Off to College Tools, by Charles W. Evans

Converts text into spoken words, easily


Two years ago a group of parents asked me to do a "back to college" issue. It always seemed that August came and went before I could do it. This year I've asked a group of college students (see: Focus Group box) to help me. And help me they did. My basic question to them was: what computational tools should a college freshman have? Frankly, I was surprised at their modest specs (other than a T-1 connection, KaZaA and a DVD burner). They all recommended laptops, not desktops, for portable convenience. (Most colleges now have high-speed connections available, so make sure it has a LAN or Ethernet port.) Other than the basic "office" suite that might come with the computer, there were few other software programs mentioned. The science guys said it would be especially useful to have programs like Matrix Labs (compiles calculations) and AutoCAD to assist with their engineering and science projects.

Even though the academic version of Microsoft Office is inexpensive, there are alternatives. Read the review of a very good one by Sun Microsystems called StarOffice. In addition, I've selected three other choices you might wish to get for your new (or existing) college student. One is a sturdy portable desktop, the other is an excellent alternative to a standard mouse and the last is a handy "sticky" note program.

Charles W. Evans, Reviews Editor

Rocket MouseRocket Mouse

Is this a gadget or what? I thought so at first, but this hand-held, finger-operated mouse is amazingly easy to use. So what can this mouse do? Actually, its real value is convenience. Look at the photograph. It is a true remote mouse. No mouse pad or remote device is required. Your "trigger" finger is the left mouse button. The top right button is just that. The top left button is not the left click, but when pressed it activates a unique 3D function, scrolling both L/R and Up/Down using the miniature trackball. Are you spreadsheet folks reading this? Move the cursor with the miniature trackball. I do not like large trackball mice. I feel like a new guy on ice skates - just all over the screen. This trackball is more easily controlled.

So who will use it? At first I thought it would be perfect just for laptop users. That is what I first tested it on. It worked like a charm and installed without a CD file, etc. (What amazed me is that it will work concurrently with your regular mouse, if you use the USB connection.) If you make presentations, think how nice it would be NOT to have to sit at a computer table or continually look at a computer screen instead of your audience when making your presentation. Students, this is a good way to impress the prof!

I also found that my hand was not as tired after a long stint at the computer. It is more ergonometrically designed than most standard mice. It is not too small, but for guys I wish they'd made it about an inch longer.

You have a choice of black or white and PS/2 or USB connectors. Specify the connection type when you order. Is it expensive? It is competitive with other mice in the low $20s range. It works with Win98 through XP and MAC. For more info and pictures, go to

TabletopTable Tote Pro: A Portable Desktop

I've seen several "portable" computer tables over the years and I was a bit skeptical about this one. Not any more. Short story: this light-weight, compact package is about the size of a laptop and has telescoping legs that adjust from 13" to 30"- or more. It is very well designed and engineered. You get a lot of desktop in this three pound package, so you can fit it into a briefcase or backpack. If you are on the go or just somewhere where there is no convenient desktop, set up your own! Set it up in the park and have a picnic lunch. Or use it for a projector or printer. Use it when traveling, in the office or in your dorm room.

One side slides off revealing, inside, the four legs, the two-piece document holder (it fits into either of the two holes on your desktop) and two low-tech clips to hold documents. The four legs adjust to any height between 13" and 30" (or 20" to 36" according to the brochure) and remain in place simply by turning each of the three sections of the leg to lock them in place. Legs are nice aluminum tubing, not cheap plastic legs. I have no idea of the plastic, but it is sturdy. Once you remove the top panel, simply flip it around and slide it back on the topside for the balance of your desktop. Insert your document holder and off you go. This is one portable "workstation" you want for a laptop, not a desktop, although the vendor states it will hold up to 30 pounds (elsewhere it says 18 pounds).

The "case" has a black, non-skid surface that is 12" deep with an adjustable width from 18" to 24". The feet are rubber tipped to prevent skidding and add stability. Oh yes, the document holder also telescopes so you can adjust it to your individual viewing needs.

I only have two suggestions: Put the document holder on the right side and glue the foam material inside more securely. Neither of these affects the usefulness of the Table Tote Pro, but are matters of refinement. It retails for $49.99. For more info and accessories go to

MagicNotesMagic Notes: Digital Sticky Notes

Although none of the focus group members mentioned a Post It or sticky note program, I've used one for years to make various and sundry notes to documents and graphics. I've looked at a number of programs, but this one clearly is one of the better and more useful ones. So what does it do? Just think "Post It" note and you have a good idea. But instead of a physical piece of paper, it is digital.and more versatile.

Let's say you are drafting a report and periodically random thoughts come to mind. Where do you put these random thoughts? Perhaps you are writing down your class notes and have a question about a particular topic or just don't understand it. Enter remarks on a Magic Note and "stick" it to a particular page or graphic. What is especially helpful about this program is it has a rudimentary database that allows you to sort by various criteria and/or list all the notes you have made.

You can hide the handy toolbar if you wish (I do). Or just right click to select one of the options, including an alarm function when you want to be reminded of something like a deadline. (Students, don't use it as an alarm clock - no prof is going to believe you overslept because your Magic Note didn't wake you up - you'll get a drop/add form quicker than Justin dropped Brittany!) There are a number of personal preference settings from paper color to choice of font and real time change in the paper size from the default. If space is a problem, just minimize the note and only the first line will remain visible. Even easier, just select your personal hotkey for three basic functions or left click on the tool bar icon for a new note.

