Power User: Consumer gadgets could prove useful to agencies

John McCormick

As soon as the price dropped, I invested in an Xbox game system'but not to play games. The Xbox cost about $200, probably less than it cost Microsoft Corp. to produce, and it's a powerful computer as well as a decent DVD player.

Until September, members of the Xbox Linux Project, at xbox-linux.sourceforge.net/screenshots.php, were hooking up their keyboards to run Linux on the Xbox. But Microsoft made changes to keep them from having a full game machine plus PC for $200.

Xbox's driving simulations are terrific. They could be part of a driver training course, even teaching high-speed evasive or pursuit driving, if only the Thrustmaster steering wheel and pedal kit weren't so flimsy. That's a shame, because public schools could set up training systems complete with TV, chair and software based on the Xbox for less than $500.

I should point out here that security experts are spending plenty of time with game machines. At $75, the Sega Dreamcast game console with its Ethernet connection is the top hacker choice for stealthy information warfare. A Linux toolkit can hook this innocent-appearing device into a network to dial out to a hacker's computer, forming a link.

Since July I've been getting great results from a Sony DCR-VX2000 MiniDV Handycam. With an optional battery and flash/video light, plus a 64M Memory Stick, I can take up to eight hours' worth of high-quality digital video. There's a separate charge-coupled device for each of the three primary colors. Plus, I can use the VX2000 as a 640- by 480-pixel still camera with flash. The memory stick stores about 500 still images. The Sony also serves as a time-lapse and stop-motion animation camera.

I liked the VX1000, but the VX2000 is even more of a good thing. Online browsing produced everything for less than $3,000, including an extended warranty. Not bad for a camera capable of broadcast-quality news segments as well as Web-quality stills. High-end video and still-camera combinations are difficult to learn to control, but the Sony's 640-by-480 snapshot resolution was all I needed.

Online buying has brought great results for me. Many of my suppliers ship the same day, and computer orders from www.cdw.com and www.dell.com always come through. I even buy my coffee and auto parts online.

If your agency's buyers aren't yet shopping around online for the best deals, they probably should be.

One handy gadget I'd hoped to evaluate is the Segway Human Transporter, which the Postal Service and several police departments are testing. I wanted an independent look, because the device could be great for some disabled users, but the company ignored my evaluation requests even when I offered to pay full commercial price. Three decades of experience have taught me that vendors who aren't forthcoming with reporters often don't respond well to customers, either.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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