Blowing Your Tax Refund

Every financial planner warns against carelessly spending your tax refund as if it's free money - but hey, somebody has to be the devil's advocate, right? 364 days a year, the humble author reads Dave Ramsey books, but when that tax refund comes in, forget it. Get a cart, baby, not one of those handheld baskets. The only thing more fun than spending my tax refund is helping spend somebody else's.

Rough year, only $100: Logitech QuickCam Orbit

I've had the same reliable basic Logitech QuickCam for years as a webcam on my site. It works great for videoconferencing with my folks who aren't so lucky as to live in Texas. Webcams are webcams - for the most part, any old $30 model will do the job. The software makes more of a difference than the hardware.

All that changed when Logitech came out with the first new webcam to tempt me into spending my not-so-hard-earned money. At first glance, the Orbit looks like a futuristic iMac-style version of the ancient QuickCam, now shrouded in clear plastic. The difference becomes apparent when you install the drivers: using basic image processing, the Orbit tracks your position as you move around - and then uses its built-in motors to move the camera's lens to track you.

Like the Logitech iFeel force feedback mouse I picked up a couple of years ago, the novelty wears off quickly. Both devices are better in theory than in execution: the iFeel's harsh mechanical motors always made cheap grating noises, no matter what settings I used, and the QuickCam Orbit seems to suffer from the same low-quality materials decisions. The Orbit made louder noises than my two computers with four CPU fans. Another improvement could be made in the drivers: I'd like to see the camera track movement regardless of the source so that I could mount it on my back patio and watch the squirrels while I work. (Talk about a frivolous purchase.)

If you've got $200 to burn: Tivo

Tivo is a very, very smart and easy-to-use VCR, but with a computer hard drive instead of changing tapes. Tivo watches you watching TV, learns what shows you tend to watch, and automatically records shows that it thinks you'll like. It can pause and rewind live TV without any special setup. With the Home Media Option, it can even play MP3's stored on your home computer. DirecTV subscribers get a special deal: DirecTivos, satellite receivers with built-in Tivo technology, are available from chain electronic stores for around $70-$100.

Tivos haven't caught on quickly because it's hard to understand how powerful and easy to use they are without using it yourself. Stores never have Tivos on hand hooked up to televisions for demonstrations, so ask around, find a friend with a Tivo, and odds are they'll be more than happy to evangelize the Tivo experience. I show it to all of my friends, and a surprising number have run out and purchased their own. (And believe me, it's not because I'm good at sales.)

If you already have a Tivo, check out the Home Media Option, but don't use Tivo's software. Use JavaHMO, available at It's a free, open source version that will show local weather, movies, and even stream internet radio like direct to your Tivo.

Big spenders with $500 to blow: PDA Phone

After living with an Audiovox Thera for the past few months, I can vouch for the usefulness of being able to surf the web from absolutely anywhere - and not the fake web, either. Those folks at the store who say people can "surf" on a 1.5" monochrome screen should be forced to get directions from MapQuest over that phone: it's a joke.

On the other hand, surfing with a handheld PocketPC phone is a relative joy: I've been able to pull sports scores, get directions, and even check the status of my tax refund while waiting in lines, relaxing at halftime in arenas, or the ever-popular Houston pastime, sitting in traffic. Today's PocketPC and Palm-based phones can render normal web sites quite well, albeit with some scrolling involved. Is it worth the $500, though? No - and that's why it's classified as a Tax Refund Special.

Show me the $600-$700! 19" Flat Panel

This represents the ultimate tax-refund purchase - not because of its high price, but because it's simply hard to justify spending over $500 on a monitor when you can get a perfectly good old-style CRT monitor for half the price. To add insult to injury, CRT monitors usually offer higher resolutions. But we're throwing around free money here, right?

It's hard to make a bad selection in the 19" LCD monitor category. Most models here offer 1280 x 1024 resolution, and most offer similar contrast rates. However, one thing sets the Dell 1901FP apart from the rest: it rotates 90 degrees, from landscape to portrait mode. In portrait mode, entire web pages are visible without scrolling - long pages like are more readable. The only drawback is that when the monitor is rotated, the video signal doesn't automatically rotate to match it. The user has to make operating system changes in order for the display to be flipped. Different video cards and operating systems have different ways of flipping the display: my Nvidia-based card has an icon residing in the system tray that can rotate the display with two mouse clicks. Hotkeys can also be assigned to do this with just a few keypresses.

Brent Ozar is a web developer and network admin. You can have his Dell 19" flat panel when you pry it from his cold dead fingers. He can be contacted at