Originally created 09/17/96

When you need precision, look beyond the mouse

In the days of DOS, with its text-oriented applications, we needed only keyboards to control our computers. With the advent of the Macintosh and Windows, though, a mouse became a must.

And today's multimedia software, with state-of-the-art graphics and sound, requires even more precision. Anyone trying to operate the simplest flight simulator or play a game of Duke Nukem 3D knows what I mean.

Games aside, graphical applications, including architectural programs and other types of computer-assisted design, cry out for something more. I've found two new PC-only gizmos that you should check out:

SpaceOrb 360 ($99) is designed to be comfortably held in both hands. Its tightly arced crescent shape sports four buttons positioned under your right thumb, along with two more on the crescent's edge for your right index finger.

But the real genius behind SpaceOrb is the orb. It's made from a rubberized high-friction material that makes it nearly impossible to slip. You can grip the sphere neatly in your left hand. It provides a multi-axis 360-degree control in every direction. In addition to moving the orb like a joystick for left-right-forward-back movement, you can press it down and lift it. You can also twist the orb at any point, but it does not rotate freely like a trackball. Release the orb and it springs back to the neutral position.

Spacetec includes a demo program that perfectly illustrates this multi-axis control by displaying a simple jack-in-the-box. Pressing the orb in any direction bends the jack's long accordion neck; pressing the orb up and down makes the neck stretch and collapse. Twisting the orb makes the jack's head look around.

All of these moves can be simultaneously combined for instant accuracy, which would be almost impossible with conventional controllers.

Vivitar's WJ2000 joystick ($129) is for those who want the accuracy of a joystick but crave the freedom of wireless technology.

This is more than just a joystick that has shed its wires: It has no base, either. The unit looks like a small ray gun that you hold in midair. Rotating your wrist counterclockwise or clockwise moves things left or right. Tilting it forward and angling backward gives you corresponding movements. It's like gripping a virtual or an "air" joystick.

The receiving unit plugs into your PC's standard game port and doubles as a stand to hold the WJ2000 when it's not in use.

In addition to the freedom of movement, the WJ2000 offers two triggers that are easily squeezed with the second and third fingers. If you want a more traditional approach, flick a switch and you can use your other hand to press the four flush-mounted directional buttons on top.

Spacetec IMC can be reached at (508) 970-0330, Vivitar at (805) 498-7008.

Q. Netscape and Microsoft offer Web browsers. Both have just introduced their 3.0 versions. Which should I use?

A. Since I don't have several pages, here's my highly condensed reply: Get both.

You can buy Netscape in computer stores, or download it from the Internet on the honor system. Netscape asks you to pay after 30 days if you decide to keep the software. Microsoft's browser software is free on the Internet to anyone who wants it.

For now, the Microsoft and Netscape systems are pretty much equal in ability, but each has some unique offerings.

If you have a Mac, Netscape, the leader, is out in front with full Java support and more. But Microsoft is no slouch and can play catch-up with the best of them. So use the browser that gives you the best display on the Web sites you frequent.

I think we'll see a shake-out when both companies release 4.0 versions. I hope the competition remains healthy, since the folks who benefit the most from richer and better browsers are consumers.

Craig Crossman is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Write him at Business Monday, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Please include your phone number.


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