June 1996

Cyber News and Reviews is a monthly column published for parents, teachers & business owners featuring kids educational software reviews, business software reviews (small business & home business), games and entertainment articles, a free resource since 1995.


More Great Educational Software Titles and Internet Phone

In May, I reviewed some of the best educational software titles available to parents and children. This month, I continue my educational software coverage, but with more in-depth reviews. Also included is a review of Internet Phone, from VocalTec Inc. This product really works well for making free long distance calls over the Internet.

Disney's Animated StoryBook: Toy Story

This is an excellent CD-ROM educational game based on the animated move: Toy Story. You and your kids will meet those lovable characters like Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang animated by PIXAR Animation Studios. Not only does the CD follow the Toy Story story, but it offers fifteen interactive story screens with lots of games and activities, great animation, music and sound effects. Words are highlighted as they're read by Ham, the pink piggy bank, and can be repeated individually, or read from beginning to end by a click of the mouse button.

Each page offers surprises when clicking on characters or screen objects. Disney's educational goals include building reading and vocabulary skills and exercising concentration, strategic thinking and problem solving. So far, this is Disney's best CD-ROM title, and should win an award for excellence in animation, designed for kids ages 3 to 9. It works on either a 486-DX 33MHz or faster IBM compatible computer, or an Apple Macintosh with a 68040 or faster processor, both with at least 8 megabytes of RAM.

Installation on my IBM compatible didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked. Toy Story installed successfully, but the animations wouldn't work correctly. Fortunately, Disney provides an 800 number for free technical support, and after a few minutes of instruction from the technician in California, I had the software working well. Their detailed, 32-page instruction manual helped, but talking to the technician made the difference. The problem was with my computer, and not the software.

Disney has a great guarantee: if you're not satisfied with the software, you can return it for a complete refund. My daughter, Sarah (who is now 5), loves everything Disney, and especially Toy Story. Once I got the software working properly, Sarah took over spending the next two hours with her animated friends Woody and Buzz at the computer (holding her talking Woody doll while playing the game). I was standing by, taking notes, and to help if problems appeared, but the software continued working well.

Disney Interactive (in California) may be contacted at 1-800-688-1520, or visit your local computer software dealer.

JumpStart Educational Series from Knowledge Adventure

Bill Gross, Chairman of Knowledge Adventure, had a good idea when he decided to start his educational software company in 1991. He wanted to offer CD-ROM titles that would, in his words, "amaze and delight both you and your children." Although I've only seen a few of the JumpStart CDs, I am pleased with the quality and content. But, I'm not really the person who needs persuading, it's my 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, who rates the educational software around our house. And so far, Sarah loves what Know ledge Adventure has to offer.

JumpStart Preschool

Not only is JumpStart Preschool entertaining, it offers a long list of educational goals for children ages 2 to 4. They'll be exposed to letters, numbers, shapes, colors, differences, sequencing, counting, quantities, spatial relations, music, vocabulary, phonics and more, with games, puzzles and lots of play areas. One entertaining example is their sequencing screen where connecting dots in a numerical order transforms the finished picture into an animation. The colors screen is similar, asking the child to match letters to colors and place them in the correct area of the picture. When completed, the picture is animated. The CD is packed with animations, music and sound effects that will definitely keep your child interested and entertained.

The only prerequisite to using JumpStart Preschool is that your child learn to use the mouse. I'm not sure that every two-year-old can learn to use the mouse, but if they can, they'll certainly benefit from this software. In my case, Sarah was three-years-old when she mastered the mouse. Prior to that, she would could only press a key on the keyboard. Before you buy this title, make sure that your child can press and click the mouse button, and drag objects. Those functions must be learned before they'll benefit from interactive educational titles like the JumpStart series.

JumpStart Preschool will run on any 486SX-25 MHz or faster IBM compatible multimedia computer with 4 megabytes of RAM and Apple Macintosh with a 68040 processor or faster, multimedia computer with 8 megabytes of RAM. Both computers require double-speed CD-ROM drives.

JumpStart Toddlers

JumpStart Toddlers is another excellent game in the JumpStart series. It's designed for kids ages 18-months to 3 years and offers lots of activities and educational goals. They'll learn beginning vocabulary, mouse control, songs and rhymes, musical instruments, keyboard control, visual differences, sound changes, letters, numbers, shapes and colors. There's lots to do, even for the preschooler, but I'm not sure that all kids in the specified age range will benefit. My 18-month-old daughter, Becky, can't control the mouse, even after a frustrating session on the subject. She just wants to touch or bang the keyboard. And her first attempt at the mouse was to try to eat it.

This CD is definitely not for all toddlers. Although some of the activities can be sequenced through by randomly pressing a key on the keyboard, the software eventually prompts for the mouse. I'm sure some younger toddlers (at or around 18-months) can be taught to use the mouse, but I doubt that all kids can master important mouse actions like clicking and dragging objects, which is required for feeding the cute doggie. My daughter, Sarah, learned the mouse at the age of three, but didn't have the hand-eye coordination at an earlier age, though she spent lots of time at the computer watching.

JumpStart Toddlers is an excellent CD-ROM game for kids, toddlers and older, but you may not want to buy this software if your toddler hasn't mastered the mouse. It's definitely recommended if you have older kids who will also benefit from this CD (Sarah, loves this CD, even though she's almost 5). If you do buy this title for your 18-month old, be prepared to spend lots of time working the activities on your own with your child on your lap. Kids learn by observation, and at the very least, they'll enjoy watching you access the delightful graphics, entertaining music, sounds and animation.

