It's election year again, and that ghastly creaking sound you keep hearing is a thousand congressional kneecaps flexing for the biennial kowtow to voter accountability. So if you want something, get it now: In another 10 months, those boys will be harder to find than pork sausage in Tel Aviv.
All you need is a telephone, notepad and Elect ($35 for IBM and compatibles) from Sunshine Services, a local watch-doggery that monitors money in politics, publishes directories such as "PACs Americana" and runs a news service showing where the bucks stop.
Locating any congressman by name, state or committee takes only a couple of seconds with Elect's goon-proof menu. The display lists mailing address, office phone, district, party affiliation and the injunction to "Address as 'The Honorable,' even if you don't concur."
Want all the members of the House District of Columbia Committee ranked by seniority? The entire New Jersey delegation by congressional district? One keystroke brings 'em up faster than an open checkbook at a Jaycee brunch. You say you heard some statute-grinder on the radio, but didn't quite catch the name? If you can recall just the first two or three letters, Elect will list the possibilities in both houses.
Caution: Elect is a look-up tool only. It can't address letters or generate a mass mailing. For that kind of epistolary carpet-bombing, SS still offers Congress on Disk, a $25 database text file for use with your own software. But Elect is an indispensable aid for Hill-watchers and works faster than Anacin to relieve the agony of Rolodex Thumb.
(Sunshine Services, 325 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003; 202-544-3647.)
You Can Take It With You Look, we're only going to say this once more: The term "full-power laptop" has absolutely nothing to do with Donna Rice. It refers to those truly portable computers the size of a phone book that have become ubiquitous. (And so nearly affordable that you won't have to lie about it later.)
But be careful: Some of the slickest looking units have infuriating idiosyncrasies that you may not notice until you've already bought the box and checked into the motel Bide-A-Wee out in Sioux City. So before you plop down the plastic, pick a top-notch machine to use for comparison -- specifically the splendid new NEC MultiSpeed HD. It has a whiny but industrious 20-megabyte hard disk, one 3-1/2-inch drive, 640K bytes of memory, a bright blue-on-white back-lit LCD screen, the coveted Phoenix BIOS system (for IBM compatibility), serial, parallel and CRT ports, rugged bonkable construction and a street price of around $2500.
That's about average for an XT-type hard-disk laptop these days. But the HD also comes with six serviceable programs built in on memory chips and called by a "Pop Up" key: modem software; word-processor; "notecard" filing system; outliner; phone dialer; and an optional RAM disk of up to 126K. Each can be custom-diddled from an admirably simple setup menu. Moreover, it positively excels in four critical areas:
Keyboard. To save space, many manufacturers omit standard keyboard features like separate numeric keypads, Home and End keys and the like. Consequently, a lot of laptop layouts look like they were designed for extraterrestrials. Say you want to hit the Page Down key. On Zenith and Toshiba models, you've got to hold down a special shifter which turns some other key into the one you want. And if your program calls for Shift-Page Down, you've got to use three fingers.
Worse yet, some models cram 10 or 12 pygmy function keys into a narrow row above the main keyboard; some give you an Enter key you couldn't find with a microscope and tweezers. Which is swell if you're a quadruple-jointed Venusian. If not, check the HD's commodious design, with its big double-row of F-keys, separate keypad and springy, long-travel keycaps. (Attention power crazies: These features are not available on NEC's brand-new PowerMate Portable, an AT-in-a-lunchbox luggable with a fly-weight keyboard that feels like you're typing on a tray full of loose bottle caps.)
Screen display. Don't even consider a unit that isn't "backlit." Early LCD screens used existing light to make the little liquid-crystal-display elements visible. That worked fine on a sunny park bench at noon. Otherwise it looked like what you see just before uncorking the Liquid Plumber. Then designers wised up and put an illuminated panel behind the LCDs. As a result, the HD's display is nearly as crisp as the Zenith 181 and 183. Which is as good as it gets, except for Toshiba's "plasma" (electrified gas) screen with its infernal burnt-orange glister and the PowerMate Portable's EGA-quality LCD screen.
True portability. A laptop without battery power is not genuinely portable, since it keeps you tethered to the wall plug. Once you've used one, anything else is like trying to do the fox trot with one shoe nailed to the floor. The HD's rechargeable NiCad only gives you about one hour between socket stops (compared to the Zenith's three), but it's enough.
Reasonable speed. The HD's V-30 high-speed processor makes it about three times as fast as an IBM XT. Unless you're working on a spreadsheet the size of Alberta, that's probably plenty. Moving up to an AT-style unit will only get you about half again as much moxie, cost at least $500 more, and keep you tied to the power cord. Not to mention that it leaves your lap -- and career -- vulnerable to, um, nondigital input.
If you've just got to have the Rambo of portables, take a look at the new super laptops from Compaq, Grid and Toshiba. They cost as much as a new car; but for sheer turbo-in-a-tote-bag power, they're the top of the heap. For the rest of us, the HD is the best buy on the market.
(NEC Home Electronics, 1255 Michael Drive, Wood Dale, Ill. 60191; 312-860-9500.)
Making the Connection Of course, it won't matter what hardware you've got if you can't use it. Which is the problem back at the Bide-A-Wee: You've finished that crucial report and want to modem it back to the main office. But yikes! The phone is hard-wired into the wall with a cable the size of a garden hose. There's no modular jack plug, and you gave away that silly little rubber-cup acoustic modem along with your John Denver albums. You're in deep fudge without a spatula.
