol grip to have a switch accessible to your trigger finger, like the VP750 has. Instead, you must use your thumb to turn on the 9073 switch. At first this seemed awkward, counterintuitive even, but I eventually got used to it.

The 9073 is a good power tool for home-repair enthusiasts. As my friend from the seventies used to say, "check it out!"

Black & Decker. 701 E. Joppa Rd., Towson, MD 21286. www.blackanddecker.com.


Kershaw Mini-Tasker Folding Knife

Mini-Tasker Folding KnifeThis is a practical sub-three inch knife that opens as quickly as an automatic, but with none of the trouble of having it going off in your pocket. It has a good feel and stays sharp through daily tasks. The clip doesn't weaken like other knives tend to and the molded poly handle is sturdy, surviving several falls onto concrete. About the only slight defect I noticed with the model I received is the hex screw that controls the blade. It tends to loosen with heavy use. This is easily corrected by the slight twist of an Allen wrench. Otherwise, this is a good--but not quite an extraordinary--knife.

Kershaw Knives. www.kershawknives.com.


The AlphaSmart 3000 Text Processor

AlphaSmart 3000This low-tech tool has no disk drives, no modem, not even a standard monitor. It also costs less than $300 and weighs about two pounds.

If you need a text processor to type notes, put together rough drafts or outlines, or compose correspondence, consider this machine. It is similar in functionality to the old Radio Shack TRS-100 that was popular in the late eighties. Designed originally to teach typing and writing skills to students, the AlphaSmart 3000 is a modest computer, adequate for use on airline flights and in hotel rooms. Since the four-line LCD screen displays characters with no descenders and is not backlit, I wouldnít advise using it for more than an hour at a time because of fatigue. The keyboard has an easy feel and the tilt angle is good. All text is automatically saved into memory. It runs for months on three AA batteries. It is so dependable, I havenít lost a file yet. Its function keys allow you to open eight different ASCII files (only one at a time) and send them to your PC or Mac when finished, via a Y-connector cable to your keyboard port or a USB connector. You can also download ASCII files from your computerís clipboard. The Y-connector file transfer speed is slower than I would have liked (but faster from the USB).

Donít expect to use it at meetings. I tried once and was shhhhíed into silence because of excessive clackety clack. And donít expect sophisticated word processing features, like drag & drop. You can cut and paste though;it works like an old DOS word processor (or a CP/MKaypro). But if your needs are modest and your budget is small, consider this humble product. It wonít win any awards at Comdex, but it will get your ideas into digital form faster than a PDA.

AlphaSmart 3000. AlphaSmart, Inc, Inc., 20400 Stevens Creek Blvd., Suite 300, Cupertino, CA 95014. 888-274-0680. www.alphasmart.com.


DeLorme EarthMate and Street Atlas 6.0

If youíve ever gotten lost on the way to an important interview, GPS (Global Positioning System) can help you. With the proper equipment, you can rig up your car to tell you your position on a map, display the distance and time to the next turn, and provide other helpful information to keep you unlost.

With DeLormeís Street Atlas 6.0 program and EarthMate GPS receiver, you can now use your Palm III palmtop computer as a positioning system. Hereís how it works: While still at home, you map out your route on your PCís Street Atlas 6.0 program (Quickest? Shortest? Preferred? Scenic?), specifying your beginning and ending location. You then export the map route and directions to files that can be read by the Palm III. After downloading them to your Palm III computer, you connect the DeLorme EarthMate GPS receiver to the Palm III serial port. You initialize DeLormeís Solus application on the Palm III. In a short while, your carís position, tracked by satellites, appears on the map as a moving set of crosshairs. There are four views available within Solus: Map, which dynamically changes as you drive; Position, which lists your longitude and latitude; Navigate, which displays instructions for your next route change ("Turn Left at Wattles Street"); and Directions, which includes your start, the name of each leg of your journey, and the cumulative elapsed time and distance after each leg. These last three options have drop-down list boxes that allow you to select indicators, such as Time to Next Turn, Distance to Next Turn, Distance, Speed, Elevation, and anything else that can be garnered from that satellite hovering over you.

It works great. I charted out a route in the Framingham/495 area for a place I had to reach. Even though it was night and I was traveling a road Iíve never taken, I didnít get lost once. It was so cool watching my car move along the little map and reading messages about when to take the next turn. While elevation and speed is not particularly useful information, the Tripometer, which lists the total miles traveled, is a plus for business record-keeping. The software calculates the amount of time you have left for your destination (and your next turn) by calculating your average speed along the route. Note that you can also attach the EarthMate GPS to a laptop computer, should you prefer a larger screen that gobbles batteries more rapidly.

