We’ve hadn’t seen these before, but they sure seem useful. They’re clear plastic covers that snap onto CDs and DVDs to prevent them from being smudged or scratched. The disks can be played with the covers on or off.

Tiny marks or pieces of dirt on there playing surfaces causes one in four DVDs

to freeze. These skins might not be a revenue blockbuster for resellers, but they can be an inexpensive customer satisfaction tool.

When you think about it, CD and DVD disks are handled by many people and are often smudged or get dirty. When we carefully cleaned the offending disks, they played with no problems.

It would be a good idea to cover the playing side with one of these clear shields. They’re thin and snap securely onto the disk. We got a package of D_skin Protective Disc Skins. A package of 20 costs US$20 from Best Buy (www.bestbuy.com), but you may be able to find a better deal. (When you’re looking for any product, it’s a good idea to start with searches at www.froogle.com, www.cnet.com and www.amazon.com.)

MULTIFUNCTION VIDEO DISPLAY

We got one of the new Samsung multipurpose monitors that serve as either computer monitor or TV, and can even do both simultaneously. It’s called the SyncMaster 192MP and retails for US$1,129; we found it for Us$807, after rebate, at Amazon.com.

This is a flat-panel 19-inch LCD display. Image resolution is 1280 by 1024 pixels, which, believe us, is plenty sharp. The unit weighs about 20 pounds and comes with its own power supply. On the back are sockets for connecting a computer (PC or Mac), a cable or rabbit-ear antenna to pick up TV signals, CD and DVD players and videocassette player. The monitor is also HDTV ready.

The screen can handle computer and video at the same time, showing a picture-in-picture in one corner while you’re working on your own programs. The picture can come from any video source. You do not have to plug in a separate video card for this; it’s handled by the software that comes with the monitor.

The monitor has received nothing but rave reviews from users who have early models. Interestingly, this multipurpose monitor costs less than the smaller, computer-only Samsung monitors we bought three years ago.

LEARN DIRECT MAIL AND OTHER SKILLS

Hewlett-Packard offers free online classes on how to run a direct mail campaign. We took a quick look and saw the course was run by a professional. Other free courses cover real estate marketing, Linux, Photoshop, Windows XP, etc. It’s hard to lose for free. Web: http://hplearningcenter.com.

WALK-AROUND PRESENTATION TOOL

We came across an interesting device for anyone using a computer for presentations. It’s a radio control mouse with a built-in laser pointer. The receiving module is tiny and plugs into any USB port.

It’s awkward for people speaking to a group to be locked into place because they have to be next to the computer. This way they can walk around and gesture. No mouse pad is required because the wireless device uses a trackball instead of a standard mouse arrangement; a trackball is like a mouse upside down, so you can move the ball with your thumb. The Wireless Multimedia Presenter is US$80 from Targus (www.targus.com).

SHOOTING POOL

Live Billiards Deluxe, from TerraGame, is far and away the best billiards simulation we’ve ever seen. It is so good we would rank it as both a game and a teaching tool.

You line up a shot, traces appear on the screen showing where the ball is going to go and where other balls it strikes are going to go. Adjust your shot slightly and the lines adjust as well. In a short time you begin to learn what kind of angle you have to take with the cue ball to get other balls to go where you want, and how to use what experienced players call “”english,”” which is adjusting the cue ball’s spin. Despite the title, however, you can’t play billiards, only pool.

TerraGame is one of several companies that make games available to play online or purchase for use offline. Live Billiards Deluxe costs US$20 for unlimited play at home and one month of playing online against others. Consult the Web site for charges on other games, such as Scrabble, Poker, Monopoly, Risk, role-playing games, math games, etc. There are around 400 of them, for children and adults. Web: www.terragame.com.

INTERNUTS: SHARING

This just in: Shareware is official at www.sic.org. This is the official site of the Shareware Industry Conference. Each year it gives out awards for the best shareware programs in many categories. This is a good place to go to find new shareware that’s already been vetted, so to speak. In other words, shareware that works well and is not known for causing problems — which is more than we can say for a lot of programs from well-known companies.

Shareware is a snap at www.snapfiles.com. This site has 5,000 shareware and freeware titles in 280 categories. Some of these, like SpySweeper and SmartDraw, are well-regarded.

NOTE: Some shareware programs can cause problems when running other programs on your computer, and a few place ads and spyware. You can read user comments to gauge the risk, and you should always have spyware removal programs on your machine, just in case. Don’t get paranoid, however; most shareware causes no problems.

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