JumpStart Toddlers will work on any 486DX-33MHz or faster IBM compatible multimedia computer with 8 megabytes of RAM and an Apple Macintosh with a 68040 or faster processor and 8 megabytes of RAM. Both computers require double-speed CD-ROM drives.

For more information about Knowledge Adventure products, call (818) 246-4400, or visit your local computer software dealer.

Big Job from Discovery Channel Multimedia

Big Job is an educational CD about trucks, from Discovery Channel Multimedia, for kids ages 4 through 8. Girls and boys will find this interactive CD game fun and educational with construction, farming and fire rescue adventures, which includes a driving simulation, easy enough for any child to learn and control. It's designed to work on any 486-25 MHz IBM compatible or multimedia Macintosh (Performa, Centris, Quadra or Power Macintosh), with at least 4 megabytes of RAM, and a double-speed CD-ROM drive.

From the Clubhouse, your child will have a choice of several games and activities, including the three driving adventures: Farming, Fire Rescue and Construction. Each adventure includes seven movies and two activities, with trading cards and achievement certificates that can be printed. Although, trucks are traditionally for boys, my daughter, Sarah, enjoyed this CD. After a few minutes of steering instructions (which required pointing the mouse on the road, to move left or right), she was driving the rig like the big boys. It didn't hold her attention like some of the other CDs with popular characters like Pocahontas or Winnie the Pooh, but at the age of 5, she hasn't had much driving experience, so it was understandable that a driving simulation would take some getting used to.

Driving isn't the only fun activity that Big Job offers. It has music videos, a demolition derby game, construction activities (build a city, farm, construction site, use a wrecking ball or design and build a truck). And if you have any trouble along the way, CHIPP, the talking computer guide will help.

Big Job is a fun CD with lot of activities including, what may be, your child's first driving experience, plus information on three important occupations. If you don't mind your child taking to the road, then this is a great game to buy. For more information, contact Discovery Channel Multimedia at (301) 986-0444, or visit your local computer software dealer.

Internet Phone Version 3.1 from VocalTec Inc.

The Internet will revolutionize the telephone communications industry with the introduction of software like Internet Phone from VocalTec, available for both IBM compatibles and the Power Macintosh. It allows you to talk to people, by voice, all across the world, for just the cost of a local phone call. All you need is a multimedia computer (with a microphone) and a fairly fast connection to the Internet (14,400 baud or higher), and you'll be talking to your friends across the U.S. or anywhere in the world, for free, except for the one-time software cost of around $69.95. You must be connected to the Internet through an Internet provider, not through commercial services like CompuServe, America Online or Prodigy. And that shouldn't present a problem because the commercial services are usually $2 an hour for online time, while the Internet providers have a set monthly fee, usually starting at $19.95 for a minimum of 100 hours, and many are unlimited.

Once online, you run Internet Phone, and then connect to one of several VocalTec computer servers to talk to other Internet Phone users online at that time, and it's all free. For now, your conversations are limited to half duplex, much like a speakerphone where one person talks while the other party listens. It's similar to the way you use a walkie-talkie. When you're finished talking, you say "over" to inform the listener to start talking. It can take some getting used to, but it isn't a problem, especially when the phone call is free. Telephone systems are full duplex, because both people can speak at the same time. Full-duplex operation is available with Internet Phone, but for now, most people can't use it because it requires a special sound card.

The software is supplied on one floppy diskette with a 24-page instruction manual that clearly details installation and use. Before you can use Internet Phone, it must be registered with a code entered from the first page of the manual. Then you're ready to go. Or, you can download a workable demo version from VocalTec, limited to 60 seconds of conversation. It's good enough to get the idea, and if you have a use for it, you can register online and pay only $49.95. They'll e-mail you the registration code, and you'll have a completely working version.

I was really impressed after my first conversation with another Internet Phone user from Arizona (using my 28,800 baud modem). It was just as clear any regular telephone conversation, except it would have been a toll call from Michigan. I also talked with someone from California that same day, and the sound quality was great. When I last connected, I talked with Bruce from Costa Rica (in Central America) who was running the Macintosh version. Although at times he sounded a bit scratchy, the overall sound quality was good, and I understood every word. And he said I was coming in very clearly.

Next, I talked with Roger from Spain and Patrick from Holland. You will be amazed to hear that I had a 20-minute conversation with each, and for the most part, the sound quality was acceptable, but scratchy. A few times I had to ask them to repeat because the sound was cut off or choppy. Each 20-minute connection would have cost a minimum of $20 over standard phone lines.

I've been talking with a friend in Colorado, over regular phone lines, at least twice a week, spending $25 to $35, speaking only at night when the rates are low. When he finally gets his Internet connection, we'll certainly be using Internet Phone. The cost of Internet Phone can easily be recovered in a month or less and that's if your calls are within the United States. If you're talking to people in Europe or other spots around the world, you could recover the cost in just one or two calls. I'm sure the long distance telephone companies are now aware of software like Internet Phone, and are beginning to worry about future loss of profits.

If you have friends or relatives in other parts of the country, or across the globe, who also have Internet access, this is a must-have product. For more information about Internet Phone, call VocalTec (in New Jersey) at (201) 768-9400, or visit your local computer software dealer.