From Desk Top to Lap Top, Computers Get More Pizazz

Computers For The Rest of Us

If last week's huge Comdex trade show in Las Vegas is any indication, future computers will be smaller, more secure, and more fun. Consumers will see a wealth of new products in coming months, some in time for Christmas.

It's no surprise new mobile computers continue to get smaller, but few would have expected so soon something as small as the Rex.

Franklin Electronic Publishers has managed to add a screen and five buttons to a standard PC Card (those handy gizmos the size of a credit card that fit in notebook computers). Inserted in the computer, the $150 device updates itself with your computer's scheduling software. Unplugged, it lets you see (but not change) that schedule - as many as 3,000 entries in your diary, address book, or notes section.

Manufacturers are also finding ways to slim down the traditional notebook computer. The most extreme example is the Pedion from Mitsubishi Electronics. It sports the new 233-megahertz Intel chip for mobile computers and a 12.1-inch screen. But it weighs just 3.1 pounds and, incredibly, is less than three-quarters of an inch thick.

At $6,000 apiece, the Pedion might be out of most people's reach when it becomes available in the United States early next year. But don't be surprised if Mitsubishi and its competitors bring such slimming techniques to less expensive machines, such as the new class of mini notebooks. These new machines, such as Toshiba's Libretto, provide an intriguing alternative to today's mobile computers, because they're lighter and smaller than notebooks but sport larger screens than hand-held and palmtop computers.

Another trend for personal computers (PCs) is security. You can make your own notebook secure with one of the new $29.95 to $89.95 locks from Secure-It. Or, for traveling notebook users, Compu-Lock's $125 TravAlert (available in January) activates a loud siren when your notebook gets more than 12 feet away from you.

If you want to turn your PC into a high-tech guard, attach it to a fingerprint matcher. Two companies are offering similar products. For individual users, Digital Persona will offer early next year the $99 U.are.U. Put your finger on top of the device and it matches the print to its database of approved fingerprints. The device can be an alternative to the common password and, for an extra $80, includes a software suite that can protect most any password-enabled application from prying eyes.

Another company, I/O Software, offers a more expensive system based on Sony's Puppy fingerprint identification unit. Users can hook it up to a door, a computer, or whatever else requires automated security. The system currently works on the network version of Windows, called NT, but new versions will also be compatible with Windows 95 and its expected replacement next year, Windows 98.

PCs are also becoming more fun. Examples of machines using digital video and still photography abound. Several companies, such as Connectix and Xirlink, are offering $100 to $150 video kits that could one day allow computer users to teleconference. At the moment, the Internet is much too slow to make this useful for individual users. But you can use the cameras to send friends and family short video clips via electronic mail.

Computers are not only seeing, they can make you feel too, thanks to Immersion Corp.'s Feelit mouse. Available the middle of next year, the $150 gizmo comes with its own mouse pad and hidden motors that change the action of the mouse depending on what's on the screen. Over a patch of screen designated as ice, the cursor slips all over the place.

When playing connect-the-dots, the pointer makes it feel as though it has fallen into a hole as it touches each dot, making it faster and easier than relying on visual clues alone. Game software is already incorporating the technology. But the company expects other uses as well. For example, highlighting text in a word-processing program would be easier if your mouse pointer let you feel the beginning and end of each word. Neat, huh?

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