August 8, 1997

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August 1997 -- Magazine Review

Back-to-School Guide


Chemistry without tears

Most of us would rather explain the income tax code than decipher the chemical compounds on a shampoo label. Luckily, there's ActivChemistry (Four Stars/7.0; $19.95 list price), a collaboration of Salamander Interactive and Addison-Wesley (415/854-0300, Taking a multimedia approach to first-year chemistry, ActivChemistry turns you loose in an interactive lab, complete with unbreakable glassware and harmless Bunsen burners. There's just enough sound and motion to lend realism to your experiments without indulging in flashy effects. And ActivChemistry doesn't ignore the importance of solving numerical problems--something that tends to derail students early in the course. It does require instructors to generate course-specific directions, but it's still a bargain compared with the price of a college textbook.--C.S.

American Heritage Talking Dictionary

A pronounced success

Pronunciations can be subtle, what with unspoken letters, words that ought to sound alike but often enough don't, and the potpourri of words that come to us from other tongues. What's a young one or nonnative English speaker to do? If you don't know your schwa from your umlaut, the American Heritage Talking Dictionary (Three Stars/6.9; $39.95 list price) from SoftKey (617/494-1200, can sound it out for you. Nearly 200,000 words are defined; recorded linguists pronounce 72,000. An Alternate Spellings feature helps you find words you're unsure how to spell; you can also search using wild cards and by partial definition; and parents and teachers can block preselected words. The 1.5-million-word thesaurus seems incomplete (no listings for boat or auto?), and the soupçon of videos are a curious selection, but it's far simpler to listen to linguists' pronunciations than to decipher those crazy symbols.--P.M.K.

Body Voyage

A 3-D tour of the human body

For a surgeon's-eye view of the human body without the expense of medical school, check out Body Voyage (Four Stars/7.1; $39.95 list price) from Time Warner Electronic Publishing (310/581-5818, This CD-ROM offers a chillingly realistic look at the human anatomy. Four navigation tools let you rotate a cadaver and peel away a layer at a time, view the body in cross section, see 3-D movies that show dissolving muscle and bone, and take an animated trip through the skeleton. Body Voyage is easy to use, and the text and narrations explain what you're looking at and how it was created. The interface is a bit stylized for my taste, but its dark motif complements the subject matter nicely.--F.T.

Britannica CD 97

Classic Reference Work on CD-ROM

It's been said that Encyclopedia Britannica condenses all of human knowledge into 32 volumes. Amazingly, Britannica CD 97 (Four Stars/7.7; $150 list price) from Encyclopedia Britannica (800/747-8503, squeezes the whole works--supplemented with 2000 additional articles--onto a single CD-ROM. With Netscape Navigator included as a front end, reading the Britannica CD is much like surfing the Web. Britannica CD's two search modes, Boolean and natural language, are fast and clear advances over the print edition, but they could be improved. The countless links to related articles and index entries are definitely a plus. Britannica CD also contains Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and a direct Internet link to Britannica Online (for $50 per year), with its latest updates and a substantial list of related Web sites. No flashy movies or sound files (yet); just the world's best encyclopedia at an incredibly low price.--R.C.E.

Math Advantage

Good Things Come in Large Packages

Math Advantage (Four Stars/7.5; $39.99 list price) goes beyond the simple textbook-on-a-disc style of most study-review CDs. This self-paced set from Aces Research (510/683-8855, includes a workbook and five math-topic CDs: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and beginning calculus. A built-in quiz rearranger helps students avoid the tedium of identical, textbook-based test pages click after click. If you perform well enough on the quizzes, you're rewarded with an online puzzle before heading back to work. The CD's well-explained material goes far beyond the basic "SAT warm-up" algebra and geometry topics covered in most other high-school math programs, giving stronger students a head start on important college courses. Math Advantage can boost math confidence and SAT math scores.--C.S.

Arthur's Reading Race

We All Read For Ice Cream

Although their parents worry about sibling rivalry, children often find it amusing. Arthur and his precocious sister, D.W., compete for the limelight in Arthur's Reading Race (Three Stars/6.9; $30 street price), a new addition to Broderbund Software's (415/382-4400, popular Living Books series. Children work their way through different scenes on Arthur and D.W.'s trip to the ice cream store, playing games that help them match words with their corresponding pictures (they can also watch and listen as the scenes unfold automatically). My five-year-old's reading skills showed no measurable improvement--he worked his way through most scenes by trial and error, pointing and clicking without using any spelling or reading skills. Even so, he and his two-year-old sister were endlessly amused by the animations. I suppose it's a testament to Arthur's entertainment value that they spent hours jostling for the control of the mouse like good sibling rivals.--A.M.

