Now and then I'm seduced by a what-the-heck: a gadget that you don't really need but might be useful - or not. It's so cheap that you say, "Hey, for 20 bucks? What the heck."
Then you click the add-to-my-cart button.
A friend providently steered me to a great what-the-heck a couple of weeks ago - the RCA Lyra RD900W Wireless Transmitter.
The device originally listed for $100, but it shows up on buy.com and other outlets for $20 to $25.
The Lyra addresses a simple problem. You have a couple of thousand album tracks stored on your PC. You also have a nice stereo (or even just a boombox) in the next room, or downstairs, or up in the bedroom. How do you get the music on your PC to play through the stereo?
Although it never made the big time in its original production run, the Lyra Wireless is a great solution - now that it's in the Web's bargain basement.
The package includes a transmitter that connects to your computer's USB port, a receiver with a cable that sports a pair of standard RCA jacks for your stereo, a remote control and a copy of Music Match jukebox software.
You can throw out the remote control and the software - unless you really like to tinker. When you turn on the transmitter, Windows XP automatically recognizes it as an audio output device - just like your sound card.
When you play a song or click on a play list using Windows Media Player, iTunes, Music Match or any other music program, it broadcasts a digital signal to the receiver (up to 100 feet away), which in turn plays the music through your stereo.
It's that simple. Because the wireless signal is digital, you don't lose any sound quality.
So the audio is terrific (or as terrific as your stereo system). Because the transmitter broadcasts on the 900 MHz band, it doesn't interfere with WiFi networks.
One downside - when you turn on the power to the transmitter, it disables your regular sound card, so you can't play through your computer speakers and stereo at the same time. But turning the power off restores your PC's normal sound output.
If you use the remote control to manage playback, give it a try. But if you can't see your computer to figure out what's available to play in the first place, punching buttons on faith is more frustrating than enlightening.
Other, more sophisticated media centers broadcast a signal that displays your computer-based music files and play lists on a TV screen, making the remote control more useful in another room.
That flaw probably doomed Lyra Wireless at a hundred bucks. But if you're willing to part with one mere Jackson for a gadget that does a great job broadcasting music from your computer to a stereo, well, what-the- heck!
To find it online, enter Lyra RD900W wireless transmitter on Google or another search portal.
Big memory, tiny size
Speaking of nifty hardware, I've also been enjoying a Western Digital Passport Pocket Drive. This slick little 6-gigabyte storage device, which uses a tiny, 1-inch hard disk, is about the size of a matchbox and weighs almost nothing.
In capacity, size and price range ($100), it falls between the thumb-size flash memory drives that chic-geeks dangle from lanyards around their necks and larger, portable hard drives that hold 60 gigabytes or more and cost two to three times as much.
The Pocket Drive communicates with your computer through a clever USB 2.0 connector that flips out and rotates. The swivel feature is important because it allows you to work the connector into a USB port mounted anywhere on the computer - front, back or angled behind a flip-out panel like the one on the Dell machines we use at work.
Western Digital says the drive is so thin that you can plug two of them in, side by side, in vertically-mounted USB ports. I didn't get a chance to try that, but some folks might find it useful.
Although it contains a mechanical hard disk, as opposed flash memory, the Pocket Drive unit made no discernible noise. It gets its power from the USB port itself, so there's no cord or batteries. It was also considerably faster than some of the flash drives I've tried.
When I plug the Passport into a computer, Windows XP immediately recognizes it as a hard drive - and that's about all there is to using it.
You can drag and drop files, or use backup software as if it were any other storage device. WD says the drive is compatible with the MCA and older Windows releases, too.
For those who carry a lot of material back and forth from home to office, or from office to office, WD supplies software (Windows XP and 2000 only) that synchronizes the drive with the files on a desktop or laptop PC.
What do I store on it? Well, in a music folder, I have about 1,000 of my favorite tunes in MP3 format, which I can now play using any computer. That accounts for about half the drive's capacity. The rest I use for business data - and there are still 1.5 gigs left on the drive.
Although it's bulkier than flash-based thumb drives, I like this form factor better. I'm not geek enough to dangle a thumb drive from a ribbon around my neck, and I don't like the idea of putting one on a key chain.
Another issue: because they're so small, I tend to forget thumb drives are in my pocket - so I lose them or have to rescue them from the laundry at the last minute.
The Pocket Drive is a better size all around - small enough to tote anywhere but big enough to make you work at losing it. Useful gadget, reasonable price.
For information, visit www.westerndigital.com.