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   Guide : Christmas Hardware Buyers Guide 2001 »  


 Christmas Hardware Buyers Guide 2001 - Accessories
 Date  : Dec 20th, 2001
 Category  : Hardware
 Manufacturer   : Various
 Author  : Jin-Wei Tioh
Admit it. Most of us are cheap bastards economically pragmatic. Now the season of giving (and hopefully a little receiving) is nearly upon us. What with the current state of the world economy, not all of us can afford to give the best toys, like 60" plasma monitors, 18" LCD screens or even a GeForce3 Ti500 as presents to the techies we love. But aren't all computer related gear insanely expensive? Don't despair - you'd actually be surprised at the kind of stuff you can get for less than $100. Hence, we've created this compilation of reviews and mini-reviews to help you along. And you don't even have to steal Santa's milk and cookies!


The RatPadz has been been around for a LONG time, and reviewed to death (not by us though). About the best mousing surface available out there. [H]ard, just like the man himself. And he, err... it comes cheap too : $13.95. After all, you know what they say : a family that frags together stays together :) Or if you're giving this gift to a certain significant other : "First we shag, then we frag :P"

Purchase Ratpadz

FrontX CPX Multimedia Ports

Click To Enlarge
Envision this. It's late at night and you'd like to deathmatch someone over the Net. Or you'd like to voice conference with someone on a different continent. Or you want to download data from your PDA. Or you want to capture that vacation footage into the PC for editing and mastering. Regardless, you always have to reach behind the PC (on your knees if your PC is placed on the floor), try not to get your hand entangled in wires and find the correct port to plug your headphone / microphone / PDA / video deck into. This is absolutely unavoidable for both new and veteran PC users alike. Wouldn't it be convenient to plug in the cables for your peripherals at the front of your PC?

Most products available cost a pretty penny; Creative Labs Live!Drive I ($129), Live!Drive II ($149), or OptiCompo's POFP ($85.95). They cost just as much, if not more than a good sound card such as the SBLive! Value. Plus, the Live!Drives are non-universal, as they can only work with the full SBLive!.

Need something that is more universal, or just simply cheaper? Get the FrontX CPX Multimedia Ports. They've already been out for some time (we reviewed it here) and have sold like hot cakes. The CPX Multimedia Ports is basically an "input/output unit", or what some people term a "port replicator" in the form of a 5.25" drive bay. The CPX Multimedia Ports provides the standard sound card ports (headphone, mic, line-in and joystick) and ups the ante by offering additional ports such as composite / S-video, RCA, USB, parallel and serial. The FrontX costs $26.90 for the basic unit (includes 3 audio jacks and a joystick port), and you can customize your unit online with other modules. $61 will get you a fully decked out unit with USB, FireWire, serial and composite video ports. Very Highly Recommended!

Purchase FrontX CPX Multimedia Ports

Logitech Cordless Freedom Optical

Frankly, disconnecting / reconnecting your PC can be an arduous task. There's a cable for this, a cable for that - in short, cable clutter galore. It doesn't help that easy plug-and-play technologies like USB and FireWire tend to multiply, rather reduce wires. Also, if you're a gamer, how many times has your mouse cord gotten entangled or stuck, costing you precious frags?

Logitech has an answer to those problems : the Cordless Freedom Optical. It effectively eliminates two cords and leaves you with two comfortable, feature-rich peripherals. The keyboard features their "Zero Degree Tilt" profile, meaning that the keyboard and keys are flatter for easier keystrokes. It also sports Logitech's iTouch (several buttons which provide instant access to several functions), iNav Wheel (basically an attached mouse wheel on the left of the keyboard) and multimedia controls. The mouse is the Cordless MouseMan Optical, a standard two button wheel mouse. No more having to constantly clean the lint off the mouse rollers. Both devices have a range of 6 feet (2m), and the digital RF signal is encrypted, less some overly curious soul tries to snoop around. The Cordless Freedom Optical weighs in at $99.95, and will make any techie happy. (Someone buy me one!).

Purchase Logitech Cordless Freedom Optical


A few months ago, a mysterious package arrived at our labs. What was it? The ROMTEC Trios, a nifty looking little box which coveniently fits in one of your computer's drive bays. What does this 5.25" thingamajig do? It is basically a hard drive selector that permits you to boot from either of up to 3 hard drives. All ATA standards (ATA-33, ATA-66 and ATA-100) are supported, and installation is a trivial issue. A much more elegant solution than mucking around with complicated and potentially data loss incurring multi-partitioning or boot menu software. Even so, ROMTEC decided not to leave anything to chance, documenting the installation process in great detail, complete with step-by-step photos.

Alright, so this is a $70 hard drive selector. The price tag of the Trios seemed to be steep for its advertised usage, that is until we figured out some cool, unique uses for it. As advertised, it let's one run multiple operating systems on a single computer, and elegantly too. A major boon for those of us who would like to leave our current OS intact whilst experimenting with newer/alternative OSes, such as Linux, FreeBSD, BeOS, OS/2, x86 Solaris, or the latest version of Windows.

Is that all? Not by a long shot. Firstly, for us hardware reviewers, it allows us to consolidate our personal workstations and testbeds into a single unit. Simply press a switch on the Trios to boot up from the testbed's hard drive, where we can quickly and readily get on with our work, all without affecting our existing data on the other drive.

For home users, this is a great way to share a single computer among the family, without the associated headaches of data loss or system crashes (which is naturally blamed on the kids). One drive for the grown-ups, one for the kids. If the kids' installation gets FUBARed, the grown-ups can still go on without breaking a sweat. The Trios is equally applicable in a corporate environment where the number of workstations can be reduced, not forgetting all the associated savings (power, space, etc.) as well.

The Trios is one helluva good idea from ROMTEC, and though some might consider the price tag of $79.95 to be high, it is still fairly affordable. The Trios gets our Excellence Award!

Purchase ROMTEC Trios

Thumbdrive, DiskOnKey

Over the last few years, removable storage devices have grown immensely popular. Among the widely known are solutions such as Iomega's Zip, Jaz, and PocketZip, the Castlewood Orb, and CDR/RW drives. This just goes show one simple thing : we increasingly want our data to be available on the go. However, the products mentioned are of a more "conventional" design, ie. they use physical media which means that they are less rugged, being susceptible to shocks, magnetic fields, dust, dirt, scratches, spilt coffee, all threats in the real world. Moreover, these devices typically need a power source, data cable and the storage media itself to function. Beginning to change your mind about just how "portable" they are, eh?

Some devices that address these shortcomings are Trek Technology's Thumbdrives, minute in size (literally the size of the average thumb, and only a few mm thick), and ranging in capacities from a humble 8MB to an unthinkable 512MB. Previously, we have evaluated the 16MB non-secure model, as well as the 8MB secure model. The newer secure model features an actual thumbprint scanner on the unit, and Trek is just launching their driverless models (look out for our take on this soon). IBM has even gone to extent of selling OEM Thumbdrives with their laptops (we've seen an actual unit). All models plug into the USB interface.

Another company also markets a similar, solid-state storage solution : M-Systems. Their USB DiskOnKey product line was introduced a few months back, and we have a 16MB model in the labs. While not quite as compact as the Thumbdrive, it is designed for a different purpose; to offer ultra-portable storage, as well as being a keychain. Well, you do take your keys everywhere don't you? Why not your data? The DiskOnKey's size also works to it's advantage, making it much harder to lose than the Thumbdrive. Additionally, the DiskOnKey is already driverless, meaning that you simply just plug-and-store, much like a conventional floppy. Performance wise, writes on the DiskOnKey are faster, while reads are about on par with the Thumbdrive.

Both the Thumbdrive and DiskOnKey gives one a great deal of convenience. How so? For example, transferring files that are greater than 1.44MB in size between non-networked PCs, or sneaker-netting files between the home and office (though a moot point if one works in a home office). A whole multimedia presentation can be carried in your shirt pocket - simply plug it into a PC upon your arrival. With the Thumbdrive's added security feature, it becomes more appealing to the corporate user, for whom data privacy is a pivotal issue. Furthermore, many modern notebooks adopt an "either or" design : either you use the floppy drive or the CD/DVD drive. In this scenario, both devices serve as perfect substitutes, with the bonus of increased speed, reliability and security over the venerable floppy.

The 64MB DiskOnKey and the 64MB Thumbdrive Secure are both priced at $99. So long you're willing to pony up the premium to really have your data on the go, you can't go wrong with either device, though for the moment the DiskOnKey has the big advantage of being driverless, while the Thumbdrive Secure gives corporate users more data privacy. Very Highly Recommended!

Purchase Thumbdrive
Purchase DiskOnKey

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