Easy Grade Pro 3.0

Making the Grade, Easier

Many programs help teachers with the tedious and demanding tasks of recording, compiling, analyzing, charting, and reporting grades and attendance. Easy Grade Pro (Four Stars/8.9; $49 list price) from Orbis Software (206/848-6899) is a relative newcomer, but its intelligent design has catapulted this Mac-only program to the head of the class. A busy teacher can keep all classes for a year in a single grade-book file, saving hours of opening and closing when compiling information on individual students. What's more, Easy Grade Pro is generally more forgiving of human errors than other grade programs. If you miss a single score while entering a column of figures, you can easily insert the missing score without retyping the others. More important, the program allows you to undo almost anything. Easy Grade Pro is sure to become the pet program of every Mac-savvy teacher.--S. and G.B.

ClarisWorks for Kids

You'll Wish You Were Young Again

ClarisWorks may soon become a lifetime companion when ClarisWorks for Kids (not rated; $49 expected list price) from Claris (408/987-7000, is released later this summer. I got a peek at a beta version, and it should become as popular among the elementary set as its older sibling is with teenagers and adults. A simplified interface gives kids Art Pads for painting and drawing, Writing Pads for word processing, Graphing Pads for spreadsheets, and List Pads for databases. All controls give audible feedback, and the program can speak each menu choice and dialog box, so prereading kids aren't left out. Activities templates take you through fun tasks such as creating a school newsletter, building people out of body parts, and graphing baseball scores. After dragging clip art of astronauts onto a moon-base scene (and adding some dinosaurs and a pepperoni pizza for effect) my eight-year-old son delivered his verdict: "This is totally neato!" Dad thinks so, too.--T.N. and S.S.

Mario Teaches Typing 2

Lackluster Games aren't the Worst of It

Mario Teaches Typing 2 (Two Stars/4.1; $29.95 street price) strives to offer "a fun and innovative approach to learning essential typing skills" for ages 6 to 101, but Brainstorm's (714/553-9557, arcade-style animations clog the life out of this tutorial. Few teenagers or adults will enjoy Mario's goofy "games" (you can't lose if you make too many errors--Mario, Luigi, and the Princess just stand still until you hit the next correct key), and the CD doesn't provide enough background information for younger typists. It took me several false starts before I realized what was required in the Evaluation Test, and Mario teaches typewriter-style typing--with two spaces after a period--as opposed to computer keyboarding, where you properly use a single space after closing punctuation. Even its graphics aren't an improvement on the old Donkey Kong arcade games. If you want to learn typing, take a semester course at school or check out Mindscape's (415/897-9900, superior product, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.--S.C.

Preschool Mother Goose

Nursery Rhymes Tutor the Wee Ones

Counting the animals for the Farmer in the Dell, reading along with Little Miss Muffet, and helping an orchestra play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"; those are some of our favorite things to do with Preschool Mother Goose (Three Stars/6.7; $39.95 list price) from Piranha Interactive Publishing (602/491-0500, Elyse especially likes the music; she knows the words to all the songs. Michael prefers the Find Me activity because he gets to play detective and hunt for the hidden items in the farmyard. At the ripe old age of almost six we're getting a little old for nursery rhymes, so we lent the CD to our neighbor Joshua for an expert preschooler's opinion. He loved it--especially the counting and color games--and his mom didn't have to help him once the CD was set up. We told him he had to give it back soon, though, because the two-year-old twins, Colin and Emily, like watching us use it, especially when it plays the "Barney" song (even though Mom calls it "This Old Man").--E. and M.S.

