Spring cleaning yields buried treasures

Computing - April 2005


Jane Huth


A few things had fallen behind my desk; others were buried under piles or hidden in drawers when I started my spring cleaning recently. Fortunately, I am a pack rat, so nothing is ever truly “lost” in my house, just misfiled.

Here are some computer programs I found amid the dust—buried treasures I’d overlooked, but not forgotten.

FIRST WORDZ, $19.99, www.firstwordz.com; all ages.

I was confused by this program at first. I thought it was a way to record your child’s voice and keep it on the computer. Big deal. But the real beauty of First Wordz—ignore the cute spelling—is that it’s an amazingly simple way to send audio e-mails to practically anybody. Just install the program, plug in the microphone (flimsy plastic that won’t last long in my house), record and send.

My kids love singing and chatting into the microphone, then hearing their voices play from the computer’s speakers. And their grandparents are ecstatic about receiving e-mails of the moments they miss living so far away. The program records up to 60 seconds of child’s chatter—plenty, if you ask me. Unlike a phone call, the sound bite can be replayed and stored on your computer. On my dial-up connection, downloads can be fairly slow, but they don’t take as long as photos or video clips.

One fault with the program is that you have to be near the computer to record those special moments, most of which occur elsewhere. And the included microphone isn’t very sensitive, meaning you have to speak loudly, though this wasn’t a problem for my kids. Sure, the telephone is interactive, but for harried parents, this is an easy way to keep far-flung relatives abreast of their child’s verbal developments. It’s easy to use, and my kids really love it.

First Wordz also includes a dopey video of toddlers saying things like, “I love you, Mommy” or “Good morning.” It’s supposed to help children learn words, but I’d skip it.

MAGICALSKETCH 2, $20, www.curiouslabs.com; ages 8 and up.

The budding cartoonist in your family will have a lot of fun with this program, which allows kids to draw 2-D images and transform them into 3-D. Once kids learn the basics, it’s easy to create cartoon figures or anything else you want. I drew an image of my new kitchen table, then flipped it around and re-drew it until I got the proportions just right.

Although adults may have fun playing with the program, it’s designed for kids to draw freehand figures they can puff out into 3-D. My son likes creating monsters, so he was able to draw scary creatures from all sides, including front, back, top and bottom. It took a while for him to figure out how to use the program, so kids will need an adult to explain the various tools to them. I still have trouble with the “extrusion” tool, although I got the “mirror” tool immediately. There are no rulers, so you can’t draw straight lines to exact dimensions. It’s literally for sketching, then playing with the images.

One plus for my son is that by watching MagicalSketch 2 create 3-D images from his 2-D drawings, he figured out how to use shading to add bulk to his pen-and-paper drawings. My son likes to plunge in and play with a new program, but this one has a few tricky aspects, so it’s important to watch the tutorial videos—buried on the CD—before trying the program. It will make this clever, fun program more useful and entertaining. MADDEN NFL 2005, $19.99, www.compusa.com; ages 12 and up.

I’m not going to pretend to know a thing about football, but I still think this is a great game. For football fans, that is. If your child knows what “in-zone coverage” and “pump fakes” are, then this is the game for her. OK, more likely, him. The graphics are fabulous—I can figure that much out—and the rest of it looks pretty authentic.

Players pick a team—in my case the Bears, the only team I’m slightly acquainted with—uniforms and a stadium. Next, they make some choices I couldn’t for the life of me figure out. I did enjoy the practice game, complete with cheering crowds, sickening thuds as players are tackled and droning commentary I didn’t understand. You really need a game pad, which I don’t have, so I had to spend my practice time learning which letters on the keyboard do what. That caused me to miss half of the plays. Whatever. This game is a best-seller for adults and kids, so if you have a football fan in your house, I’m pretty sure she will like it. Now I’ll go back to my knitting.

FIFA SOCCER 2005, $19.95, www.eagames.com; ages 12 and up.

I know a little more about soccer than I do football, so I enjoyed this game immensely. Without a game pad it was a challenge to learn the fairly arcane keyboard substitutes for the more intuitive game-pad controls. However, I managed to kick, pass and score a few goals with a keyboard the first time I played. With more practice I did even better. If I had endless hours to keep at it, I’d quite likely become addicted.

Younger kids can just play games and enjoy themselves; older kids and adults can play more sophisticated games, challenging better teams as they improve their skills and strategies. They also can challenge the best players online, but I didn’t try that since I’m still at the beginner level. The action moves at about the same pace as a real game on a soccer field, which I found enjoyable. Kids addicted to action games may find the pace too slow, but I thought it was just right. 

Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a second-grader, a kindergartner and a newborn.

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