DeLorme Earthmate. DeLorme, Two DeLorme Drive, Box 298, Yarmouth, ME, 04096. (207) 846-7000.


Olympus D1000 Digital Voice Recorder

Why digital recording? Itís a more expensive solution than an analog tape recorder. Itís harder to obtain additional media. However, the idea of digitizing interviews and copying them to a computer can be appealing if you spend time transcribing interviews. Wouldnít it be nice to have the computer do this? I kept waiting for voice transcription software to improve enough to warrant further investigation. Perhaps the time has come.

Although similar to a standard microcassette recorder,  the D1000 differs in one important aspect: Instead of a tape, it has a miniature 2 MB PCMCIA card on which you record your messages. You can fit up to 15 minutes of messages in "Standard" mode, 30 if in "Long" mode. Long mode is similar to the extended play (EP) mode of VCR tapes. It uses less space but produces poorer sound quality than Standard mode. Fifteen minutes isnít very long, but for an extra $150 you can purchase a 4 MB card that doubles the length. I know that price is 30 times higher than a microcassette tape, but this is digitization, the wave of the future. You can easily copy these files up to your computer and keep them in case somebody claims they didnít tell you something. Would you prefer a drawer full of microcassette tapes?

There are two methods to copy the files up to a PC. If you have a standard PCMCIA slot on your computer (many laptops come equipped with them) you can insert the miniature PCMCIA card into Olympusís PCMCIA card adapter, insert the adapter into your PCMCIA slot and simply copy the files. If you have a desktop model without a PCMCIA slot, the process is a little more expensive and bothersome. You either have to buy a PCMCIA card drive and install it, which involves rolling up your sleeves, opening your machine, and connecting cables. Or you can get Olympusí optional mini-PCMCIA card reader. I chose the later option. This cute unit plugs into your parallel port and installs quite easily. Not only did I get it working, but I also read the README file, which told me I could have printing problems if I didnít disable the reader when I wasnít using it. I tested it with my HP LaserJet 6L, and sure enough, the card reader made the printer expel pages of little squiggles until I disabled the card reader.

The D1000 has several unique recording concepts. One is discrete messages. You can create multiple sound files on one card. This feature allows you to categorize your messages. You can, for example, put all of your messages in Message 1 and all your work messages in Message 2. Another nifty feature is the ability to select overwrite or insert mode. Like a word processor program, the D1000 lets you either insert data into the middle of a file or overwrite the data. You can also erase part of or an entire sound file, or all files on the recorder.

Olympus D1000 Digital Voice Recorder. Olympus America, Inc., Two Corporate Center Drive, Medlville, NY 11747. (516) 631-5000.


Sigma 28-200mm f3.5-5.6 DL Hyperzoom Macro Zoom Lens

Sigma 28-200mm f3.5-5.6 DL Hyperzoom Macro LensBefore you buy that digital camera, take heed of this fact: you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to find one with a lens of this magnitude and versatility. Of course, many digital cameras have zoom lenses, but the best range most of them offer is 35-135mm. However, if you ever do find a digital 28-200mm zoom lens, expect to pay between $1000-2000 for it and the camera itís attached to. Otherwise, accept this fact of the marketplace. Digital photography may be catching up with film photography, but products like this lens prove it hasnít gotten far enough yet.

What are the notable features of the Sigma 28-200mm? It uses a 72mm filter, a size common for lenses of this type. Like the Vivitar 28-210, it allows you to get as close as 1.6 feet at all zoom settings. But unlike the Vivitar, the Sigma is only 3.4" long in retracted position. (The Vivitar is 3.8.") A half an inch may not sound like much, but it can mean the difference between fitting in a crowded camera bag or not.

I tested this lens with a Canon EOS Elan IIe. In the field, the lens glides smoothly between 28mm and 200mm with only a half twist of the wrist. I tried doing a time-exposure zoom of a neon sign at night. This half twist is perfect. Any more would be too sensitive, any less would involve too much wrist action.

The pictures from the test roll were sharp with no fuzzy edges, which means it correctly interpreted the auto-focus commands of the Canon. It also means that the aspherical element(s) corrected the curvature of field and barrel distortion common to older lenses without aspherical elements.

