I've amassed a collection of widgets, gizmos and gadgets that, although they may not be essential to computing, can enhance your trip through PC Land.
Among these are: a DiscOnKey from M-Systems ($49.95 to $99.95), a RumbleFX amplifier ($79.99) and force-feedback headphones ($59.99) from Evergreen Technologies, a USB 4-Port Minihub from Keyspan ($49) the NaturalPoint TrackIR Hands-Free Mouse ($129) from www.naturalpoint.com, and a CD LaunchPad CD Labeling System ($22.99) from Belkin Components.
The DiskOnKey is one of the most innovative widgets of the bunch.
Basically, it's a small USB (universal serial bus) device that clips onto your shirt pocket or can be put on a key ring. But don't let its size fool you. This baby can hold from eight to 32 megabytes of data, depending on which version you use, and is one of the most useful and practical PC peripherals I've seen.
There's no software to install and no cables to tangle with. You just plug the key into the USB port of your PC or notebook computer and it's immediately recognized as a removable hard drive. And, since it isn't software dependent, it can be used with virtually any operating system - Windows, Mac or Linux.
Right now the key is only available in eight, 16 and 32 megabyte versions, but the folks at M-Systems plan to have 64 and 128 megabyte models available early next year.
Also in the category of unique widgets is the NaturalPoint TrackIR mouse.
This mouse is great for folks who suffer from RSI and other disabilities such as carpal tunnel syndrome, allowing your hands to be on your keyboard or at your side. Basically, the cursor follows the movement of your head using an infra-red receiver.
The IR unit plugs into your computer's USB port and takes very little time to set up. It also is extremely portable so it can be moved from computer to computer without much effort.
The Rumble FX duo transforms the output of basic sound cards to 3D surround sound and can also be used with TVs, VCRs and DVD players.
The amplifier releases what Evergreen calls a 3D holographic surround sound, an enhanced sub-woofer effect and increased high frequency reproduction and will work with any mono, stereo or surround sound device.
The headphones shake and vibrate so that you can "feel" everything you hear. These really prove their worth when being used with today's games.
They have a built-in bass amplifier and a force feedback controller, so you can fine-tune the vibration and volume. Plus you can disable the RumbleFX effects if you just want to sit back and enjoy some music from your PC or stereo system.
The four-port mini hub is another extremely portable device that is designed to be used with notebook computers, but can easily be plugged into the back of a PC.
A little bigger than the palm of your hand, the mini hub features a retractable USB cable that connects to your computer four powered ports that can work in bus-powered or self-powered modes.
I recommend using the bus-powered mode if you can, although that means hooking it up to an external power supply. I've found that a lot of today's more sophisticated USB devices won't run well with self-powered hubs.
It's also plug-and-play, so you just connect and it's immediately recognized by your computer's operating system.
Finally, the CD LaunchPad enables you to design and apply labels to your growing stack of recordable CDs.
Now, don't confuse this with the cumbersome, two-piece label installer that comes with your favorite CD recording software. This is a single unit that basically does all the work for you. You simply design the label, place it on the LaunchPad, put your CD face down on top of it and press the trigger.
It also comes with 20 labels and software to help you design them.
All of these gadgets have one thing in common - none requires software or driver installation of any kind, making them extremely user friendly. Just plug them in and enjoy the experience.