Unicomp Model M Keyboard

I have been using a Unicomp “Model M” keyboard on my Mac for 2 years now and would never consider going back to a quiet, squishy, rubberdome keyboard, including the Apple bluetooth keyboard. The trouble with those quiet keyboards, for me, and probably for most everyone, is that I am never quite sure when a keystroke has been recorded, so I have to carefully watch the screen all the time and press the keys to the bottom of their travel, just to make sure the computer agrees with my intents.

For those of us old enough to remember the IBM keyboards of the ’80s, the ones that came with the original IBM PC’s (and cost $400!), the Unicomp Model M keyboards are about as close as you can get to that same sound and feel, and they cost a whole lot less. In fact, Unicomp makes keyboards for IBM and has since 1996, employing many of the same people who made the originals. The technology used in the Model M’s is called “buckling spring.” In short, you know by sound and feel when a keystroke is recorded, so that there is no need to press each key all the way to the bottom. The pleasing clickety-clack sound is just gravy.

On the Mac you will sacrifice bluetooth mobility, as the Model M’s are connected via USB, but on the other hand, you can forget about replacing batteries, which my Bluetooth mouse seems to like to remind me every so often.

The company makes an array of keyboards, over 2000 models, according to their Web site. Mine is a Spacesaver M, Model UB4ZPHA and it costs $94.

Even better, Unicomp is an American Company, in Lexington, Kentucky.

-- Jim Shapiro  



Logitech G500 Programmable Gaming Mouse

I´m a PC gamer, and every gamer knows the importance of a good gaming mouse, no matter of what type of game you play. The Logitech G500 Programmable Gaming Mouse is an excellent and affordable option. I have been using it for the past 2 years. I think it has the best cost/benefit in relation to its competitors.

This mouse has an excellent ergonomics, at least if you’re right handed; left-handed people should stick with symmetrical mice, like the G300 ($31)

The laser sensor is very sensitive and precise. At your thumb you´ll find 3 programmable buttons. You can use the Logitech profiler software to program them for each game. The mouse wheel has a button next to it that allows either a free-spinning mode for fast browsing or a line-by-line lock mode for better control. The wheel has a good weight and will keep rolling in the free spinning mode.

This mouse has 5 programmable sensor sensitivities and you can select any of those levels on the fly using the “+” and “-” buttons. So, if you’re in the middle of a game and want the mouse more sensitive, just press “+”, and for less sensitivity press “-”. The amount of sensitivity for each level can be adjusted using the Logitech software, and it is stored on an inside the mouse memory. It means that you can take your mouse to any other computer and it will keep the adjusted sensitivity levels. The 5 sensitivities level selection is shown in a neat set of lights near the “+” and “-” buttons, so you always know in which level you are on.

The coolest thing about this mouse is that you can adjust its weight. Out of the box it is very light, since it’s a corded mouse and doesn’t need batteries (I personally prefer corded mouses for gaming since they are lighter and won’t tire your wrist after long gaming hours). It comes with a tray that fits in a slot under it and it is locked by a lever. This tray can hold up to six little weights. A set of weights comes in a nice small metal box and total 27 grams. You can add the amount of weight you want. A mouse too light can make the mouse less precise, and a mouse too heavy can make it less agile, so it’s nice to be able to adjust the weight.

A nice companion to this mouse is the Razer Vespula Dual-Sided Gaming Mouse Mat ($36). It is a reasonably-sized mouse pad with one smooth side for faster mouse action, and a textured side for more precise control. It also comes with a nice wrist cushion.

-- Alessandro Mattos  

Logitech G500 Programmable Gaming Mouse
$48

Available from Amazon



LaCie PetiteKey USB Flash Drive – 32 GB

I cannot say enough about this key-shaped USB flash drive. The first model I purchased I owned for several years. It was only 2GB and I still have it on my keychain, alongside my new 32GB model that I picked up for $35. I use them almost every day. They stay on my keychain, and it means I always have storage space with me as well as pertinent documents I might need, such as the latest copy of my resume, and an ebb-and-flow selection of images from my portfolio.

It is indispensable in my daily activities. I use it to bring home work and exchange music with friends. I even use it in my car to play my MP3s through my usb port thats connected to my stereo. It’s a large amount of space in a small package that’s gone through the wash a few times and still works. I’m still surprised when I hand it to people to transfer files to and they have never seen one.