For Win95 users, you'll need Winsock2 for this program. Not sure? Download the program for a free 45-day trial (don't uninstall and reinstall at day 46 - it won't work). For more info and updates on this $15 program go to

Star OfficeSun Microsystem's StarOffice Suite 6.0
by Sarah M. Barrett

Straightforward, uncomplicated, and streamlined describes StarOffice 6.0. This office suite contains five applications: word processing, presentation, spreadsheet, drawing, and database, along with a math calculator and an HTML Editor. You can learn it quickly and it is very reasonably priced.


Although the applications are similar to the components of Microsoft Office, I found that Sun Microsystem's StarOffice 6.0 contained differences and extras that were more helpful and user-friendly. It is compatible with Microsoft Office; i.e., files will convert from one program to the other. The Quick Launch will automatically start up with a simple mouse click from the taskbar. I often find that Microsoft Office contains many features and tools I never use and frankly, would never bother to learn due to their complexity. In contrast, StarOffice does not require me to learn the applications using a tutorial, etc. Instead, StarOffice is so user-friendly that I was able to begin using the application immediately using common sense and everyday experience. As if the compatibility, simplicity, and user-friendliness were not enough, StarOffice's system requirements and price are minimal compared to Microsoft Office!

Systems Requirements.

StarOffice requires Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000 or XP and Pentium hardware and 250MB of available hard disk space. I used Windows 98 with the minimum settings required and had no difficulties during installation or use. Microsoft Office requires more memory, greater disk space, and higher resolution than StarOffice. In addition, MS Office is not compatible with Windows 95. This software will also run on Linux and Solaris operating systems.


Writer is Sun's equivalent to MS Word in many ways; however, the visual aspect of Writer was drab, with a lot of white and gray space on my screen. I missed the more appealing aesthetics of Word. In addition, I did not like the various View modes in StarOffice, particularly Full Screen. Full Screen fills your entire screen, but the toolbars disappear in doing so. Writer does offer a larger variety of easier-to-use templates than Word, including an incredibly effortless wizard on making business cards. Making brochures and pamphlets in Writer was uncomplicated because the instructions were logical and easy to follow. I also found Writer's Help function to be painless to use, more direct, and more in-depth than Word's - although it did not allow you to see your document and Help at the same time, as in Word.


Impress, the presentation module, was as easy to use as Microsoft PowerPoint, but contained more tools that eased the preparation of a presentation. For example, Impress allows you to create presentations specifically for an overhead projector, paper handout, or slide show. Impress also contains Live Mode, a tool that allows you to edit your presentation slides in Full Screen view. With Live Mode, I simply edit the picture, text, etc. The Layers option allows me to place one slide on top of another (layers) on the same screen in more visually appealing and easier-to-create ways than PowerPoint.


I found nothing spectacular about the spreadsheet module in StarOffice like I did in Writer or Impress. However, I found it easier to import spreadsheet tables and data to Writer than I did with Excel and Word. Additionally, the functions, tools, and features in Calc use simpler language and do not require a great deal of knowledge specific to Calc that I often find when using Excel. In essence, even some of the advanced aspects of Calc can be used by a person with very little knowledge about spreadsheets simply because the language of Calc guides the user through logical processes to a simple, easy-to-read outcome.


More direct step-by-step instruction and simpler in form than Microsoft Access, Base allows the user to search, filter, and sort data into tables, forms, and reports without having a great deal of knowledge about databases. I found that Base uses simpler language and require fewer steps in performing these tasks than Access.

HTML (Web) Editor.

HTML Editor does not offer as many tools, templates, and features as Microsoft FrontPage; however, it is more straightforward for new HTML users. The result is that your webpage looks much like a word processing document, lacking the greater visual appeal of FrontPage. If you have never used HTML before, use StarOffice's HTML Editor. If you like creativity or want a more stylish webpage, stick with FrontPage.

Technical Support.

Support is provided free for the first 60 days after date of purchase via phone or e-mail. Sun Microsystems also offers a free course "Transitioning to the StarOffice Application Suite" up to 90 days after date of purchase; other web-based trainings are available for a fee. I contacted Support by telephone to ask questions about each application, e.g., how to convert from Excel to Calc, and found the staff to be friendly and informative. I did not have to wait on the phone longer than five minutes.


StarOffice had very few limitations. The biggest obstacle was getting used to StarOffice's language after using MS Office for so many years. A week was all I needed to learn the differences. StarOffice is the boring gray and white, unsophisticated icons, and unstylish layout you see in applications from the mid-90s. Lastly, StarOffice does not contain or correlate with an e-mail, browser, or calendar function like Microsoft Outlook, Explorer, or Scheduler. I use Outlook and Scheduler every day and was disappointed to learn that Sun has no intention of offering or integrating these services.

In conclusion, I would recommend using StarOffice for its simplicity, excellent Help function, and price. I do not need the complexities and confusion found in other office suites, such as Microsoft Office. StarOffice 6 offers the right balance of step-by-step instruction in the Help function, templates, and sample forms. Overall it meets my needs as a student and as an employee. It is $75.95 for individuals and free to educational institutions except for shipping and media fees. It is available on CD or downloadable, at the same price. More info and updates at

Sarah M. Barret is a HAL-PC member and a MSW student at the University of Houston's Graduate School of Social Work. She currently works at a homeless shelter for youth.