Computers offer endless opportunities for one-upmanship, says Steve Mann
Listen to a man - it inevitably is a man - telling a friend about a new acquisition, and there is a good chance that you will hear him say something along the lines of: "You must come over and see my new toy ..." It does not matter what the "toy" is - almost anything even remotely technological is viewed as a status symbol, something to be gloated over, boasted about and discussed endlessly.

Not all computer upgrades are forced upon you: sometimes they are done for fun, and they offer endless opportunities for indulging in one-upmanship. A recurring fantasy is building the ideal PC system - although, like painting the Forth Bridge, it is a never-ending task as each month brings fresh acres of magazine print crammed with suggestions about how to spend serious money on gimmicks, gadgets and gizmos. The problem for connoisseurs of one-upmanship, of course, is sorting the wheat from the chaff and finding gadgets of enduring value.

CD writers, which can transfer data or music from your PC to a virgin compact disc, fit into this category. A year ago they cost more than pounds 2,000 but are now available for about pounds 750. Such a beast is positively guaranteed to provoke envy. It might be able to justify its purchase price if you want to make your own multimedia CD. You could also use it to back up data (although there are more convenient and cheaper alternatives for this, such as the Iomega Zip drive). But soon you will be using it to transfer all your old audio cassettes on to CD (although again, it is not quite there because it holds only 73 minutes of music).

One of the cheapest all-in-one packages is Hewlett Packard's SureStore 4020i - a quad-speed audio/data CD player that doubles as a CD writer, with software for preparing audio and data CDs, and viewing (although not, alas, writing) PhotoCDs. Make sure your dealer can supply Windows 95 drivers and software, or it means a 7Mb download from HP's World Wide Web page.

To watch TV on your computer, Hauppauge's Celebrity is the answer. This plug-in card offers TV and Teletext reception in a resizeable window on your computer, works with the latest fast Windows 95 graphics cards and lets you watch the racing while the boss thinks you are slaving over a hot spreadsheet. You can grab single frames from TV, capture a short clip and turn it into a Windows video, or transfer Teletext pages to your own documents.

Then there are games. You will, of course, want to watch the forthcoming generation of PC games in all their sumptuous widescreen glory, which in turn will need an even more powerful graphics card. Creative Labs' 3D Blaster, which plugs alongside and connects to your existing graphics board, comes with a sample of six games.

But luxuries can also come in small and relatively cheap packages. For under pounds 50 you can say goodbye to twisted mouse cable misery with the MouseMan Cordless, which uses a small radio transmitter attached to the mouse port to pick up signals from the chunky, triangle-shaped mouse. As it uses radio rather than infra-red signals, reception is unaffected by the usual desktop clutter - there is no need to ensure a clear "line of sight" between mouse and receiver. Of course, this means you will immediately lose your mouse under a pile of papers.

So maybe you had better feed them all into Logitech's PageScan Color. Small enough to be positioned behind the keyboard, and operated by simply poking a sheet of paper into the motorised rollers (the head can be detached for scanning book pages), this versatile little device transfers paper documents to your computer and can share a standard printer port with your printer. It uses impressive Optical Character Recognition by Xerox Textbridge to "read" printed letters: it can even manage poor-quality newsprint or type on a coloured background. The software has a "smart" filing system: learning from previous scans, it will recognise bank statements, then offer to file them in the appropriate folder. It has obvious uses for keeping track of home accounts, or producing graphics for your World Wide Web home page.

Unfortunately, industry law dictates that you will be able to buy something better or cheaper in a few months' time. But then, one-upmanship was never easy.

HP SureStore 4020i, pounds 829; (0990 474747).

Hauppauge Celebrity, pounds 339. Contact ODT, (0171-378 7309).

Logitech PageScan Color, about pounds 275; Logitech MouseMan Cordless, about pounds 48. Contact Logi (UK), (01344 894301).

Creative Labs' 3-D Blaster, about pounds 290; (01245 265265).

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