So you thought the dozen or so CD-ROMs that came with your new multimedia computer were more than you would ever need? Well, not if you have kids. Chances are their holiday wish lists will include more than a few way-cool software titles they've seen at school or their friends' homes. That's O.K.: The best of this year's "edutainment" titles are richer in sound and graphics, including video snippets, and packed with enough activities to keep kids intrigued for months or longer. And who knows? If you pick titles skewed toward education with a little fun along the way, they may even learn something.
The problem confronting you, Mr. or Ms. Claus, is that this year, there are thousands of titles to choose from, and--just like books or audio compact disks--many of them are pure dreck. I've sorted through dozens to come up with a list of some of the most engaging. There should be something here for everyone on your shopping list. With some exceptions, they're about $40 each.
MEMORY PIG. Before we get to the picks, some general advice is in order. First, know your computer's limits, and read the fine print on all those alluring shrink-wrapped boxes. Many publishers have adapted their programs this year to run on Microsoft's Windows interface. The problem is that Windows hogs the computer's resources, leaving less for the program. If the box says that eight megabytes of memory (8 MB RAM) are required, it means it. If it says it needs four megabytes, but recommends eight, there's a chance the program will run too slowly with four to hold your kids' interest. Your options: Buy the earlier DOS version, if it's available. Or give yourself a luxurious stocking-stuffer--the extra four megabytes of memory that snap into a socket inside your PC at a cost of around $200.
Listen to your kids' suggestions. If they've played with a program somewhere else, chances are it won't be a flash in the pan for them. Teachers and other parents make good sources for recommendations as well.
For younger kids, install the software before wrapping the box. That way, you will avoid potential loading or compatibility disappointments on the big day. Also take a few minutes to get familiar with the program, especially how to get in and out of it. Then, you can stand behind your eager children--far too excited to bother with niceties such as reading an instruction manual--and guide them on their maiden voyage.
Now, the fun part. For the youngest set, the selection is pretty much limited to storybooks, painting programs, and easy games. Children as young as age 3 can easily learn to use a mouse, the navigator of choice for these programs. Besides having the story read for them by your computer's sound system, children can stop on each page, clicking on every part of the picture to get wacky sounds and animation that will keep them captivated.
The best storybooks are from Living Books, a joint venture between Broderbund Software and Random House. I like this year's Ruff's Bone and Little Monster at School, but if you don't already have the classics Just Grandma and Me and The Tortoise and the Hare, get them first.
If you hold off until mid-December, you should be able to find a series of storybooks from a new company, Active Imagination, a subsidiary of computer maker Packard Bell Electronics. Try The Pirate Who Wouldn't Wash or The Friends of Emily Culpepper. They're not quite as rich as the Living Books series, but at less than $20, they're a real bargain. Packard Bell thoughtfully includes four- and eight-megabyte versions of each story on the same CD-ROM.
MAGIC BUS. That's not the case with Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds. Perhaps the most appealing preschool game I've seen, Freddi and her buddy Luther can't help Grandma Grouper recover her kelp treasure without eight megabytes of memory. If you don't have it, go for earlier titles from the same company, Humongous Entertainment, such as Putt-Putt Joins the Parade and Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise.
A more educational choice for the preschool set is JumpStart Kindergarten from Knowledge Adventure. The program has 13 developmental activities, from sing-alongs to pattern matching to painting. Best of all, the program has a special adult section that keeps track of your child's progress. Or take a look at Sammy's Science House from Edmark, five programs that encourage early thinking about science, such as differences between plants and animals.
There's a wealth of educational programs geared for slightly older kids, aged 6 to 12, before they are teenagers and lost forever to Nintendo and Sega. Take Edmark's Thinkin' Things Collection 2, an innovative program available now on floppy disk, with the CD-ROM version out by February. The activities such as tonal memory exercises and rhythm training get progressively harder as your child masters them. Thinkin' Things also includes a paint program that lets kids map images into three dimensions.
Another intriguing paint program is Davidson's Flying Colors, which features color gradients that can simulate, say, running water. And there are all kinds of math programs, including Counting on Frank from EA*Kids, which is designed with girls in mind. Why? While boys may like shoot-'em-up games such as Davidson's Math Blaster, girls prefer to identify and learn with characters.
A couple of new anatomy programs are outstanding. The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body, the first in a new series from Microsoft Home, is packed with everything from facts to games. And IVI Publishing's AnnaTommy, developed with the Mayo Clinic, will remind you of the movie Fantastic Voyage: Anna and Tommy travel through the body in a futuristic submarine injected into the body, picking up knowledge and playing games along the way.
REVIEW COPIES. Reference works and schoolwork tools always make good gifts for kids, though they're slightly more expensive than the edutainment programs. Microsoft's Encarta '95 is as good an encyclopedia as you can get for any age. And check out two new titles aimed at slightly younger fry: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary for Kids from Mindscape and Knowledge Adventure's The Random House Kid's Encyclopedia. Good word processors for the junior set include the new CD-ROM version of Minnesota Educational Computing (MECC)'s classic Storybook Weaver, Creative Writer from Microsoft, and Learning Company's Student Writing Center.
Finally, if you're swamped by the selection, you can keep up by enrolling in Club KidSoft (800 354-6150) for $29.95 for four magazines, each with a CD-ROM that lets you try out new programs. Or subscribe to Children's Software Revue (313 480-0040) at $24 a year for bimonthly issues. It rates software six different ways, including ease of use, educational content, and value.
Either way, you'll get a leg up on giving your kids a leg up. And that's why you bought the computer in the first place, isn't it?
Even More Titles To Consider TITLE / MANUFACTURER PRICE CRAYOLA ART STUDIO/MICROGRAFX Amazingly full-featured painting $39.88 program even allows kids to mix watercolors on the page. . MAGIC THEATER / KNOWLEDGE ADVENTURE Electronic storytelling $29.98 software allows simple animation and a voice-over. Comes with microphone; CD-ROM or disks. SIMTOWN / MAXIS Scaled-down "neighborhood" version of the $44.95 now-classic SimCity, for younger kids. Mac-only CD-ROM by mid-December; DOS in February. WHAT IS A BELLYBUTTON? / IVI PUBLISHING Commonsense answers to $32.88 preschoolers' questions in a storybook format. CD-ROM. WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO? JUNIOR DETECTIVE EDITION/BRODERBUND $39.97 Younger-player version of the popular geography program, with characters from the TV series. CD-ROM. DATA: EGGHEAD INC.