Geek Factor

If you're reading this column, it's probably safe to say that you like your drives naked, your tools plentiful, and your desktops virtual. In that spirit, we've sought out some products that you'll want to put on your wish list. These items are sure to add an extra measure of geekiness to your life.

Signal Sniffer

We've all seen the wireless dowser -- you know: the guy looking perplexed as he wiggles his laptop in the air, trying to find a stronger Wi-Fi signal as he connects to a network at a coffee shop or an airline terminal. There's a better way.

Smart ID Technology's $28 WFS-1 WiFi Detector (   ; www.smartid.com.sg) packs power in a compact, functional (albeit somewhat unattractive) package. Hold down the small black button, and if there are 2.4GHz microwave signals zipping around -- the frequency used for both AirPort (802.11b) and AirPort Extreme (802.11g) wireless networking, as well as microwave ovens and Bluetooth -- the WiFi Detector lights up one to four of its LEDs to indicate signal strength.

The device's strong point, especially in contrast to Kensington's $30 WiFi Finder (www.kensington.com), is instant response. The WiFi Finder can take as long as two minutes to present a snapshot of signals in the area. The WiFi Detector, however, dynamically changes its flickering signal-strength lights. As you move the device around, you can use it to head toward the strongest signal.

Because the WiFi Detector picks up all 2.4GHz signals, you're likely to get false positives in areas with lots of cordless phones and other interferers -- nevertheless, it's an ideal tool for any wireless road warrior.

Tools of the Trade

Is Victorinox's $60 CyberTool (www.victorinox.com) a Swiss Army Knife that went to electronics camp, or a multipurpose system-administrator tool that happens to have the Swiss Army Knife logo stamped on it? With a bottle opener, a can opener, and three Torx attachments, this gadget is hard to define.

The CyberTool, which comes in original-iMac translucent plastic colors, is a treasure trove of neatly packed-away items. It includes all the usual Swiss Army doodads (small and large blades, scissors, toothpick, awl, and tweezers), as well as the drinker's troika (corkscrew, bottle opener, and can opener). But nestled among these standard items are a set of pliers, a pen, and a socket that takes four reversible bits. You get Torx 8, 10, and 15 bits; a 4mm hex bit and 4mm and 5mm hex sockets (nested in one tool); and a variety of screw- head bits. The CyberTool also has screwdriver tips as part of other tools. In other words, it has everything you need when you have to dismantle a G5 tower and put it back together again.

The CyberTool is a little lumpy, and it can't replace full-size tools if you frequently need them -- but it's a remarkable gizmo for the traveling techie or the less demanding user.

Multiplying Desktops

Although all OS X users on a single Mac can have a unique desktop -- complete with personalized background pictures, files, and folders -- the problem is that each person can have only one. And as any Linux user will tell you, that's just not enough.

CodeTek Studios' $40 VirtualDesktop Pro 3.0 (   ; www.codetek.com) lets you create as many as 100 virtual desktops, each of which looks and works precisely like an independent Finder window. Multiple desktops let you better organize your working environment without having to constantly hide and swap application windows. (A $20 Lite version that omits 15 customization options is also available.)

VirtualDesktop Pro lets you name each desktop and set up specific applications' document windows to open automatically on a given virtual desktop. Using a tiny proxy image that shows the relative position and size of windows within a desktop, you can also drag windows from desktop to desktop.

The program works flawlessly in Panther, has full support for X11 and Exposé, and offers remote control using AppleScript -- another fine example of how OS X can bridge the gap between Mac and Linux or Unix users.

Drive Beauty

Sticking a gleaming, spinning hard drive inside a dull box just isn't right. That's where WiebeTech's ComboDock (   ; $150; with AC adapter, $170; www.wiebetech.com) comes to the rescue.

Following on the success of the company's FireWire DriveDock -- an exposed ATA drive connector with a FireWire port and an AC adapter plug in the back -- the ComboDock ratchets up the features. It now offers two FireWire 800 ports and a USB 2.0 port (the ports are backward-compatible to FireWire 400 and USB 1.1 speeds), and it works without drivers on Mac, Windows, and Unix platforms.

The ComboDock also includes a plate and screws to insulate a drive's circuit-board underside, a FireWire 400-to-800 cable, and a carrying case. Three LEDs let you know whether the AC adapter is plugged in, the unit is turned on, and data is flowing.

The ComboDock is easy to use, requires no configuration, and comes with a one-page manual that offers all the troubleshooting and guidance you'll need -- letting you avoid the more complicated (and mundane) experience of a hard-drive case.

Point, Tap, Shine, Write

Belkin's $25 Quadra 4-in-1 Pen (www.belkin.com) might seem to be an ordinary pen, but this slightly elongated aluminum cylinder has both a ballpoint pen nib and a PDA stylus on one end, and an LED flashlight and a laser pointer on the other. The Q in the name might evoke the prolific gadget maker in James Bond movies.

Putting all four functions into one object is a minor engineering marvel, although the Quadra is slightly hefty, and the two buttons for controlling the laser pointer and the flashlight are identical, unlabeled, and next to each other.

Still, the LED bulb is bright enough to illuminate notes in the dark, and the pointer works extremely well. The beauty of the pen is marred only by a giant federally mandated warning label across the laser end -- but we can all use a reminder now and then to resist the temptation to look into a laser.

Geek Favorites

Need to pull an all-nighter to finish that AppleScript and maintain fresh breath at the same time? No worries -- you can just chew your way to minty alertness.

Two pieces of GumRunners' Jolt Caffeine Energy Gum ($9 for six packages; www.joltgum.com) pack the same punch as a cup of coffee. This caffeine-, guarana-, and ginseng-laced chewing gum even comes in two flavors, Spearmint and Icy Mint.

The company says that because the caffeine enters your body under the tongue, delivery is faster than with coffee -- it may be just the jolt you've been waiting for. -- jonathan seff

Mac On Wheels

Anyone can plug an iPod into a car stereo, but Czech wiz Jirka Jirout decided to go a little further (www.mujmac.cz/art/hw/tatra_mac_eng.html). He built his own mobile computer from a 450MHz Power Mac G4 and his Czech-made Tatra automobile.

Jirout, who lives and works in Holland but drives to the Czech Republic on a regular basis, wanted not only a custom MP3 player he could control from the dash, but also a way to navigate tricky European roads. So he added a G4 to the trunk; a 6.5-inch LCD to the dash; an AirPort card and PowerMate controller; an infrared keyboard; and an Ethernet port in the rear armrest. The system also has Bluetooth, five digital thermometers, and a GPS receiver. Jirout spent more than $1,000 and six months of his free time building the system.

He then wrote an OS X app (named Tatra) to turn the LCD into an interface for his MP3 player and for Route 66 Europe 2004, a navigation program. And as if that weren't enough, the screen also displays time, fuel, speed, and temperature information. He even added an LCD screen in the backseat so passengers could watch a movie on long drives. -- cyrus farivar

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