I have one small quibble with the documentation. It doesnít mention the macro feature. Zoom lenses of the past provided a button or switch to take you into macro mode. The documentation doesnít tell you how to use the macro feature. I called Sigma technical support and found out that this lens incorporates "continuous macro." This means that at any focal length, simply focusing at the minimum 1.6 feet automatically enables the macro. This should have been noted in the instructions.

I would have preferred a larger auto/manual focus switch, but once you get used to it, the switch flicks back and forth fairly easily. Sigma includes a plastic anti-glare hood (called a "perfect hood"), which you can easily detach and reattach via a bayonet mount. It is longer (and probably more effective) than an after-market rubber hood (which often needs to be screwed onto the lens). Plus, you can turn it around and store it on the lens in a locked position, without it inhibiting operation.

This is an excellent lens for the money. It may be the only one you need for now.

Sigma Corporation of America, 15 Fleetwood Court, Ronkonkoma, NY 11779. www.sigmaphoto.com


DDV9750 Dual Deck VCR

Dual Deck VCRA short while ago I was faced with a daunting situation. I was writing a videotape script for a client who had trouble articulating what he wanted. Eventually he handed me a stack of videotapes others had written and said, "Here's what's been done before. Take them home for a couple of days and feel free to copy them."

I needed these videotapes for the lifespan of the project. But copy them? I had only a lowly GE single-deck VCR. Eventually, I coaxed a friend to bring his VCR over, and after three hours of fumbling with patch cords and overloading the wall sockets, we succeeded in duping one tape. Was there no easier way of doing this?

As far as I know, the Sensory Science company manufactures the world's only dual-deck VCR. It allows you to copy other videocassettes, even many copy-protected ones. What does this mean to you, in these days of the emerging DVD player? First of all, I don't believe there are any dual-deck DVD players available. So you can't copy a DVD disc too easily (if at all). Secondly, I predict videocassettes will be with us for many years to come. (Audio cassettes are still available, seventeen years after the introduction of the compact disc.)

But isn't copying tapes illegal? What about that scary warning that appears at the beginning of every rented tape? Surprise. According to the law, it applies only to "unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or exhibition." This means that you can copy copyrighted tapes, providing that you do so for home use and do not intend to profit from them commercially. For example, you can rent and copy that C language instructional video, providing you don't sell it to others or charge admission fees. So relax. Owning a GO VIDEO dual-deck VCR will not cause the FBI to pound on your door.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's evaluate some of the features of the DDV9750 dual deck VCR.

These are some of the notable features of this fine unit. I wasn't able to test the Go-Port connection, which allows you to control the VCR through a PC, using special software orderable through Sensory Science, nor its Cable Mouse, which allows you to change cable box channels using your VCR remote. I assume they work as advertised.

The manual is better than most consumer electronic manuals. It even has an index. However, it could use some improvement. It would also benefit from procedures and examples, perhaps a list of tasks users would most likely perform.

About the only feature I missed was automatic commercial exclusion. Some recorders sense commercials and pause during a recording session to exclude them. However, this is more of a nice-to-have than a necessity, since you can scan past commercials and even play back the last thirty seconds by touching a button, should you overshoot.

These are minor quibbles against an excellently-designed product that fills a gap in consumer needs. Although slightly wider than a single deck VCR, the DDV9750 takes up less room than two VCRs and does a far better job of copying tapes. I highly recommend it.

DDV9750 Dual Deck VCR. Sensory Science Corporation, 7835 East McClain Drive, Scottsdale, AZ USA 85260. www.sensoryscience.com.


VS64939 Contours Corner TV/VCR Stand

TV/VCR StandThis black corner TV stand/VCR cabinet is an excellent addition to your home theater setup. It is sturdy, reasonably priced, and not that hard to assemble. So what if itís made out of particle board? Have you ever tried to find a piece of mahogany or pine furniture that you can put a 32" 80-pound television on? I tried for several years and believe me, itís not worth the search. Letís face it, this is a functional unit. Itís probably not going to be appearing on the Antiques Road Show any time soon.

The WearGuardģ finish seems fairly resistant to scratches, although I noticed a few inconsequential nicks while putting it together. I assume this occurred while the unit was being shipped. It arrived in ten pieces in a fairly flat box; perhaps more packing material would be in order.

What about assembly? It is straightforward, but fairly detailed. You have to read the instructions first, which are clear and well-illustrated. It takes about an hour and requires no drilling, just a Phillips head screwdriver. If youíre the type who put together model airplanes or intricate dollhouses in your youth, youíll have no trouble following the instructions. Bush Industries shipped all necessary hardware and no more, so there are no extra screws left over to rattle you. Unless youíre an Olympic weight lifter, you will need help turning it over and (of course) putting that huge TV on it.

