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Fly Should Soar with Kids


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Though just the size of a pen, this talking computer is packed with useful features

The Bad Sloppy writing confuses it

The Bottom Line our kid will have fun and learn a lot, too

How times have changed. Back when I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, lots of parents thought Scrabble was all the stimulation children needed to excel in school. Nowadays, adults worry that their kids won't do well unless they own a laptop, a cell phone, and a personal digital assistant (PDA). And soon, perhaps, the Fly pentop computer will be added to that list.

Developed by LeapFrog Enterprises (LF), a maker of educational toys, the gadget is just what it sounds like: a talking computer hidden within a pen the size of an electric toothbrush. Due to become available at stores like Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT) for $99 in mid-October, the device is aimed at 9- to 14-year-olds. What can they do with the Fly pentop computer? Kids can use it as a calculator, keep a calendar, create and record music, and play complex logic and geography games -- all features I tried and found fun and educational.

The Fly pentop computer is the kid's PDA, if you will, and the fly-est digital toy I've tried lately, for sure. If it came with games for adults, too, I'd buy one for myself.

DRAW "M" FOR MENU. The gadget, which contains an actual ink pen, can "see" what you write, read it out loud, and respond to written commands. At the heart of these capabilities lies a tiny camera, which is embedded near Fly's writing tip, and special Fly paper, which must be used with the device. The dots printed on this paper and invisible to the eye tell the pen's camera exactly where it's positioned on the paper, so as it moves, the pen "sees" exactly what you write. Similar functionality is just becoming available for adults in digital pens such as Logitech's (LOGI) io 2. A new Logitech pen that became available this summer will also have wireless capabilities.

Fly comes with enough paper for a few days' worth of fun and games. Additional paper and accessories will be sold for between $4.99 and $34.99 in the stores selling Fly.

You'll need the paper because Fly responds only to written commands. To hear a menu of options, you draw an "M" with a circle around it on the Fly paper. Then, you tap the drawing twice with your Fly pen for the computer to recite your menu options, including scheduler, calculator, current time, notepad, settings, or games. To select an option, you simply print a check mark to the right of the "M" that you drew previously. Then, you tap it. The computer announces your selection and options. Operating the menu is very straight-forward, and the learning curve is minimal.

CALCULATING DEVICE. Later, you can go to some of these options directly by learning a handful of shortcuts, such as "N" for notepad. The notepad option lets you write up to three words that the pen will pronounce for you. One note of caution: Every letter you write has to be clear and separate from the others, or the pen becomes confused. When I wrote "where" in sloppy shorthand, the pen pronounced it as "WM."

It took me a while to get hang of using the calculator (the circled "C" is the shortcut), one of Fly's really cool features. Following Fly's instructions, you draw a calculator box with numbers including "plus" and "minus" symbols on a piece of Fly paper. Then, you tap the numbers you want to calculate with the pen, and the gadget makes additions, subtractions, divisions, and multiplications for you.

Here, too, you need good handwriting. It took me about 10 minutes to get the hang of this feature, and the pen didn't recognize my "1" until I added the little "nose" to the top of the straight vertical line I typically use to denote "1."

LOGIC EXERCISE. You also need to be patient and wait for the computer's guidance after each step in drawing your calculator. After you draw a box, say, you need to wait to hear the instructions on how to write the numbers within it. After you've mastered the calculator option once, you'll be able to use it on the fly (ahem) next time.

What about playing games on a pen computer? This is the Fly's most useful feature, accessible via the Flymatch option. Its educational games come in additional game pages or booklets, which are a bit similar to those coloring books we've used as kids. You play the game by touching the various points -- be these multiple-choice questions or drawings -- on the page with the pen. The Fly knows what you've touched and responds with voice.

Many of the games are fairly complex, the sort of logic exercises I remember going through to get ready for my graduate school exam. One example: You see a drawing of an ant, a bear, a cat, and a dog. It's a multiple-choice question, so you have to pick, by tapping with the pen, the next animal to complete this chain. The answer is elephant, of course, as the creatures in the chain are placed in alphabetical order, and the word starts with an "e."

A dozen or so games come as part of the Fly pen starter kit, and LeapFrog is expected to make more available for later purchase. Other games should be helpful for kids' development, say when it comes to memorizing state capitals. One game lets players match countries and capitals on a map.

FOR YOUR INNER MUSICIAN. Playing these games is really fun thanks to the accompanying sound effects. When you get an answer right, the computer emits a loud yeee-haaa. What's more, many games and quizzes have funny answers. After I entered answers to a quiz relating to my favorite hobbies and outlook on life, I was told that, in terms of my future job, I was going to be "a poet. That's too bad, as you can't find a dime to follow you around before bedtime." I'll say!

Another option that iPod-crazed tweens are sure to appreciate is called Flytones. This feature lets you draw a keyboard and drums on your Fly paper and play them with the tip of your pen. You can even record your own melodies. I thought I had no musical talent ever since watching my second-grade piano teacher cringe as I played. But the Fly can make even those with a tin ear sound cool.

Kids who don't feel like being educated but just want to chill on their lunch break will find a ton of entertainment options, too. Take a feature called BuzzPhrase. Here, you can ask Fly to tell you a joke by writing down "TELL ME A JOKE" in capital letters. The pen will recite you a juicy little bit. One example: "What starts with p, ends with e, and has a million letters in it? Answer: Post office."

EDUCATIONAL STEALTH. Included in the Fly kit are a couple of practical-joke cards. One is a card of sounds. Tap a button to hear a toilet flushing, a particular body function, a disco, or a wicked laugh.

Fly is sure to get lots of laughs as it sneaks learning into what kids will perceive as pure entertainment. As such, it will likely get parents' and grandparents' votes of confidence and dollars, too.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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