Unless you've got an Insta-Jack, a $49.95 gizmo with a threaded fitting on one side and a standard phone jack on the other. Just unscrew the mouthpiece on the telephone handset, dump out the microphone disk, screw in the Insta-Jack, plug in your modem and you're in business up to 9600 baud. There are various brands on the market; but the version from Inmac, a mail-order computer supply house, is the easiest to find. And easy is the whole idea here.
(Inmac, 4390 Parliament Pl., Lanham, Md. 20706; 301-731-5980.)
You Can Work It Out Sheesh. It's been 14 months now since you computerized the office, and old Bemis is still using his PC as a plant stand. And no wonder: He took one look at the 30 pounds of software manuals; saw that the F10 key saves a file in one program, draws a graph in another and phones Poughkeepsie in a third. Then he went on sick leave until Arbor Day.
Now, however, there's hope for the most timorous techno-weenie. Even if you can barely blow your nose without calling the nurse, you can handle one of the simplified integrated "starter" packages that have recently hit the market. The hot ticket this season is Microsoft Works, which combines a word processor, spreadsheet, database and communications package in one 2-megabyte wad that retails for $195. Each component program has exactly the same control structure; and thanks to pull-down option menus and superb on-screen help, you can forget the manual and the DOS system as well. Could anything be simpler?
Well, actually, yes. And cheaper, too: Eight-In-One by Spinnaker Software, the $59.95 multifunction package that's all carrot and no stick. In addition to the four functions provided by Works, it has an outliner, graph/chart generator, memo pad, address book, calendar, to-do list, beeper alarm clock, time-zone finder and label-maker -- all controlled by simple, on-screen menus. It supports 245 printer models, takes up only 1 megabyte of space and runs attractively in color.
In general, Eight's functions are less sophisticated than Works'. It has an inadequate and sluggardly spell-checker; and its helpful error/advice messages have an annoying way of hanging on the screen until you think the system has crashed. But what do you want for 50 bucks -- NASA launch control? This inviting and productive package would be terrific bargain at twice the price.
And speaking of productivity: Trying to coax the boss into using a PC? Six out of 10 top execs won't go near the things, apparently afraid of learning to type. Well, slip His Industrial Eminence a copy of Running Start, Spinnaker's $39.95 program for technophobic top dogs. It combines a dandy typing tutor with a DOS manager and simple word- processor, with on-screen tutorials for all three. If that doesn't work, nothing short of neurosurgery will.
(Spinnaker Software, One Kendall Square, Cambridge, Mass. 02139; 617-494-1200.)
Getting It Together A program called Vopt? Sure, it sounds like a banana cream pie hitting the linoleum. But if your hard disk is getting as sluggish as Ed Meese's memory, Vopt (that's VEE-opt), at $49.95 for IBM/compatibles, may be the most melodious word you hear all year.
Why? Because the computer's operating system (DOS) is fastidiously efficient about using disk space. When you store a file, DOS looks for the first available empty area, dumps as much of the file as it can, then goes snuffling around for the next free block, and so forth. Thus if your file is large or extensively revised, it can end up spread over six or eight separate locations. Which means that when you call up or copy that file, the read/write heads have to skitter all over the disk, retarding performance and causing needless mechanical wear.
Vopt and similar programs (such as the classic Disk Optimizer from SoftLogic Solutions) remedy that problem by re-writing all your files into contiguous units. It's like holding up the rug with one hand while wielding the broom in the other: The program pulls the fragmented files up into RAM memory, sweeps up the disk space, and then lays the files down one by one in unbroken units. Unfortunately, the clean-up can take several minutes or even an hour, depending on the software.
Vopt, however, tidies up most messes in mere seconds. And if your rig has at least 512K of RAM, the program can handle hard disks with up to 10,000 files and 500 directories. Better yet, it gives you a snazzy color-graphics display that shows the little sectors being reshuffled. And the new Version 2.15 comes with a dozen handy utilities to map or check the speed of your hard disk, mark bad sectors, benchmark your computer's performance, check the speed of floppy-disk drives and more. It's enough to make a hard disk easy.
(Golden Bow Systems, 2870 Fifth Ave., Suite 201, San Diego, Calif. 92103; 619-298-9349.)
Hello, Good-Bye, Good Luck It's hard to remember why you began to hate Trixie B. Was it the day she put up that poster of the paw-dangling kitten that says "Hang In There, Baby"? The way she snappity-pops her Dentine so you can hear it two desks away? The way her eyebrow arches when you get a personal call or she thinks your blouse is cut too low?
No matter. She's dead meat. Because for $19.95 you just picked up PC Prankster, the new practical-joke ambusher from Weirdware. After work one night, sneak over to her PC, boot up Prankster, choose your weapon from a menu of five color and five monochrome gags, and type in a number like 187. When she starts her computer the next morning, PCP will be lurking in memory. When she hits the 187th keystroke, the memo she's working on suddenly disappears. The screen fills with a horrible one-eyed monster face which blows her a kiss, grins, and is gone. The memo returns. So, eventually, does Trixie -- after three weeks at Sunny Acres. And you've still got nine more shockers to go, from a flashing, honking screen that screams "Destruction Sequence Activated -- Please Evacuate Building" to a chaos of spinning letters and more.
Have a nice day.
(Weirdware, 2930 McMillan Rd., Unit E., San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401; 805-543-7149.)