September 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.


Blaster and JumpStart Educational CDs plus VideoPhone and QuickCam from Connectix

The Blaster Series from Davidson & Associates, Inc.

Kids and parents who love space exploration will find the Blaster educational series, from Davidson & Associates, not only fun, but beneficial. My daughter Sarah, who is 5-years-old, has been using Math Blaster Jr. and Reading Blaster Jr. for just three weeks, with great results. In fact, I noticed a definite improvement in her reading skills only after a week playing Reading Blaster Jr.

The Blasters will run on any 486/33 MHz or faster IBM compatible multimedia computer with 8 megabytes of RAM and Apple Macintosh with a 68040 processor or faster, multimedia computer with 12 megabytes of RAM. Both computers require double-speed CD-ROM drives.

Math Blaster Jr.

Enter the world of Davidson's Blasters aboard the Blaster Ship with Kid Blasternaut and the Blaster Pals. Here, your children (ages 4 through 7) will learn math essentials on a journey through the galaxy of numbers, geometric shapes and colors, with sounds, songs, jokes and lots of math activities.

After your child signs in, by clicking on the letters to his or her name, one of two playing modes can be selected: Mission Mode or Free Play. In Mission Mode, visit four planets, and complete an assignment on each. Medals and certificates are awarded as the mission progresses. Free play allows the child to select any planet and activity available.

At the main cabin, you'll find the activities available with a click of the mouse while you hear the Blaster theme song, reminiscent of the Herman's Hermits or the Bee Gees, two popular sixties singing groups (and believe me, you'll be singing along after hearing the tune a few times). To visit a planet, click on the Navigation Map, check medals and certificates earned by clicking the Awards Case, click on Ship Tour for activities information, click the Interstellar Radio buttons for math songs, and more.

Of course, every activity, song or game teaches math in a way that promotes learning. For example, your kids will be beaming down to the planet Toetall to learn estimation by guessing the correct number of eggs in a container displayed. Addition and subtraction are also available in different levels of play. Counting is taught on the planet Countalonia, where the Pesters have stolen colored jewels. Your goal is to retrieve the correct number and color of jewels by whacking the Pesters with a hammer.

Reading Blaster Jr.

Similar in design to Math Blaster Jr. and with the same cast of characters, Reading Blaster Jr. will teach your children (ages 4 to 7) to read using phonics. Kids will travel through outer space filled with sounds, words, sentences and stories. Each space mission helps children build the phonic skills needed for reading. Your kids will learn to sound out words, recognize words by sight, use a dictionary and even write letters and stories. And it works, because Sarah can now read and write simple letters, something she couldn't do before Reading Blaster Jr. arrived for review.

Once you sign in and select the playing mode (either Mission Mode or Free Play), you'll enter the Blaster Ship and of course hear that catchy Blaster tune that sounds like rock and roll music from the sixties. Here, you'll find several hot spots on the screen. Click on E-mail to communicate with your galactic pals, click within the Navigation Map to visit a planet, click on one of four Interstellar Radio buttons for a song, click on the Talking Dictionary for over 200 words, and that's not all. There's Commander Fishburn, your galactic guide, who'll help you along the way.

The activities use phonics to teach reading. The Toy Station will sound out words generated with the help of the child. The first letter is given, and the second two are generated by clicking on Whirly, the Spin Head. You click the bell if you think the letters make a real word. Planet of Lost Things gives the first letter of an object along with the sound, and asks you to click on the object that matches.

The most amusing game, at least for me, is Word Builder. It teaches reading using a television game show format. Ben the Bug is the host, who says "I'm thinking of a word," as three pictures are displayed below him. Then he offers a clue. When you click on the correct picture, Ben says, in the typical game show host retort, with game show music playing, "You guessed my word. Congratulations." After correctly guessing the word, you have to spell it. If you get stuck, click on Ben for another clue. As you click each letter to spell the word, it's sounded out. I'm not sure if Sarah is as amused as I am with Word Builder because she doesn't watch game shows (we watch mainly Barney and The Magic School Bus).

Math Blaster Jr. and Reading Blaster Jr. are entertaining as well as educational and I highly recommend them. Sarah can really read, and we owe it all to Reading Blaster Jr. and her interest in computers. For more information, call Davidson & Associates at 1-800-545-7677.

JumpStart Kindergarten and JumpStart 1st Grade from Knowledge Adventure

Bill Gross, Chairman of Knowledge Adventure, continues to amaze and delight everyone who uses his JumpStart series of educational CDs with his latest titles: JumpStart Kindergarten (for ages 4 to 6) and JumpStart 1st Grade (for ages 5 to 7). I'm pleased to report that my 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, has rated these two CDs on par with her other two JumpStart favorites, JumpStart Preschool and JumpStart Toddlers. In fact, she likes them so much that she reads the boxes when she's not at the computer.

JumpStart Kindergarten

Sarah was excited to see JumpStart Kindergarten arrive because she will be starting kindergarten this year. It couldn't hurt get a head start on her first full year in school, and have lots of fun doing it. This CD offers 16 games and puzzles that teach more than two dozen important skills covering pre-reading, early math, language and creative arts, with graphics, animation, sound effects and some catchy tunes you won't forget.

At the main menu, Kindergarten offers a virtual classroom for learning and playing. It offers 17 activities from the classroom screen, including an important feature for the parent: the Progress Report. The activities include the Pattern Blaster Game, the Coloring Book, Stacking Dolls Game, Count with Mice, kindergarten songs, Hamster Hide and Seek, just to mention a few. After your child has been playing for a while, you can ask to borrow the computer to find how he or she is doing on the activities performed. Clicking on the wall, to the left of the garden door, will access the Progress Report. I found Sarah doing very well on more than half of the skills tracked including ABC order, rhymes, numbers, sorting by size and basic shapes.

Sarah has her favorite activities in any CD we test, and although I try to direct her to all activities available, she'll quickly find the coloring book, if it's offered. And Kindergarten has one with several options. Before starting to paint, the child has to find the picture that doesn't belong. Also, an excellent option allows you to take a picture outside in the picnic area, and then with a click of the mouse, it takes you and the picture into the coloring book. Your pictures and paintings can be saved to disk and printed.

The garden offers outdoor learning with two games that Sarah loved: the Harvesting Game and the Watering Game. With the Watering Game, the rabbit, Mr. Hopsalot, plants seeds in a pattern your child must try to guess. You won't forget the catchy Blue Grass music that's playing while the rabbit is planting. When his planting is done, and the plants are full grown, he asks you to click on the plant that would grow next. It may not be easy for a kindergarten kid to follow, but with some guidance, they'll catch on.

If your child is just starting kindergarten, then JumpStart Kindergarten is the CD to buy. It will keep your child thinking and learning for hours at a time. You may have to ask to use the computer, if necessary. Fortunately, these CDs work on both IBM compatible and Macintosh, so when I need the IBM, Sarah takes the JumpStart CD over to the Mac and continues.

JumpStart 1st Grade

Just when Sarah was getting used to JumpStart Kindergarten, I installed JumpStart 1st Grade so she could see what school would be like a year from now. At first, Sarah had problems with some of the activities because they were too advanced for her. But with my help, we got through them.

1st Grade offers three main screens with a more than twenty activities accessible by a click of the mouse. From the classroom screen, you'll find the library of storybooks, a memory game, a time game, songs on the radio, and more. From the lunch room screen, there's the vending machine game, the cash register game, the pizza picker game and the vegetable song. And finally, the playground screen has the math marbles game, the milk cap game and an object finding activity. There's also a Progress Report where you can track how your child is doing on the activities performed. 1st Grade also offers a level adjustment feature, allowing you to increase or decrease the difficulty of many of the activities.

Of course, Sarah found the coloring book, which has several options. It offers six coloring scenes (with related stickers) to add to the picture, including the Jungle scene, Under the Sea, Land of Dinosaurs, Haunted Castles, Outer Space and My Town. For example, with My Town (looking similar to Sim City without animation) you can add cars, houses, people, businesses and more. The color palette offers a number of colors, and includes colors made from a combination of two. For the color orange, you'll find red and yellow next to each other, and orange just ahead.

If your child likes to read, then you'll find eight books with narrated stories and animation, offering hours and hours of learning. You can click on Mother Goose Rhymes, A Hog and a Frog On a Jog, A Bedtime Story, The Candy Machine, The Lark in the Park, A Pretty Planet, The Teddy Bear Tea and The Grandfather Clock. Each offers several stories, with a single animation per page.

As an incentive to learning, JumpStart 1st Grade offers Milk Caps as a reward for playing games and answering questions correctly. When Sarah is playing, I know when she's been awarded another Milk Cap because she gets excited. Milk Caps are awarded for Reading, Math, Time and Nature.

Once you try a JumpStart CD, I'm sure you'll continue moving up in the series as your child advances. My daughter, who is now entering kindergarten, is doing great with JumpStart 1st Grade. Knowledge Adventure products will run on any IBM compatible or Apple Macintosh computer with multimedia capabilities. For more information, call 1-800-542-4240, or visit your local computer software dealer.

VideoPhone and QuickCam from Connectix

If you want an inexpensive way to get into video conferencing on the Internet or a network, for business or personal use, then Connectix has the solution for under $160 (street price). The kit includes the QuickCam black and white digital camera (a 2 1/2" diameter sphere on a small pedestal base, resolution: 320 x 240 pixels) and their VideoPhone software with user manuals and diskettes, for either IBM compatibles (Windows) or Macintosh computers. Video conferencing in the Internet requires a 28.8k baud modem or faster connection. Also, VideoPhone with a color QuickCam (resolution: 640 x 480 pixels) is available for under $280.

QuickCam does not require a video capture board, but connects directly to your computer through the keyboard and printer port to capture video. Once connected and the software installed, you'll be capturing live video in no time, ready to send and receive video and audio to anyone in the world over the Internet.

VideoPhone is easy to use. Just connect to your network or the Internet, and enter the name and address of the person you want to communicate with. Then, press the Call button, and you're on the way a point-to-pint conference with video and audio. The audio is dependent on your computer's sound card. You can speak as if you were talking on the telephone if your card is full duplex. If it's half duplex, only one person can speak at a time. Also, VideoPhone isn't the only software included. Connectix includes QuickPict for taking still pictures and QuickMovie for recording videos. And both work very well. QuickPict captures photos at three resolutions: 320 x 240, 160 x 120 and 80 x 60 pixels. QuickMovie takes videos at up to 15 frames per second.

VideoPhone offers a unique feature: VideoMail, for sending and receiving video e-mail. If you can't connect in real time, you can communicate using VideoMail. Just record a video, with audio, and just mail it over the Internet sending it to the recipient's e-mail address. Because videos use lots of memory, the file will be large. So, it's a good idea to tell the person that a large file is being sent, before you send it.

QuickCam may also be used with other applications like Enhanced CU-SeeMe from White Pine Software. In fact, I tested the QuickCam with CU-SeeMe and it works great. You can connect directly to a user for private video conferencing, or to a 'reflector' for group conferencing. When on a reflector, I've been told that my video is very clear. If you're using another type of video conferencing software, and don't require VideoPhone, the QuickCam can be purchased separately for around $90.

I recommend VideoPhone for its quality and price. For more information, contact Connectix Corporation at 1-800-950-5880, or see your local computer dealer.

Companies Mentioned

Connectix Corporation
2655 Campus Drive
San Mateo, CA 94403
(415) 571-5100

Davidson & Associates, Inc.
P.O. Box 2961
Torrance, CA 90509
Phone: 1-800-545-7677

Knowledge Adventure
1311 Grand Central Ave.
Glendale, CA 91201
Phone: 1--800-545-7677

White Pine Software, Inc.
40 Simon Street
Nashua, NH 03060-9050
(603) 886-9050