-- Matthew A. Walker  

LaCie PetiteKey USB flash drive – 32 GB
$33

Available from Amazon



TouchFreeze

I don’t own a desktop computer, so I do all my typing on my laptop. The keyboard is great, except for one major flaw: the position of the touchpad. It is very easy to accidentally brush the touch pad with the palm of my hand or my wrist as I type, causing my mouse cursor to move to a random part of the screen. This is annoying and can cause typos.

I can awkwardly hold my wrists in the air as I type, but this is uncomfortable. I can disable the touchpad, but then I have to remember to turn it back on every time I need to click. Enter TouchFreeze.

TouchFreeze is a simple utility that disables your touch pad whenever you are typing. As soon as you stop typing, the touchpad turns back on. It is complete automatic. Although TouchFreeze does need to run the background at all times, it is very lightweight and won’t slow your computer. I have been using TouchFreeze for about a year, and I love it. It is a simple, elegant solution for a simple problem.

-- Sylvia Richardson  

TouchFreeze
Free (donations accepted), Windows only.



Powerstrip Liberator Cords

When I discovered Ziotek’s Power Liberator cords years ago, my first thought was, “This can’t be safe.” My second was, “Oh my god, I need a dozen.” I was wrong on the first count and underestimated the second. All of Ziotek’s clever ways to “liberate” power outlets are UL approved, which is as reassuring as one could want. And I have at least two dozen, maybe three, scattered around my house and home office.

The “liberator” label referred initially to freeing unusable outlets on a power strip. Just a few years ago, most electronic devices (excepting some computers and all monitors) had hurking power bricks meant to plug into a wall outlet. If you plugged a power strip into a wall outlet, you still had the problem of placement: the bricks interfere with each other with most two-jack outlets. How many strips did you have or still have that have two or three awkwardly placed big-headed AC-to-DC adapters plugged in? It’s a waste. At times I had two or three daisy chained power strips (a practice not recommended by UL and others) to keep all my vampires sucking away.

The first Power Liberator alleviated that specific problem. The Power Extension Cable is 14 inches long with a three-prong plug at one end and a three-prong jack at the other. I have one power strip behind my home A/V cabinet that has several of these, each of which sports a brick at the end. (Some power strips have become cleverer, too, with rotating jacks or the ability to move outlets along the strip’s length.)

Since Ziotek’s introduction of this first cord, they’ve added eight more versions by my count. I own one or more of all of them except the monitor/power-supply models that extend a plug used with a display. The Plus model improved on the original by doubling outlets: every Plus plug has an outlet on its back plus the jack at the end of the dongle. Behind couches and beds, I use the Flat model for otherwise unusable outlets. And a Y Splitter gives you some space between two dongles with jacks on the end.

It’s true that manufacturers have gotten savvier about embedding smaller and more efficient power supplies inside devices, reducing wall warts. But the horror movie behind my television cabinet, with bricks of all sizes and shapes, indicates there are still plenty of outlets to liberate.

-- Glenn Fleishman  

[One particular model of Liberator was previously reviewed on Cool Tools. -- Mark]

Ziotek Powerstrip Liberators
Prices vary depending on model

Available from Amazon



ASUS RT-N66U WiFi router

For the past few years I’ve been using an Apple Time Capsule as my WiFi router. The range was awful but I kept trying to boost it with Airport Express devices. Finally I threw in the towel and bought a new WiFi router, the ASUS RT-N66U. Suddenly we have amazing coverage all over the house, even way down in our basement. I’m kicking myself for not getting this little powerhouse long ago.

-- Dan Lyons  

[After reading Dan's recommendation, I bought one of these to replace my Airport Extreme, which couldn't penetrate the chicken-wire Faraday cages in my house's walls. This greatly improved the range of our home Wi-Fi signal. - Mark Frauenfelder]

ASUS RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit Router
$150

Available from Amazon



EZ-RJ45 Connectors

I’ve been putting off buying RJ45 plugs for Ethernet cables because it looked like they all suck, and I’m not as young as I used to be, so cutting the wires exactly to fit might be a problem (even though I terminated hundreds of cables in my early networking career).

But recently I needed to help a neighbor who ran cables to relocate his wireless router. On a recommendation I picked up a box of the Platinum Tools EZ-RJ45 plugs and strain reliefs. The video below shows how you attach them to a cable by sliding the wires through and out the front.

I just installed them yesterday and had not a single failure (other than forgetting to slide the strain relief into the plug before crimping on the first one).

The are about one dollar each vs. a few cents for the Chinese & big box versions, but my hair is worth the money.

