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Shrink to fit

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In the world of information technology, size most definitely does matter - and the smaller the better

Despite the enormous fuss Microsoft whipped up last year, only now are the first of the tablet computers on sale in the UK - at the excitingly high prices early adopters like to pay.

There is the Acer PCC102Ti at around £2,000, which is quite a lot for a laptop with a swivelling screen; the ViewSonic Tablet PCV1100 at £1,700; the Compaq/HP PC TC1000 at £1,700; and the Research Machines at the much more attractive price of a tad under a grand. The rest are trickling in and we hope to be checking out one or two of them on site.

Tablets are supposed to work using handwriting-recognition software. But don't throw away your black-bound A4 note book, as several manufacturers have been beavering away in the area of pen input. The Israeli firm Pegasus offers the £60 PC Notes Taker, while Seiko has the £100 InkLink. With both of these you clip a detector to your notebook and draw with the supplied biro. The image is then stored on your computer. There is also Logitech's $200 (£130) IO digital pen, which uses special paper rather than a detector and looks a bit like a Mont Blanc.

But the eeriest input device of recent months is the orbiTouch (try www. keybowl. com). This consists of two mini ouija boards, which you move in combination to produce characters at a claimed maximum of 40 words per minute. It is said to be the result of 10 years' R&D, and the site plays heavily on the disabled theme.

Scary beast

The Australian amber nectar is currently being advertised on telly with a human-scale Sony robot - the grown-up, gloss-white (and, happily, not-for-sale) upgrade of the silver robot dog, which, once you have trained it, growls affectionately instead of peeing on your foot.

Not to be outdone, Sanyo and robotics firm tmsuk have come up with the Banryu. This is a $16,000 (£10,000), 88lb, 1m-long, fourlegged walking guard dragon, which scrabbles around your house at 15m a minute - not incredibly fast but probably adding to the scariness of the beast. The Banryu can distinguish different smells, especially, says www. sanyo. co. jp, 'the burnt scent that is known to occur in the atmosphere preceding a fire'. Er, is this true?

It can also respond to simple commands, sense noise, infra-red and temperature and, hopefully, scare burglars. Since it is not designed to cope with stairs, you will need one for each floor when they come out later this year.

Sucking up

The next stage is to teach your Banryus not to attack your Roombas.

The $200 (£130) rechargeable Roomba vacuum robot (www. roombavac. com) susses out your room by running in concentric circles, hitting a wall, running around the perimeter and that sort of thing, to make a 'map'. And then it cleans. Quite well, apparently. At 500mm diameter and 75mm high, it looks very like an expensive chrome hubcap, flat enough to fit under tables and sofas.

You will still need your Dyson every couple of months for deep cleaning, though, and possibly for corners the circular Roomba cannot reach.

I remember a bunch of us hacks on an Olivetti press trip in a Rimini hotel whiling away the hours watching an unsupervised underwater robot using limited intelligence to vacuum a swimming pool. That was around 15 years ago and the technology is now a bit old hat. But you will still want a Roomba. It is much cheaper than installing a piped whole-house vacuum system, or, of course, a Dyson - although at the moment you can only buy your Roomba in the US.

Mini mother

Never mind tablets, the desktop computer case is set to diminish physically to less than a quarter of its current volume. That means the motherboards inside need to shrink, as well.

Shuttle is the pioneering manufacturer leading the way here (www. shuttle. com). It sells small motherboards and modest power supplies in custom cases little larger than the width of a standard CDROM, roughly the same height and 200mm deep. You pay between £150 and £250 for a barebones SpaceCube system (try www. microdirect. co. uk) and add your own memory, processor, drive etc. There is normally space for a single output card and a better video card, although sound, USB, Firewire, video, LAN, and all the other customary ports are there already.

Other manufacturers, such as Via, sell Epia motherboards with hardsoldered Via processors (www. viamainboard. com), while makers of small cases, such as Chyang Fun (search www. mini-itx. com), have ramped up production - though architects with an interest in the 19th century may find the scarlet Cubit from Netbox (www. netbox. co. uk) particularly desirable. Being new, all these cases are expensive, starting at £70, and even more if you have your Cubit laser cut with your logo.

The shrinking does not stop there.

Smaller still is the UPC, the ultrapersonal computer that runs desktop operating systems like Windows.

Another, which we have mentioned before, is the Paysan M series (www. paysan. co. uk), and there is also the cheaper (because it didn't sell) 106mm by 150mm Espresso, available from end-of-line and second-user specialist Sterling XS (www. sterlingxs. co. uk). What these lack, and the true UPC from OQO (www. oqo. com) does not, is a 10cm LCD touch screen, occupying most of the top of the box.

Strangely, these small desktop machines are never shown with the basic cabling - the rat's nest needed for keyboard, mouse, network and modem - actually plugged in.

End of the square disk

Shuttle cases have space for a floppy drive on the front. But these take up a lot of space, and are now redundant.

Their replacement is tiny and works fast. It is the miniature USB memory stick (search online stores under 'USB drive', and then possibly add 'flash', although Lexar Media calls them JumpDrives and Sony uses MicroVault).

This is essentially a flash memory chip soldered to the end of a USB plug and wrapped in a 75mm-long plastic case. You take it out of your pocket, plug it into a USB port and your computer immediately recognises it as another drive between 8Mb and 528Mb. Floppy disks hold just over 1Mb, which means Zip drives, even the new 750Mb Zip drives, are also redundant.

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