January 31, 2008


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Roll on up
USB toys that get smaller
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Ask any camper: if you can roll something up, it’s easier to take with you. What works for sleeping bags and tents must surely work for computer accessories, right?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Just like camping equipment, you’ll always sacrifice functionality and quality for portability. But you also get a grooviness factor, and that’s gotta be worth something.

• Keyboard (for typing): Probably the most common roll-up USB accessory, the keyboard offers obvious utility for travelers. A lot of people hate laptop keyboards, especially on the tiniest of tiny laptops that, I have it on good authority, high-powered business executives like to cram into phone booths just to see how many will fit. If only the laptops themselves were as bendy and pliable as these keyboards. The rubbery plastic material is remarkably similar to what you’d find if you took a regular keyboard apart. All labeled with letters and numbers and sealed up, this membrane is also waterproof, which comes in handy when those executives start opening up fire hydrants and dancing around their stuffed phone booths.

• Keyboard (for playing): Most sellers will try to call this a “piano,” but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re just trying to distinguish it from the typing kind of keyboard, not fool anyone into thinking they’re getting a portable Steinway grand. A lot of the sound quality will depend on your computer’s speaker system, because really the keyboard just acts as a controller for software you’ll need to install. You won’t get the weighty tactile feedback of a real piano either, because, hello, it’s a flat piece of plastic.

• Chessboard: Computers are better than people at chess. Gary Kasparov knows it, so just accept it. Whether Windows is better is still up for debate, though, and what better way to maintain your living advantage than requiring a physical board with pieces to move around? The USB chess set tracks the movement of each piece — presumably because it knows where each one starts, so when that square becomes empty, it figures that’s the piece you’ve moved — and spits out countermoves. It’ll also help you play online or against a real live friend.

• Drum ... board: Again with the simple controller for software you install. Only this time, there are only six possible places to hit the thing, and if it doesn’t roll out perfectly flat, you end up whacking your desk with a drumstick. Reviews on these drums run from bad to positively awful, so don’t expect to be mistaken for Neil Peart anytime soon.

The most amazing thing about these compactable toys is that they all cost about 30 bucks. A few dollars here and there depending on where you get them and which manufacturer you choose, but still, around $30. And some might say that’s still too much.