The tempered glass doors are an excellent idea. Not only are they not brittle, but they are easy to clean. They keep the dust away from your VCR, but at the same time allow your remote to work. The magnetic catches make it easy to open and close the doors without handles.

I think the VS64939 could use more shelves. There is only one. I assume it is for a VCR, but some users may want to use them for stacking VCR tapes or DVDís. Two more would be ideal, yet they are to order.

For a large unit, its unique shape makes it remarkably unobtrusive. It almost seems like an extension of the TV set. I recommend it for those looking for an inexpensive and practical way to get that monster TV set off the floor.

VS64939 Contours Corner TV/VCR Stand. Bush Industries Inc. One Mason Drive, P.O. Box 460, Jamestown, NY 14702-0460. www.bushfurniture.com.


Onkyo DV-C600 DVD Player

Onkyo DV-C600 DVD PlayerThis DVD player has all of the standard features and then some. From the remote, you can zoom in three levels. Note that on most DVD players (including this one), the third level starts getting a bit fuzzy. The model has dolby digital audio output, a high resolution on-screen display, and plays DVD, CD, and video CD. There is also the capability for multi-angle viewing of DVDs, although few DVDs have this feature. You can also use a standard video and S-video hookup, but donít expect to tape too many DVDs. Most have nasty copy-protection schemes.

Now for the extras:

Setup was relatively painless. For sound, I plugged the audio cables into my amplifierís CD input; for video, I plugged the video cable into the back of my Mitsubishi television set. (Of course you need video input jacks on your TV. The coaxial antennae of yesteryear no longer work.)

There are many other features that checked out as advertised, such as a user-friendly onscreen setup procedure with niceties like dynamic range control, a screen saver, and even a Karaoke Vocal muting function! You can also specify whether you want letterboxing or 4:3 ratio, although why youíd prefer the chopped-off 4:3 is beyond me. This is an excellent player with enough features (such as multi-angle) to allow the media to catch up with the player in a few years.

For more information:

Onkyo U.S.A. Corporation, 200 Williams Drive Ramsey, New Jersey 07446. Tel: 201-825-7950 .Fax: 201-825-8150. Web: http://www.onkyousa.com/.


Crushable Hats

Gambler Hat(13148 bytes)What is a crushable hat? It is one that you can fold and pack away, perhaps in a suitcase, then unfold and wear without apparent damage. A beret is a crushable and so are most baseball caps. Dorfman Pacific is a leading distributor of crushable brimmed hats. If you really dislike carrying your hat aboard an airplane, and fret over it squashing in your overhead luggage cabinet, consider getting one of the crushables reviewed here.

Most people who wear hats in the winter make the mistake of wearing one without a brim, like the traditional stocking cap. They act as if the sun doesnít shine in the winter and theyíre not in any danger from ultraviolet rays. The American Dermatological Society recommends that people wear brimmed hats for protection against certain forms of skin cancer and premature aging. They donít say "wear them only in summertime when weeding the garden." And it stands to reason that the wider the brim, the safer you are.

The Outback (AS102EL) is one o the most practical winter hats Iíve ever worn. It is a crushable felt hat with a 2 ĺ inch brim and a chinstrap with a wooden chin-tie. What is most remarkable about this hat is that it has retractable earmuffs. I recently wore one during one of Bostonís notorious cold spells and my ears didnít freeze. I have found little need for the chinstrap, for the hat stays on in earmuff-mode even in the gustiest weather. On warmer windy days when I didnít wear the earmuffs, I encountered only one situation in which I needed the chinstrap. So I removed it and I believe the hat is better for it. If you do decide to keep the chinstrap, consider replacing the wooden chin-tie with a spring toggle. Toggles donít slip. So how well does this hat crush? I stuffed it in a suitcase on the bottom layer and took a flight to Pennsylvania. When I retrieved the hat, it bounced back in shape and its fold disappearing after a day. It comes in both black and khaki.

The hand-crocheted Gambler raffia hat (MR50S) is a splendid summer crushable with a 3" brim. Raffia is a woven straw from Madagascar that crushes as readily as felt. The hand weave didnít feel rough against my head, partly because of the elasticized sweat band, which adjusts to intermediary hat sizes (for example, between medium and large). The chinstrap was perfect in windy weather. And this one has a toggle! The hatís chinstrap holes are even grommeted to prevent stress on the raffia. It too passed the five-hour suitcase crush test.