Platinum sells a special crimp tool that cuts the wires when it crimps. I wasn’t the mood to spring for another $50 for the the tool for my occasional needs so I used a regular crimp tool instead. I cut the wires after crimping with diagonal cutters and tidied up with a utility knife. Certainly if I was doing a lot of cable builds or for a business I’d buy the pro tool.

I bought a few of the Platinum Tools modular jacks, too, but I haven’t wired one up yet. You’ll see in the video that they look like a godsend, too, especially since you can reuse them with ease.

Platinum Tool EZ-RJ45 plugs are highly recommended!

-- Mike Andrews  

EZ-RJ45 CAT 5/5e Connectors
$15 / 15 pack

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Platinum Tools



Ambient Weather WS 2080

The Ambient Weather WS-2080 is a very full-featured weather station for the price. It uses a radio signal to communicate between the weather station and the display console, and updates the display every 48 seconds. The display shows a lot of information, and has a USB interface that allows a computer to capture the readings and create graphs from them. I haven’t used the USB interface yet, but it was one of the features that attracted me to this particular model.

It’s possible to adjust the calibration of the various sensors from the console, but for temperature it was close enough out of the box that I didn’t bother. We’ve had some rain a few times in the last month and it seems that the readings produced by the WS-2080 are on the low side, so I might end up calibrating the rain gauge. I did find the configuration procedure to be fairly confusing, with a lot of button-pushing to get to the various settings. You definitely want to have the manual in hand when you do it.

There is software that comes with the WS-2080 to configure it but it’s Windows-only and I have a Mac and Linux household so I haven’t used it. There is open source software for Linux that is supposed to be able to talk to the WS-2080 to capture the sensor readings, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

I mounted the sensor pod on my TV antenna mast above the antenna, which puts it only about four feet above the roof; probably not the best place for the temperature sensor. I did buy the accessory solar radiation shield for the temperature sensor, but a better solution might have been to mount the temperature sensor in the shade on the north side of the house. The various parts of the weather station connect together with phone-cord-like wiring with RJ-11 connectors.

Over the past few months, I’ve been very happy with this Ambient Weather station.

-- David H.  

Ambient Weather WS 2080
$110

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Ambient Weather



Tinkercad

If you want to introduce a kid (or yourself!) to CAD (computer aided design), Tinkercad is by far the easiest and most fun way to begin. Today I mentioned to my 10-year-old that our CNC machine would soon be up and running. He asked what a CNC could do, and I said one example would be to carve a battlefield out of stiff foam for Warhammer figures.

That got his attention ;-) . He wanted to know how to tell the CNC what to do. I explained a bit about CAD, and showed him Tinkercad, giving the example of one cube that you could stretch and change.

Then I got busy with something else and left him to figure out Tinkercad himself. I came back an hour later and the below is what he’d designed. A ten-year-old. No training. One hour.

 

The green stuff we’re going to CNC out of a sheet of stiff foam. The rest we’ll probably 3D print on the Makerbot. It will take a weekend, but this could be our first 100% digital craft project.

This is an example of what I talk about in Makers: manufacturing technologies are getting so easy and cheap (even free) that anyone can use them. Kids today can grow up as fluent in CAD as they are in everything else on computers. Democratizing the tools of publishing brought us the Web. Just imagine what democratizing the tools of manufacturing will do.

We’ve used the previously reviewed Sketchup and Autodesk 123D, and both are great. But Tinkercad just runs in your Web browser and its simple interface disguises a very sophisticated cloud-based CAD engine.

Tinkercad
Free trial, or $19/month for personal account (pro accounts vary)
https://tinkercad.com/



iFixit Magnetic Project Mat

In the past few months I’ve had to repair my iPhone, my digital camera, and my Macbook Pro. During this time I’ve found the iFixit’s magnetic mat indispensable. Not only does the magnetic surface mean fewer lost screws, but it’s whiteboard surface means I can keep track of what came from where. Intelligently, iFixit includes a very nice fine-tipped dry-erase marker from Staedtler for quickly jotting down repair notes (that also features a bit of wool on the cap for erasing them, too). The pro model mat, which I own, also features a nonslip foam backing much like that of a mousepad which when flipped upside down features cutouts that act like cups.

I like mine so much that it never leaves my desk as it serves as miniature whiteboard, mousepad, and DIY repair station.

-- Oliver Hulland  

iFixit Magnetic Project Mat
$13 or $19 with foam backing

Available from and manufactured by iFixit

Sample Excerpts: