Mickeyfying The PC

With Disney's Dream Desk, the droll touches are pricey

The first things my kids noticed were the protruding blue ears -- cleverly housing speakers on a flat-panel monitor adorned with a flashing Walt Disney (DIS ) logo. "It's a mouse toy!" cried the 2-year-old. She's not far off.

Disney claims its $950 Dream Desk PC is the only computer on the market that's ergonomically designed exclusively for kids. In partnership with frog design and Medion, the company has launched a solid and appealing package for the under-12 crowd (anyone older may feel like a dork using it). Parents will appreciate innovations such as the optical pen, which lets kids draw on a special pad, as well as a clever cable storage system that keeps plugs and cords away from little fingers.

There's a mouse for smaller hands and a host of extras you can add to the package: funky blue-and-yellow compatible gadgets that any preteen would love. Our sitter's 9-year-old daughter was smitten with the $99 digital camcorder, which records up to four minutes of audio and video that can be made into movies through the Disney Flix software that comes with the Dream Desk. Then there's the $79 digital camera that works with the PC's Disney Pix software, a $19 game controller, and a $69 color printer, as well as other exclusive software to help kids draw and make music.

Is it worth paying $950 for the basic PC when a cheaper machine might do the job as well -- or even better? While there are no substitutes for the droll look and playful software, other machines offer more bang for the buck. A $500 Gateway (GTW ) 3200S, for example, provides a similar range of features with twice the disk storage and a 17-inch screen (vs. the 14-inch monitor for Mickey). Parents can then install an oversized mouse -- KidzMouse makes dozens of types for about $22 each -- and a kid-sized keyboard for around $70. And they can load it up with a vast range of software designed for youngsters.

While the appeal to children of the Disney Dream Desk is undeniable, it can be disconcerting to have such a critical learning tool as a computer permanently intertwined with one entertainment brand. There's even a button on the keyboard that takes you straight to Disney's $9.95-a-month Toontown Online site. That, combined with the constant influx of Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and the gang from all the software bundled with the machine, may sit well with young users, but it might drive their parents crazy over time.

By Diane Brady

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