Hardware Review: CueCat Is Cool!

By Jayne A. Hitchcock
as it appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of Link-UP Magazine

I remembered reading about the CueCat, then seeing the TV commercials, but didn’t think much about it. Then I received a small black box from WIRED magazine (which I have a subscription to for the next 100 years, ha ha). I couldn’t figure out what the heck they’d be sending me, although I’d received mousepads, pens and other things from the over the years. But it came at the same time as my issue of the magazine, so I had a feeling they were tied together somehow. In the box was my very own CueCat, complete with CD-ROM, instructions and a “Convergence Cable” from Radio Shack.

The off-white CueCat is shaped like a - you guessed it - cat. The mouth had a red plastic lens on it, then the red CueCat symbol, which was a colon and a backwards “c,” plus the logos of WIRED and Delta.com.

I popped in the CD-ROM and a mini TV screen popped up, then a male British voice began talking about the CueCat, how I’d be able to scan in UPC codes, ISBN codes, ad codes and more that would take me right to the appropriate web site. Then the voice began to tell me, in excruciating detail, how to hook up the CueCat to my computer. I had a feeling this video was for true computer beginners, because I was bored out of my mind pretty quickly and there was no way to fast forward or stop the video. So I listened and watched. I do have to admit that the video was very smooth, no jerkiness or stutter and the narrator did explain everything in simple and easy to understand terms. He also covered the privacy issues that the media brought up when the CueCat first came out a few months ago. Unless you fill out the survey included with the video to “tailor” your needs with any promotional offers, they won’t bug you. And the minimal info you fill out to get the CueCat activation code is what I don’t mind being given out.

When the video finished, I turned off my IBM Thinkpad laptop (my guinea pig for new software and hardware) and installed the CueCat. All that was needed was to plug it into the keyboard slot. Since I had my laptop set up for an external keyboard, I figured it was no problem. I restarted my Thinkpad, the CueCat’s mouth lit up red (if they’d been smart, the folks at CueCat would have made the eyes the infrared reader - it would have been much cooler) and I installed the software. But nothing happened. I tried scanning in UPCs from a box of Zatarain’s rice and Nestles Quik, a couple of books, then some CueCat codes that were in the issue of WIRED magazine. Still nothing. The instructions stated that sometimes the CueCat won’t work with laptops, even with the external keyboard turned on. Bummer.

So I unhooked and uninstalled the CueCat and reinstalled it on my PC, plugging my keyboard into the CueCat cable, then that into the keyboard slot. Everything went smoothly, I went to the CueCat site to get the latest updates, then began scanning away. Of the ads in the issue of WIRED, only one wasn’t working - not that it was the CueCat’s fault, it was an ad for the TV show “Freakylinks,” which is no longer on-air, so the site had already been pulled. Here is a sampling of my results:

The back cover of WIRED had an ad for Altoids cinnamon-flavored mints. Scanning the CueCat brought me to http://www.toohot.com/, which looked so much like an X-rated site I almost didn’t enter it. Personally, I wish Altoids would change the intro page because it will scare off a lot of people and potential customers. The BMW ad took several swipes to get it to work.

I then began scanning anything in sight. First it was the box of Zatarains Rice I’d grabbed from the kitchen. I was taken right to their web site (which had some very good recipes and information). Then it was a copy of Naval History magazine. Odd. I was taken to the site for Esquire magazine. So I scanned Naval History again and was taken to the CueCat site to a page that read “You Found One!” asking me for more information, since I’d found something they didn’t have linked to work with the CueCat. I added the info they needed and hope it will scan in correctly next time around. (By the way, this is a very good feature and updates and adds to their database)

Next was a box of Kleenex© - and it went right to their web site. I actually got a coupon off the web site for my next visit to the grocery store.

I was really starting to have fun with the CueCat, but wished it was cordless. Then I could wander around the house, scanning codes and driving my husband crazy. I swear, if our dogs had UPC codes on them, I would’ve scanned them. I tried anyway and the dogs ran as far from me as they could. I guess the red mouth of the CueCat scared them. Or maybe it was me.

I began scanning CD-ROMs on my desk and they didn’t go to the software makers web site - all came up as a link CueCat didn’t have yet. I finally found one that did work - a Corel CD for their Dragon Naturally Speaking program, which went right to that site.

I then scanned in a couple of music CDs and was promptly taken to the Sony Music and A&M Records sites.

For the heck of it, I began scanning in office supplies on my desk. My glue stick brought up the web site Manco.com, its manufacturer. Mailing labels brought up the Avery label site. Some little sticky tags brought me to RediTag, where I found some other things I could use. An interesting scan was on two inkjet cartridges for my Lexmark printer. The black cartridge brought me to the Radio Shack web site, while the color cartridge brought me to the Lexmark site and I don’t know why.

The CueCat is a nifty little gadget, easy to install and easy to use. However, since I don’t have my computer near a TV nor would the CueCat work on my Thinkpad, I couldn’t try out the Convergence Cable, which when hooked up to a TV and a computer, is supposed to take you to web sites connected to TV ads or shows.

The other thing I don’t like about the CueCat is that the infrared light is on all the time. I wish it had an on/off button and I wish it were cordless. That would make it much easier to use and actually makes a bit more sense. Then you could wander around the house, bring it to the grocery store with you, etc, then connect it to your computer to check out any web sites that come up.

Since this is free - you can get it at Radio Shack or from the CueCat site at their site, I’ll stop complaining. If this had cost me money, I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but as a free gadget, it’s worth it.

A Mac version will soon be available, read more on the CueCat web site.

J.A. Hitchcock is the author of seven books and writes for several print and online publications. She can be reached by e-mail at anotherwriter@hotmail.com. She is also the president of WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse) which is online at www.haltabuse.org.

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