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Jewish World Review May 18, 2000 /13 Iyar, 5760

Jim Bray's TechnoFILE

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Consumer Reports


FRONTX offers friendly ports of entry --
EVER WONDER why PC makers put all the I/O ports on the back of the case, out of the easy reach of mere mortals?

Me, too.

Sure, they're out of the way, and that makes for a cleaner front, and a less cluttered desktop, but if you need to change a game controller or plug in a microphone, you have to fiddle about at the rear of the unit -- possibly with a flashlight, and maybe even a magnifying glass, so you can see what the dinky little icons say.

This isn't a problem with many people, but if you regularly swap stuff around (even going from a joystick to a game pad when changing games), you may be interested in a $26 gadget from a Malaysian company called FrontX.

CPX multimedia ports are kind of like "extension cords" for your game, headphone, microphone and audio connections. The gadget installs into a spare 5.25-inch bay (assuming you have one!) in your PC's case, and lets you access the aforementioned ports from behind a fold-down door on your PC's front panel.

You have to be willing to do a little bit of poking around inside your PC's innards, but it's minimal poking that shouldn't pose a difficulty to most people.

The installation process, which is detailed in reasonably clear English on the back of the unit's box, is quite simple. It's more or less like stringing cable anywhere else in the house, except that it takes place in the relatively confined space inside your computer.

First, you open your PC's chassis, and remove the cover from a vacant drive bay. Then, you slide in the CPX thingy.

After that, you have to remove one of those metal plates from the rear, in the area where your existing cables and connectors live, and then, run the CPX cables through the computer and out the newly opened hole in the back.

You then install a new, smaller metal plate (which is included) over the hole, which leaves enough room for the cables to stick through. This plate also gives you an extension into which you can hook your existing speaker output socket, though I couldn't see why it was necessary.

Once that's done, you just plug the CPX's cables into the corresponding outlets on the back of your sound card (or wherever your existing I/Os are), put the cover back onto your PC, and you're finished.

The whole process should only take five or 10 minutes, unless, like me, you're a complete klutz, and have to resort to reading glasses -- and muttering-- for the most rudimentary of up-close work.

On my system, the CPX fit beautifully right above my DVD-ROM drive, and because the ports are covered by a little plastic door, the whole installation is virtually invisible until you actually hook something up to it.

Since I don't use the PC for phoning or voice recognition (unless I'm testing that kind of thing), I'm only interested in the game-port extension, for when I'm forced to review games -- but I'm sure glad to have that convenience.

Speaking of games, Wrebbit Interactive has a series of "PC puzzles" based on those popular "Puzz-3D" jigsaw puzzles you find in stores.

The "virtual 3-D puzzles" work just like the "real-life" ones, except they don't require a huge amount of tabletop or floor space while you're working on them.

I've been wrestling with "The Orient Express," which may prove I have a one-track mind.

You can choose from four different skill levels, from "Novice" to "Master Builder," and a tutorial lets you "train" before you tackle the Orient Express itself.

The first step is to sort the pieces onto "trays," then, assemble the sections by pointing and clicking (right clicking rotates, left clicking selects and moves). It takes some practice getting used to thinking and working in 3-D on a two-dimensional monitor, but after a while, it becomes easier.

Once you've completed the train, the game rewards you with a ticket to Istanbul, Turkey, and you can explore your virtual creation, getting drawn into secret games that involve secret agents, codes and plans.

It's a whole new dimension to the jigsaw, and it includes some 40-plus video clips.

"The Orient Express" CD-ROM works in both PC (Windows 95/98) and Mac platforms.

JWR contributor Jim Bray publishes TechnoFILE magazine, "the consumer's non-technical guide to today's technology." You may comment by clicking here.


© 2000 Jim Bray.