More than 20 years ago, reviewing computer software and hardware was more exciting. Some stuff behaved nicely, as advertised. But a lot of stuff was balky, slow, bent on messing up the system and otherwise fun. Computing was a hobby then, and half the fun was putting a system back together after some wayward widget had made the pile of electronic cards fall down.
Over time, it got to be that just about every thing that arrived did exactly what its manufacturer said it would do. It installed smoothly, got a great big hug from Windows, and behaved like the annoying kid in the front of the class who always had the right answer.
Which is why it was such a pleasure to get a review unit for a widget called MouseCaster, by SmarTec, Ltd., of Beverly Hills, Calif. It was billed as a PS2-compatible mouse that doubled as an FM radio receiver. The concept is that by building the receiver into the mouse, and using an on-screen display as the tuning controls, PC users could listen to radio.
Well, you can do that over the Internet, of course, but that requires bandwidth. Or, you could just turn on a conventional radio, but that doesn't involve the PC, and one of the immutable laws of computing is Never Do Something Simply If It Can Be Done at Twice the Expense and Effort On a PC.
Nonetheless, I disconnected both the Microsoft mouse and trackball from my office system, and plugged the MouseCaster into the PS2 mouse port and into the Line In port of the sound card. Then I inserted the CD-ROM and the fun began to happen.
The first click triggered the usual install screens - but also triggered two installations at once, one that I could see, and one I couldn't. Either that, or the software was kidding when it said that I had to finish the second installation before continuing.
Since there was no second installation apparent and the dialogue box wouldn't go away, a system restart was required. Already, thoughts of the good old days danced in my head.
After restart, went to the Programs menu and started MouseCaster, which after a longer-than-usual load time, flipped up a dialogue box that said it needed to initialize. When OK was clicked, it flipped up another dialogue box that said it couldn't find the mouse.
This was odd because the rest of the system could see the mouse just fine. Oh, well, best to reinstall - maybe the first installation was weirded-out by the bogus second install.
Reinstallation went smoothly, but attempting to start the program produced the same results as before.
Hmm. Best to look up troubleshooting tips in the online manual. In doing so, noticed that as a mouse, MouseCaster was fairly old fashioned and klutzy. A plain old mechanical ball that wanted a mouse pad. Anyway, no success from the troubleshooting tips.
Every attempt to start the program failed - but left the failed program running in the background anyway, as a shutdown of Windows demonstrated. The good old days of frustration had returned. It was glorious.
And it was made more so by the promotional material, which glowed: WARNING: MouseCaster should not be installed by anyone who can't change a light bulb!
Or, at least in this case, anyone who wants to listen to FM radio through the PC.
You might have a different experience. For $24.95, with a PC running Windows 95 or later, you can try your luck at http://www.mousecaster.com. If yours installs and works, you can also use the software to record stuff and as an alarm clock, the company says.
But at least in this case, it also offers a long-awaited nostalgic trip back to the bad old days.
Questions and comments are welcome. Send them to Larry Blasko, The Associated Press, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020-1666. Or e-mail email@example.com.