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Software guide for children is a bit too soft, a bit too rosy


HUNDREDS OF COMPUTER programs vie for the attention of parents and children, so the "Parent's Guide to Children's Software 96" (Newsweek, about $30) might seem useful. The package includes not only a book containing more than 250 reviews of software for kids, but also a CD-ROM of "multimedia reviews" of what the reviewers deem the 50 best titles.

Along with ratings for "educational content," "replay," "multimedia," "interactivity" and "design," the book gives a description of each program and a letter-grade report card. But many descriptions are as short as one sentence, and grade inflation creates lots and lots of As and Bs, but only about 60 Cs, a dozen Ds and nary a single F.

A C grade is supposed to represent "an average disk," but in this infant field, the average is so low it would deserve a failing grade from most parents, teachers and children.

Having multimedia reviews of multimedia products is a fine idea, but the disk's "reviews" are even rosier than the ones in the book. The 50 programs that won an Editor's Choice award are demonstrated with glowing narration in tones usually heard on late-night infomercials. As a program's "crisp animation" is hailed, for example, you notice you are watching a fuzzy, dingy clip from a dopey '60s-vintage Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Only the children who add mildly articulate comments about some of the programs ever utter a discouraging word.

Despite its '96 rubric, this package will shortly be out of date. Dozens of new and improved entertainment and education titles will be arriving between now and Christmas, and virtually none are covered here. Still, if you can ignore the fawning explanations and the overly cute user interface, the demonstrations should give you some idea of what good and not-so-good programs look and sound like.

Half the programs have an Active Screen option, a single screen that lets you play with a few of the program's features, but that seems perfunctory in a product that gives points for "interactivity." There is no discussion of multimedia approaches vs. traditional media and little attention to the multimedia titles for adults that older children might like.

"Parent's Guide" does add a new form of interactivity of its own, one that should be stifled, stomped and buried before it spreads. If you decide not to register the program when you install it, it sneakily modifies your WIN.INI file so that the next time you start your machine, you get a reminder to register. Worse, the reminder program sits there wasting precious RAM.

Nudging you about uncompleted registration when you start a program is irritating enough. Bothering you when you are starting your day and that particular program is the last thing on your mind is offensively rude. According to a spokeswoman, the message will disappear after one's fifth refusal. It will, that is, if you have not shot your computer first.

The one new title that does make it into the Newsweek compendium is the eagerly awaited CD-ROM version of Dr. Seuss' ABC (Living Books, about $40), based on his 1963 book. Ichabod and Izzy, two yellow members of some furry bipedal Seussian species, serve as interlocutors. Many brand-new alphabet-oriented twists and fillips have been added, including a spirited performance of the inescapable "ABC Song."

As with other Living Books, the animation here really is crisp, the graphics inviting, the style engaging. The book can be read to you, or you can join the fun. Click on a letter or word, and something funny, surrealistic or both is sure to happen. Click on an object and it may dance the samba or perform a somersault.

Seuss's style has been lovingly and meticulously translated to the screen, but a staple-bound edition of the original book, included in the box, reveals the disk's limitations. In a setting with no real story, the disk's extra material gets in the way of Seuss's original tricks to get a real reader to turn a real page. This new material, while clever, rarely reaches the level of Seussian inventiveness, and Seuss' way of giving some of his characters, like Ichabod and Izzy, an occasional air of sly disreputability is missing. Instead, there is an air of perky sanitization.

Unlike other Living Books, this one offers no language but English. It will let you play its tunes on a standard music CD player, but in other ways this series is beginning to seem a bit behind the technological times. Delays in turning the virtual "pages" are annoying, as are the wide black borders that keep the picture from filling the screen. And once you click on something, there is no way to stop the ensuing action until it finishes.

However, Dr. Seuss' ABC, like the Newsweek disk, does take advantage of a nice new feature called Autoplay. On most Windows 95 machines, simply inserting the disk into the drive will start it running or, the first time, installing. And though both titles want to run at 640 X 480 resolution with 256 colors, Dr. Seuss' ABC can switch to that resolution automatically with Windows 95. (It did warn that "a palletized display is recommended for this book. Continue anyway?" but it worked fine when I clicked "Yes.") When the disk is finished, previous settings are restored. The screen momentarily does some ugly things, but soon all is well again.

Still, there is something vaguely disappointing about this title. For the money, a collection of Seuss' works on paper may not only be a better deal but also spare parents the 700th replay of "The ABC Song."

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