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Two-trick ponies

This month, our advisors sings the praises of some versatile programs that are ridiculously cheap–just the way he likes them.

Go ahead, call me a tightwad. I revel in my skinflinted ways. Every moth that flies out of my rarely-open wallet is a badge of honor to me. Not that I ever deprive myself of things that I want or need, of course, but if I can buy something that serves not one but two purposes, I’ll consider it money well spent. A dessert topping and a floor wax, you say? Bring it on!

This month, I’ll be singing the praises of a few two-trick ponies I have come to know and love. One of them actually replaces three pieces of software I currently use-a trick so impressive that I don’t mind paying $25 for it even though the pieces of software it replaces are free. What kind of tightwad does that make me? A happy tightwad, that’s what kind. I don’t have to fuss with three programs or upgrade my RAM to handle them all. And that contentment is worth spending a little cash.

Thrillin’ Trillian

I’m not a chat addict, though I often AIM or Yahoo-message with people who are. But chat does appeal to me-I like the idea of dashing off a few quick words live and direct with far-flung friends without making a long-distance call. But chat gets complicated when your friends use different chat services. AIM, Yahoo, Windows Messenger, ICQ, IRC … who has the patience to deal with five different chat apps just to stay in touch?

Thankfully, you don’t need five apps, just one: Trillian Pro 2.0. This $25 download from Cerulean Studios >< provides one-program access to all five big chat services, integrating buddy lists in each service into a single alphabetical list. When you fire up the program, you immediately log in to any service you subscribe to, and can hail any online buddies from a single list. You don't need to know which service you're using, because Trillian Pro handles all the behind-the-scenes stuff. All you do is click on names and receive incoming pings.

Trillian Pro also acts as a clearinghouse for the Webmail services associated with your chat accounts-HotMail, YahooMail, AOL, and so forth. The program kicks up a notification whenever mail arrives in your online inbox, and with a single click on Trillian’s control panel, you’re logged in and delivered to your Web inbox.

TV eye

Ilike my new LCD monitor very much. It’s not huge, but it has decent speakers built in, and it’s cheaper to run than my bulky old hot-plate of a cathode-ray tube. But I didn’t buy the really expensive model with the built-in television tuner. So I’m sneaking a little box into the office from AVerMedia >< that adds TV capabilities to a regular computer monitor. And, I'm taking it home on weekends so I can use my old monitor and a gut-rumbling subwoofer sound system as a mini home theater system in my den.

AVerMedia’s $179 TVBox 9 is a paperback-sized console that sits between TV signal sources such as cable box, VCR or DVD player, Nintendo or PlayStation game system, or even a rabbit-ear antenna. It feeds the signal to a computer monitor up to SXGA resolution (up to 1280×1024). The image is nicely de-interlaced, so it’s almost completely flicker-free, and it features a picture-in-picture function, so you can watch CNN or soaps as you plug away at your PC.

The TVBox is every bit as easy to install as a DVD player or other boringly standard piece of consumer hardware-and it comes with a more than decent remote control. The only gripe I have is the box’s blue indicator light. It shines more brightly than the green on-light on my monitor, and tends to distract me as I watch. But then again, my eyes are always wandering when I’m watching something I shouldn’t while I’m working.

Squid pro quo

It’s little and altogether cute-looking, which is usually a sign for a practical person to look the other way. But the Squid Light >< is also eminently practical. This AAA battery-powered flashlight sports three flexible arms, each with its own energy-conscious LED light. When the three arms point in the same direction, it's a decent enough flashlight with two brightness settings and 20 hours of continuous light on the brightest setting. When you're feeling fidgety on the phone, it's a cool desk toy you can play with, bending the arms every which way. And according to the company, it's water resistant and floats, making it a handy camping tool and bath toy.

But the flexible arms have a hidden purpose that the company doesn’t even tout: They make the thing a great directional light source when you’re poking around inside PCs or other tight spots and need direct lighting on an out-of-the-way component. I do that just often enough to justify carrying this 4.5-inch doohickey in my coat pocket.

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