Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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October 2003, Week 4 -- Rade-on!




   Good graphics are good. But great graphics are really great. To see the show, bring money and lots of computing power.

   ATI's new "Radeon 9800 Pro" graphics card is so powerful it can't even be used with regular Windows computers; you have to have Win XP, 2000 or Me. This is a gamer's board, which is more interesting than you might think at first. Gamers are the main force demanding better performance, but they're not the only ones who benefit. Faster image rendering helps architects, photographers, artists, the advertising industry and spies.


   Gamers are a very important part of the market. The dollar value of computer game sales now surpasses all movie box office receipts. And the players, mostly adult males in their late 20s to early 30s, are a highly desirable target group for advertisers. On top of all that, gaming is practically the only aspect of personal computing that is pushing the limits of the technology. Unlike word processing and other office applications, which run just about as well on computers from a decade ago as they do on a new machine, games require racing engines.


   The Radeon 9800 Pro engine is a plug-in card for PCs. Pull out the old graphics card, delete its drivers, and plug in the new card and install its drivers. Done. The card has 128MB (megabytes) of memory and a 256-bit interface. Eight parallel pipelines deliver the speed for continuous scene changes. What this means in plain English is that the card renders images at high resolution fast enough for the display to appear cinematic -- no more jerky hesitations. In short, it's as if you were watching a movie, but you're in control of the frames. Early user comments: "God's gift to gamers." And "This card is a monster."


   The 9800 Pro is not cheap. List price from the manufacturer is $499. But we found it for $350 at J&R Music World in new York and $400 at the Circuit City discount chain Full specs and other info directly from ATI at


Hearing aid


 Audio Power Pak

   As she entered her 80s, my mother's hearing began to fail. For others with hearing problems, we recently came across a couple of amplifiers for computers and music players.

  The first is the "Burning Blue Audio Power Pak," a $99 device that converts digital sound feed to analog for high quality sound and volume control. It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes and weighs just a couple of ounces. Connect one end to any Windows or Macintosh computer and plug headphones into the other end. It draws its power from the USB port and doesn't need any other power source. Web:


   Even smaller and cheaper is the $30 "Boostaroo," which connects to any computer or audio player through the regular headphone jack. The Boostaroo is both a volume amplifier and signal splitter. On one side are three jacks and you can connect three sets of headphones at once.


   Why would anyone want to do that, you might ask. Well one possibility is a couple taking a long plane trip and wanting more volume from the in-flight movie. Or riding in a train or bus or sitting side by side anywhere. Web:


A word in hand


   "The Oxford -American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus," for handheld computers made by just about anybody: Palm, Handspring, Sony, HP, etc. A separate version is available for the Pocket PC.

   The full load of 150,000 words with the convenience of a little computer to help you search. Enter the first couple of letters for any word and a list pops and you an start scrolling through. Enter more letters and the list gets shorter. The program also has a "word of the day" vocabulary enhancer. It's $30, from Handmark




--  Want to know who's out there and what they're saying? BoardReader is a tool for searching message boards and forums. Type any search terms or phrases and see who's out there. We typed in "model trains," for example and got back links to 4,943 message postings, some with photographs.


Games: Hot days, cool knights


   What we have here is a new medieval adventure game with humor. The title will clue you in: "Once Upon A Knight: heroism, sorcery, cows." The cows are important, you see, because the local economy is based on milk. They can also be fired from catapults.

   Once Upon A Knight is actually two games in one. It can be played as a normal role-playing adventure game in a sword and sorcery setting or real-time strategy, when played online with and against others. The graphics and action are top of the mark, the story clever and amusing. This one has a good chance to be picked top adventure game of the year. List price $40; for Win 98 and up, advanced graphics card recommended. Web:





   "The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Building Robots," by Garth Branwyn; $19, Que Books

   If you skip the opening chapters, which are basically paeans of praise to pioneer robot builders, you finally get to the nuts and bolts -- literally -- of building your own robots. From there on it's pretty interesting. Unlike most books for beginners in this subject, this one shows you how to build robots using leftover stuff -- like an old computer mouse or an empty AOL freebie container -- instead of buying a kit.

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