Cutting All The Cords

New gadgets let your computer shed its wires

How many wires do you have snaking around your PC? Two? Four? Ten? Not only are they unsightly. Wires limit the arrangement of your workspace and your freedom to move around, since all your peripherals--mouse, keyboard, modem, printer--have to be tethered to your PC. Not anymore. A few wireless gadgets have come on the market that promise an unfettered future.

The technologies--infrared and radio frequency--used in these devices are not new, but they have been tweaked to allow you to compute without cords. Setting them up is easy. Simply plug the transmitter into your USB, PS/2, or serial port, and you're ready to go. The devices usually rely on AA or AAA batteries, which should last 6 to 12 months in wireless keyboards and mice but less time in speakers and game pads.

NEATNESS COUNTS. Infrared devices work by pulsing beams of light between the transmitter and receiving mechanism--the way your TV's remote control operates. Fujitsu (FJTSY) makes an infrared mouse and keyboard that talk to the same transmitter ($127 for the trio), and Acer (ACRRF) offers a keyboard with mouse buttons built in ($45). You can get various infrared adapters from ACTiSYS and Extended Systems (XTND) ($90-$160) that let your computer transfer data to any other device that has an adapter attached, like a printer, or has a built-in infrared transceiver, as do many laptops, PDAs, and digital cameras. Infrared accessories are reliable and have a range of about 30 feet. But they require line of sight, meaning the transmitter and receiver need an unobstructed view of one another to communicate. If you have piles of papers on your desk, this could be a problem.

Radio waves will go through walls and have a range of up to 150 feet. It's possible you can encounter interference from other radio-frequency devices such as cordless phones and baby monitors as well as a lamp plugged in near your desk. However, most of the latest devices are configured to minimize the chance of signal interruption. Logitech's (LOGIY) wireless keyboard and mouse operate at 27 MHz--far from the frequency at which your typical, 900-MHz cordless phone operates. Proxim's wireless networking cards and adapters ($99-$129) send data between PCs and laptops in the even higher, 2.41-to-2.48 gigahertz range (table). They also change frequency randomly during transmission to reduce the chances of running up against another signal traveling at the same wavelength.

Because of radio waves' range and their ability to transmit through obstacles, the more innovative wireless devices tend to be radio-frequency ones. Take Mind Path's Gyromouse ($89) that has an internal gyroscope, allowing you to wave in the air to move your cursor. The Gyromouse also has a charging cradle so you rarely, if ever, have to replace batteries.

Another nifty accessory is Akoo's Kima, which allows you to transmit Internet radio or MP3s to a radio anywhere around the house. You hook up the transmitter to your computer's speaker port and then put the receiver next to any radio. Tune to 88.1-88.3 FM and it will broadcast whatever is playing on your computer. Finally, Proxim (PROX) and RCA have wireless modems that allow you to log on to the Internet from as far as 100 feet away.

BLUETOOTH BLUES. Bear in mind when considering purchasing wireless devices that Bluetooth is coming. Bluetooth is a radio-frequency standard being developed by such heavy hitters as IBM (IBM), Microsoft (MSFT), and Motorola (MOT) that will enable wireless communications among all peripherals regardless of brand. You won't have to hook up transmitters or receivers; they'll all be built in. The first Bluetooth products are just hitting the market. Widespread use is years away.

Safety is another consideration with wireless peripherals. The debate goes on over whether radiation emitted by cellular phones causes cancer. What about radio waves emitted by computer accessories? Most scientists say you shouldn't worry since the devices transmit at very low power or wattage--too low to cause DNA damage. However, we don't yet know whether exposure to radio waves has a cumulative effect. If you're concerned, you might want to opt for an infrared device.

Whichever method of transmission you prefer, most wireless PC accessories are affordable and work well despite occasional interference. So start dispensing with the cords that bind.

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