Perseus 2.0

Virtual Tour of Ancient Greece

If all roads lead to Rome, then all digital highways lead to ancient Greece--or more precisely, to Perseus 2.0 (Four Stars/7.2; $350 list price) from Yale University Press (800/987-7323, Archaeologically, Perseus encompasses vases, coins, sculpture, architecture, and excavation sites, all fully explained and exhaustively indexed. Literarily, Perseus packs two-thirds of all surviving Greek literature--with English translations, happily--onto its four CD-ROMs, along with a Greek-English dictionary and lexicon, a historical overview, an interactive atlas, an encyclopedia, a bibliography, biographies, essays, and more. You may be overwhelmed by the mind-expanding wealth of tools and links, confused by the old-fashioned HyperCard interface, and annoyed by the minor bugs, but if you have an interest in ancient Greece--and a little perseverance--you'll find Perseus endlessly fascinating. (And if you're willing to forgo the majority of the photos, you can pick up the concise edition for only $150.)--R.C.E.

Interactive Geography

A Whole-earth CD

You can't avoid learning when you use Interactive Geography (Four Stars/7.5; $45 list price) from Pierian Spring Software's (503/222-2044, Odyssey of Discovery series: each task's screen requires that you learn the material presented--such as identifying the prime meridian or finding a certain continental plate--before moving on. The 20-plus learning segments include an overview of the topic, visual and audio instruction, a skills test, and an interactive activity. Though Interactive Geography is simple to navigate, visually pleasing, and comprehensive--including enough material for a whole semester of learning--it is best used in conjunction with other Pierian Spring titles. Continent Explorer II, for example, adds a powerful teacher database to track students' scores on skill segments, and a virtual movie theater to catalog and play QuickTime movies.--A.D.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain Goes Digital in Style

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Four Stars/7.1; $34.95 list price) from Southern Star Interactive (212/473-1175, puts Mark Twain's seminal novel of mid-nineteenth-century America on CD with original illustrations. Additionally, the text is annotated with a seven-minute narrated documentary demonstrating the arc of the Mississippi River's influence on American society, a timeline of Samuel Clemens's life, and an easy-to-access timeline showing concurrent events. Video clips of literary critic Richard Bucci give context to the book and its characters, and links to Southern Star's Web page are easy to follow. Scholars can create a slide presentation for show-and-tell, and a savvy guide for writing critical essays is general enough to be an aid for all studies, not just this book. The product's clunky, PC-centric setup routine is annoying, and its glossary explains only some of the vernacular, but overall this product is excellent.--H.B.

Ultimate Writing and Creativity Center

Avoid the Agony of Writer's Block

Ultimate Writing and Creativity Center (Three Stars/5.6; $34.95 list price), from The Learning Company (617/494-1200, offers an easy way for six- to ten-year-olds to come up with good writing ideas. Kid-friendly animations draw you into four Idea Lands full of good suggestions for those times when your mind goes blank. You might be able to improve your writing after hearing it read aloud by the text-to-speech feature, but the goofy voice makes everything you write sound like a joke. After you finish writing, a simple page-layout tool helps you add pictures, animations, sounds, and music to your documents. If your child is used to Broderbund's Kid Pix, the drawing tools will seem weak, and you may be frustrated that you can't resize the program's huge graphics. This product also assumes that kids use only one program at a time: it doesn't support the Mac OS's Application menu for program switching. Even with its glitches, though, it helps get those creative juices flowing.--N.P.

The Wonders of Rocks and Minerals

Rock-solid Earth Science Lessons

Your kids will have rocks in their heads after spending time with The Wonders of Rocks and Minerals (Three Stars/6.9; $59 list price) from Tasa Graphic Arts (505/293-2727, This CD supplements classroom studies of minerals; the rock-formation cycle; and igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. Each section ends with review questions in which buzzers and bells let students know when they give wrong or right answers, and the Rock Review Challenge motivates students to test their skills in the field. The CD provides rock-identification exercises (useful for teachers), a glossary of terms, and a database of more than 50 minerals. Virtual hands-on lessons--animations, rotatable 3-D models of atoms and crystals, and an interactive lab--make it fun to review the various concepts. You learn to determine a rock's luster, hardness, and specific gravity--all the clues good rock hounds need to start identifying mystery rocks in their own backyard.--K.U.

Macworld's back-to-school-guide contributors are: Howard Baldwin, Susan and George Beekman, Suzanne Courteau, Andrea Dudrow, Robert C. Eckhardt, Paul-Michael King, Adrian Mello, Tom Negrino and Sean Smith, Nate Piller, Charles Seiter, Elyse and Michael Sutherland, Franklin Tessler, and Katherine Ulrich.

August 1997 page: 82

Copyright © 1997 Macworld Communications, Inc.

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