Offbeat CD-ROM software strikes a chord with users


Local computer shows are usually havens for hardware hackers looking for bargain basement equipment, but at the show I attended last week, some of the biggest crowds were around tables piled high with new software titles for CD-ROM drives.

I shouldn't have been surprised. With their seemingly unlimited capacity for data, CD-ROMs are becoming the electronic medium of choice for publishers of encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases and other reference works, not to mention all sorts of exotic games and unusual programs that would be impossible to produce on floppy disks, and impossible to store on standard hard drives.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of using one of these gadgets, a CD-ROM (shorthand for Compact Disk Read Only Memory) uses the same basic technology as the CD player attached to your home stereo system. But instead of being limited to music, computer CDs can store up to 600 megabytes of data, including text, photos, graphics, sound, music and animations.

With prices as low as $200 to $300 (add another $100 to $200 for kits that include a soundboard), CD-ROM drives are among today's hottest selling peripherals, and the number of CD-ROM software titles is increasing exponentially.

While encyclopedias, national phone books and other gee-whiz programs get most of the publicity, there are plenty of offbeat CD-ROM titles available too, ranging from the silly to the sublime. Here are a few examples I've seen. You can decide which ones fall into which category.

Undoubtedly, you've spent as much time as I have wondering who holds the record unicycling backward. With the 1993 Guinness Multimedia Disk of Records, it takes only a few seconds to discover that your man is Peter Rosendahl, who pedaled 46.7 miles in reverse in 1990. In fact, Mr. Rosendahl holds a number of equally meaningless unicycle records.

The Guinness program, which runs under Microsoft Windows, contains the entire contents of the hardbound Guinness Book of World Records, adding movie clips, voice-overs and sound effects.

The advantage of any CD-ROM reference work is the ability it gives you to search for and locate material quickly, and to jump between related articles instantly. You can search the Guinness disk by subject or by any combination of individual words. But the authors have added one search feature unique to Guinness -- the search by superlative.

You can find the fastest, slowest, biggest, hottest, oldest and smallest of anything. For example, I looked up the term "heaviest." Among the trivia: Heaviest airplane (Russian Antonov An-225, 660 tons at takeoff), heaviest healthy baby (22 pounds, 8 ounces), heaviest car (the Russian Zil limousine used by Mikhail Gorbachev, 6.6 tons) and heaviest fine (levied on junk-bond artist Michael Milken, $200 million).

Serendipity factor

Trivia freaks and cocktail party bores will undoubtedly salivate at the thought of all this information at their fingertips, and indeed, vTC the Guinness CD-ROM delivers that. But with any computerized reference, you give up one of the main pleasures of this kind of book, which is sitting back in an easy chair and thumbing through it, waiting for serendipity to bring you some little nugget that makes you smile or wince. The hardbound version of Guinness ("Facts on File," $22.95) is a wonderful example of the genre, beautifully illustrated and laid out for browsing.

The Guinness publishers understand this, and include a browse feature that flashes random world records and the accompanying photographs on your screen every few seconds, but somehow the fun just isn't there.

Nonetheless, if you want your trivia sliced, diced and searchable, give this one a look. For information, contact Grolier Electronic Publishing, Sherman Turnpike, Danbury, Conn. 06816.

European Racers, from Revell-Monogram, proves once and for all that the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. If you've ever built a plastic model of a plane or ship, you'll know who the Revell-Monogram folks are, and you're probably wondering what they're doing in the software business.

What they're doing is publishing one of the strangest packages I've ever seen. For about $50 on the street, you get one of their plastic model cars (in my case, a Porsche 911 slant nose), plus a CD-ROM that contains superbly animated, step-by-step instructions, illustrated modeling tips, and a road racing game.

I'm of two minds about this one. First, as an old and often frustrated model-maker who spent hours puzzling over printed instructions that almost explained how to get Tab A into Slot B, I'm delighted by the on-disk instructions. The publishers have used sophisticated, high-end modeling and animation software to show you exactly how every piece fits with every other piece. They even show you where to find each piece on the complex, stamped plastic forms that greet you when you open the box -- always a major source of confusion.

On the other hand, I wonder if I would really break out a tube of airplane glue and a couple of bottles of model paint and put the thing together on the same desk I use for my computer.

Build and test drive

If you're a dedicated model-maker, you're probably willing to take the chance. And once you're finished building your model on screen and on your desk, you can take the computerized version out on the track in a road-racing game that simulates the real performance of the car. It may not challenge the best of this genre, Test Drive 3, but it's certainly entertaining.

The package comes with instructions for three additional exotic sports cars, which you can buy separately at most toy stores for $12.95 each.

A word of caution here. European Racers runs under DOS and requires one megabyte of expanded memory. Most computers on the market today have far more than this, but you may have to do some tweaking with your system configuration files to make it available to the program. If you're a model-maker and a car-racing freak, you'll do it gladly.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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