The womanís Gambler (BF 2) is a jaunty stylish hat with a hatband, but alas, no earmuffs. No matter, it is an excellent spring and mild winter day hat. It comes in black, charcoal, oak, red, and taupe.

Consider buying a crushable brimmed hat. You may help bring back that stylish Forties look!

For more information:

Visit an online hat shop like http://www.sacredfeather.com/straw.html.


Sony Walkman DEJ-815 CD Player

Sony Walkman DEJ-815 CD PlayerThis unit is one of the new generations of CD players that even joggers can use without anticipating the dreaded skip. The DEJ-815  has such a large buffer that no amount of jossling seems causes a skip. It also has an inline remote that allows you to perform all tasks that the standard controls allow: start, stop, scan, pause, skip. It even allows you to change the play mode from such options as shuffle, continuous, and single play. It would have been nice to be able to operate it more easily; for example, more by touch than by  sight, but you can't have everything at once. CD and tape player remotes are still recent developments. I also wish that the default display mode (when you first load the batteries) didn't default to display light-up mode. To  prevent the battery-draining display light from turning on each time you pressed a control button, you must perform a deft and complicated manoever--press the "P. Mode" button while loading the batteries. For users who for users who just must play their CDs in the dark, this should be a configurable option, not a default.

Speaking of batteries, the new breed of nickle-cadmium batteries that come with the unit (NC-WMAA) operated a full ten hours for me before they needed recharging. And they recharge quite quickly in the unit when they run down. Very impressive. There is also a higher end battery you can purchase from Sony.

Sound was decent, especially with the Radio Shak Archer earbuds I'd used for testing. While I'm on this topic, I think Sony should package ear buds with their systems. The standard bulky earphones are good for listening to boom boxes and other thunderous units, but you need a good portable earbuds for smaller units like this one. Plus you can use them while still wearing a hat, a strong consideration in these sweltering months. Bear in mind that not all third party earphones work well with the remote on this unit. I found that Koss's earbuds constantly threw it off, even turned the CD player off a few times. Other earbuds gave no such trouble and operated just smoothly. So if you buy   third-party earphones for use with this unit,  keep your receipts handy for the first week or so. Compatability may be an issue.

Thumbs up for this unit. It's a beauty.

For more information:

Sony: www.sony.com.


Two Blood Pressure Monitors
by Martin Jukovsky

Brookstone 109BK

LifeSource UA-767

According to a report at a 1995 meeting of the American Society of Hypertension, 20 to 30% of patients with normal blood pressure test much higher in the doctor's office.  This psychologically induced elevation of blood pressure is called "white coat hypertension."  Most doctors will recommend that patients at risk of hypertension purchase a home blood pressure monitor for two reasons: to keep track of one's blood pressure on a regular basis, and to do so where the presence of a doctor or nurse is not a factor.  Obviously, an accurate blood pressure monitor is a must.

The two monitors I have been using are the Brookstone Model 109BK and the LifeSource (formerly A&D) Model UA-767.  I have mild hypertension, am taking a beta-blocker and a diuretic, and have been told by the doctor to monitor my blood pressure at least once a day.

With medication, the readings on the LifeSource monitor (self-inflating, position on the upper arm) tend to be around 130 mmHg systolic, over 80 mmHg diastolic.  The Brookstone monitor (self-inflating, mounted on the wrist), however, gives me reading that are consistently higher -- as much as 20 mmHg on the systolic.  The numbers on the LifeSource device are more in accord with the accurate reading I got in the doctor's office a couple of weeks ago.  Furthermore, I recently went into a Brookstone in the local mall and tried the Model 109BK on display; it gave me the same dubious 20-point spread.

So, though the Brookstone is more convenient to use -- simply put it on your wrist and push two buttons -- the LifeSource seems to me the more accurate.  Two other factors speak in favor of purchasing the LifeSource Model UA-767: its unprecedented lifetime warranty and the positive write-up it got in the professional journal Blood Pressure Monitoring

The Brookstone monitor lists for $125.00 and is only available at Brookstone outlets or on the Brookstone Web site.  The LifeSource monitor lists for $89.95 on the LifeSource Web site, but can be found for as little as $64.00 through diligent searching on the Web.

Note: On the UA-767 you have to set the systolic switch to one of three upper limits you expect your systolic pressure to be. (The higher end UA-779 eliminates this switch.) 

For more information:

LifeSource
1-888-726-9966
http://www.LifeSourceOnline.com

Brookstone
1-877-468-3580 or 1-203-205-2950
http://www.brookstone.com/