LookBack '98: Gadgets we have known and loved - Part I

From time to time the News team does get to fiddle about with the odd gadget or two. Here then, are some of our favourite toys we'll be recommending to our friends this Christmas

Some of the peripheral devices that find themselves to market should by all accounts be left, unopened in their boxes. Speakers, printers, external drives, videoconferencing equipment. They've all let us down in the past, but for legal reasons, let's keep this simple and concentrate on some of the best peripherals we've seen this year.

This is not a review of the products, which appear in ZDNet's sister titles PC Magazine and PC Direct, it's just a guide to what we thought of them.

For the record we were using a Gateway Pentium II 333 with 64MB of RAM

ATI's All-In-Wonder Pro was making some noise as a good all-round solution for watching TV on the PC. Unlike most video tuner/multimedia cards, the ALL-IN-WONDER simply slotted into its card bay, installed its software and went off about its business. No fuss, no blue screens, just crystal clear TV/satellite and the best resolution we've ever seen on a PlayStation!

The All-In-Wonder Pro takes on all the jobs of a regular TV with a few very cool tricks including the recently released Digital VCR 2.0 which allows your PC to record programmes to the hard drive without gobbling loads of space. OK, you couldn't record more than 5 episodes of Brookside, but would you want to?

The only negative point against the brilliant All-In-Wonder Pro is that it will not connect with a Voodoo II 3D graphics card. It will connect with a Banshee card however.

Creative Technology had a great year -- although revenues were not very impressive -- and started off strongly with the rush for Voodoo II 3D cards pushing the company into the spotlight with more than a few interesting stories. After a couple of dodgy moments in a sometimes irreverent war with Diamond Multimedia, Creative got on with the job and released several nifty gadgets. Apart from the politics both companies got their own versions of the Voodoo II to market quickly with equally brilliant boards and won many friends in the gaming world.

Toward the end of 1998 Creative stole the title of 3D sound champion right from under the snoozing Diamond when it released the 3DLive! Surround sound audio system which, frankly, belted Diamond's offering. The 3D audio battle began and Creative introduced its environmental audio system , which, backed up by 4 speakers, put the gamer into a convincing 3D world. Not so Diamond, which was caught in the middle of a row with its chip supplier Aureal, over whether two speakers sounded as good as four. A ridiculous argument that sounded convincing from the marketing men, but in reality, two speakers just ain't gonna do surround sound as well as four.

Creative's environmental audio requires developers to write extra code to take advantage of the surround sound, but anyone who has enjoyed a nip ‘round Unreal using the Live! System will know what we're talking about.

Diamond is now using the Aureal's Vortex2 in its Monster Sound MX300 but we didn't have time to investigate it properly for this article. That said, our sister site in the US loved it.

1998 saw the first bag of useful USB devices with some great products from Logitech, including the excellent QuickCam Home -- a videoconferencing system which sits atop a monitor and delivers smooth images complete with crackle free audio. This is a good buy and backed up with intuitive software. Easy to use and better performance than most of its expensive rivals.

USB Speakers made a lot of noise in '98, worthy of some mention are the excellent DSS350 speakers from Phillips, which take about five minutes to set up and sound rich with games or straight off an audio CD.

We also had a wide selection of CD Writers sent to the News team. To cut a long story short the whole process was painful nightmare with a heap of recordable media strewn across the floor, mangled by the poltergeist who possessed our machines and made them all fail during recording. 27 discs later, the best of the bunch, the Philips CDD 3610 was replaced after a fault was found and lo and behold, worked perfectly. If you found a CD writer in your stocking this Christmas here are a few tips that may stop you going mad:

  • Make sure your CD drive supports digital audio extraction - many of the older CD drives don't and you won't be able to copy audio discs.

  • Make sure you CD drive is fast enough for the job. Check what speed your CD drive needs to be for the writer to communicate with it effectively. If you have a drive more than 18 months old, you may experience problems.

  • Media is important: Get a branded disk to copy onto. Cheap discs will let you down halfway through recording and cost you money in the long run.

  • Make sure you understand what it is you are doing when you record. There are a lot of strange terms, like ‘Orange Book' and ‘Closing the Session', which you need to be aware of to make successful copies.


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