- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

I am getting lazy in my old age. I no longer whip out a regular pen to sign stuff; I do it on a drawing pad attached to the PC. The keyboard Hewlett Packard sent along with my computer is fine, but the new one from Microsoft has features that are just ducky for users of that firm's "Office" productivity suite.

And so it goes. First on my list this week is the Graphire2, a second-generation, low-cost USB computer input system that combines a cordless, no-ball scrolling mouse with a cordless and pressure-sensitive pen from Wacom Technology.

Offering both a high-precision cordless mouse and a cordless pressure-sensitive pen, the $99.99 Graphire2 system allows users to select the best input tool for a variety of tasks: computer navigation, photo retouching, as well as drawing or adding annotations and signatures to computer documents using Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft's new Office XP suite.

The mouse component of Graphire2 has several improvements, including a more balanced weight and improved driver functionality with settings for both acceleration and speed to more precisely customize the feel of mouse navigation. The mouse functions in Windows "safe mode" as well as during computer boot even before a driver is installed. It has a resolution of 1,015 lines per inch, which the maker claims is twice that of an optical mouse and three times more than a conventional mouse.

Along with being cordless, the Graphire2 Mouse contains no rolling ball on its bottom, eliminating the need for constant cleaning to assure smooth and precise tracking. It also operates without batteries. Unlike other scrolling mice, this one provides scrolling capabilities for both Macs and PCs, since the Graphire2 supports both platforms.

What I like most about the Graphire2 is being able to use the pen to not only navigate through documents and click on options just like a mouse but also to "sign" documents in what, to the recipient, looks like ink. This takes some practice and, in Microsoft Office XP, the installation of some special software but the end result is being able to "write anywhere" on the computer display and then insert the results in a document. The actual "writing" is done on the mouse/drawing pad that the mouse and pen use.

When I sign my name and insert that on-screen, here's the neat part: the "signature" is treated like a piece of typing. I can make it larger or smaller using the "font size" button, and I can color it (blue or red or whatever) with the "font color" button. For documents which arrive at my desk via e-mail but need an "ink" signature, this seems an ideal result that saves me having to print something out, sign it, scan it back in and resend the document back to the creator. Now, doing all this in Word may not be the most secure method, but that's a subject for another time. Having the ability to "sign" things on the fly and on-screen makes this a wonderful tool. More information can be found at www.wacom.com.

New, improved keyboard

Microsoft, in what it claims is its biggest keyboard innovation in several years, will next month introduce the "Microsoft Office Keyboard," a $64.95 model that offers several ways to streamline tasks and increase overall desktop efficiency and productivity with key innovations. There's a left-side "Single Touch Pad" that encourages users to compute with both hands concurrently, for example. This part of the keyboard features a scroll wheel, Cut, Copy and Paste Hot Keys, and an application toggle switch, all of which, I can report, work very well. The toggle switch makes it super-easy to jump around. The copy and paste functions are superb.

Microsoft says its research showed that other frequently used "Office" functions include New, Open and Close; Reply, Forward and Send; and Spell, Save and Print. These tasks can be accessed with the keyboards "repositioned" F key row. The new functions are labeled and repositioned in groups of three according to the natural sequence of tasks. Users can also revert to traditional F key functions by pressing an F key lock.

This seems like a good feature, although it was a bit frustrating for me to have the "Office Home" Web site pop up during my first use of the keyboard with Microsoft Excel. The Internet site is invoked with the "F2" key, the same key used to invoke the "edit cell" command in Excel. A press of the "F lock" remedied that issue, but it would seem to me at least that some thought for this would have been taken, since Excel is so widely used.

The keyboard sports a larger "delete" key that I found quite useful, as well as 12 Hot Keys for starting and returning to Word, Excel, Mail, Files, Calendar, Calculator and Web browser. I'm a big fan of the "calculator" hot key, something that should have been standard issue on PC keyboards since, oh, day one. Multimedia Hot Keys control volume or mute with a quick touch, and these are also good items.

Is it worth spending the extra bucks to replace your keyboard? I think it might be, if you are a major user of Office. I am, and, for now, happy with the switch.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live on www.adrenaline-radio.com.to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time.

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