Bob and Joy
                                      
 
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach
                                                                        

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  Inexpensive Custom Keyboards are Finally Here

 

 

   We've been waiting for this for 20 years: It's custom keyboards that clip onto a standard base. And it took computer gaming to make it happen. But don't move on just yet -- this is not just about computer games.

   The system is simply this: You start with a standard PC keyboard but without the keys. The keys come in a separate set of folding plastic panels. You unfold a panel into a single keyboard and put it on top of the base that has no keys. A clip on one end locks it in place. Voila, as we say in fractured French, you now have a custom keyboard, with keys labeled for functions you no longer have to memorize or look up.
     In the beginning was the Age of Mythology. We mean the Microsoft adventure game about, well, the age of mythology. A $20 snap-on keyboard provides all the commands for playing the game without hours of learning. Then there's Delta Force, Medal of Honor, Everquest, etc., and ... the new Doom 3. They're all $20 from "Zboard" (www.zboard.com). The base keyboard, which comes with two sets of overlay keys is $50.
     But, as they say in the late-night TV ads, that's not all you can get. Other custom key sets are available for Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, Word, Windows, Excel, Macromedia Dreamweaver and Internet Explorer.
     Photoshop, just to take an example, is a huge, expensive and complex program. The beach is littered with the hulks of those who have tried to master it. But here we have only to clip on the $25 snap-on keyboard and we automatically have dedicated keys for "saturate hue" and "desaturate hue." We have cut, color, rotate, flip, merge images, add new layer, move up a layer, move down a layer, ungroup images and on into the night. And of course there's a dedicated key to encode the image for the Web.
     If you're not using any of the special programs the keyboards are designed for, the keys act just like an ordinary keyboard; the special dedicated functions are inactive. If you switch to running Photoshop or another keyboard/program set, the keyboard will detect that the program is active and a little light will go on indicating that the special keys are now also active.
     The prices for these keyboards, $25 or less, are shockingly cheap. We have a dedicated keyboard for word processing, for example, that cost $1,000 when it was new 25 years ago. It works with the Atex word-processing system used by many newspapers and publishers. It's more solidly made than the Zboard snap-on keyboards, but what a price difference.
     Wrap-up: The Zboard specialized keyboards are sometimes hard to find, but if you type "zboard" as a search term in either net.com  or froogle.com, you can find most or all at discount prices.
  Sites for Sore Eyes
     From time to time a few readers have written us to say their eyesight was failing and was there some program that could help them when browsing the Web. Yes there is, and it's great. It's called Liquid Surf, and it costs $40 as a download from www.download.com (free for a trial version).
     Liquid Surf works only with Internet Explorer, which is the browser used by more than 90 percent of all the people browsing the Web. It enlarges the text without losing any of the graphics or the layout of the pages. The enlargement is clear and clean, up to 250 percent, without any of the jagged-edges effect you get by simply magnifying a section of a screen.
     You can thread one long page across two screen windows so you can see the whole, or you can open two pages at a time. This is an impressive program and a boon for those who need a little help browsing the web.
  Pictures at an Exhibition

 

All those pictures. Here are three things to do with them.

  Ofoto, which is probably the leading place for posting photos to the Web, has a new album product. For $30 you get a hard-bound album of 20 pages with photos of your choice. Additional pages are $2 each.

   The albums come in choices of leather, linen or some matte finish synthetic. The albums have a front cover window for your best picture, and the album looks like a coffee table book. We got one and it looks great. More info at the Web site: www.ofoto.com.

 

  A nice new program for posting photos to a Web site is Thumb Buddy (as in the song: "thumb buddy loves you"). It won a best-of-class shareware award recently and is easy to use. This is a good program for compiling product photos into a catalog and posting them to a Web store. The bad news is the way you post your photos is to "FTP them," as the techies like to say. FTP stands for "file transfer protocol," and we doubt that one person in 10 understands how to do that. Thumb Buddy is at www.lincolnbeach.com.

 

  Finally, here's a brief mention of Smug Mug. We wrote about this before, but it's worth bringing up again because it does a beautiful job of displaying your photos on its Web site. Membership costs $30 a year and you can have a private or public display. This is a nice thing for professional photographers or amateurs who want to show off their work. For $100 a year you can use the site to sell your images and also link to your own web site. Take a look at www.smugmug.com.

 

NOTE: Readers can search three years of columns at the "On Computers" Web site: www.oncomp.com and can e-mail the Schwabachs at bobschwab@oncomp.com or bobschwab@aol.com.