WITH the holidays approaching, this is a great time to consider a software gift for your favorite computer user.
There are only two rules for this endeavor.
First, make sure the program matches your recipient's computer. It's definitely a bummer to unwrap a really cool game and find out it's for a Macintosh when you have a PC.
If in doubt, inquire discreetly ahead of time. If you can do it without tipping your hand, find out what kind of processor, memory and video board the computer has, too.
If you don't know any of these things, buy a gift certificate or a fruitcake.
Second and more important, never, ever give anyone a program that's useful.
Contact managers and income tax software are really tacky. Games and screen savers are terrific.
Remember, the greater the potential for wasting time, the better the gift.
And be warned: If you choose wisely, you may not see your spouse, child, or significant other for several weeks.
That said, it's hard to find a better time waster than Berkeley Systems' "You Don't Know Jack" collection, available for Windows and Mac systems.
These challenging game show programs have a definite attitude. They're noisy and entertaining, and they're definitely not for the kiddies.
Try the original "YDKJ" with 800 questions, the all-new "YDKJ II" or the "Sports Trivia" version.
While we're talking about software that keeps you from doing what you should be doing, "Jane's USNF '97" from Activision will keep armchair fighter jocks up through the wee hours, trying to save Boris Yeltsin's plane from renegade Commie MiGs or performing dozens of other missions vital to keeping the world free for game developers.
Great graphics, intelligent scenarios and plenty of info about U.S. Navy fighters make this a top-rated flight simulators.
You can also play by modem or join up to seven other pilots on a network, which will undoubtedly make bosses happy all over the world.
Caution: "USNF" requires Windows 95 and a nuclear-tipped Pentium computer with plenty of RAM.
If you like your action on the sea instead of over it, "Titanic: Adventure Out of Time" casts you as a British secret agent with a mission that could change the course of history.
You'll find an incredibly detailed re-creation of the famous ocean liner on this two-CD package, along with 25 interactive &r; characters to help move the plot along.
It's available from GTE Entertainment in Windows and Mac versions.
Of course, if you'd rather be under the ocean than on it and you're one of the few people who isn't bored to death with Tom Clancy, check out "SSN" from Simon & Schuster, a slickly assembled simulation from the master of the techno-thriller.
In this one, you're the skipper of the USS Cheyenne, a state-of-the-art nuclear attack sub being sent to foil a plot by Chinese hard-liners who have staged a raid on one of the world's last untapped oil reserves.
You'll find Clancy's usual geopolitical nonsense here, and the author is milking the release for all it's worth (there's a book being spun off from the game in an unusual reversal of roles), but none of the hype stops this Windows 95 package from being pretty good entertainment.
Looking for something more intellectual?
There are two new Windows versions of Sid Meier's "Civilization," the megahit from Microprose and one of the greatest computer games ever.
"CivNet" lets you explore new civilizations, develop new technology, trade with other nations and make war and peace with other players via modem or on the Internet.
"Civilization II" is an enhanced version of the single-player game that adds new civilizations, better technology and more sophisticated scenarios to an already superb simulation.
It's a wonderful game for kids and older children -- just don't tell the kids it's a great educational experience, too.
There's good news for chess players of all ages this season.
For youngsters or older beginners, Brainstorm's "Chess Mates" provides an entertaining and informative introduction to the game, with animated explanations of strategy and tactics from a wonky sorcerer named Wigby.
A single CD contains Windows and Mac versions.
Bloodthirsty advanced players will undoubtedly enjoy Davidson's "Extreme Chess," which is based on Fritz, the reigning world computer chess champion.
There's nothing warm or fuzzy in this Windows package -- just industrial-strength chess coaching and a database of more than 50,000 games played by the masters.
If there's a Trekkie on your Christmas list, "Star Trek Deep Space Nine" from Viacom NewMedia will put him in the role of a Tirrion envoy matching wits with assassins, strange aliens and other forces of evil out on the edge of the Gamma Quadrant.
This DOS-based package offers a good combination of strategy and arcade action.
For really serious fans, "Star Trek Klingon" from Simon & Schuster instructs the faithful in the ways of the wrinkly warrior clan with a three-CD Windows package that includes an audio Klingon language lab.
And if that isn't enough, give your favorite nerd the "Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction," a Windows-based reference with more than 4,500 entries covering the genre from Jules Verne to the Blob and beyond.
For those who take their gratuitous violence straight up, with no redeeming social value, there's plenty of new action on tap from some old favorites.
Check out network and multiplayer enhancements for Activision's "Mech Warrior 2," the king of high-tech, 30th-century war games, and Interplay's new "Descent II," sequel to the best-selling, gut-wrenching underground battle-scape.
Pub Date: 12/01/96