For a sure-fire winner, put a CD-ROM under the tree


November 29, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

If there's a computer user in your house, or your whole household uses the computer, you'll never have to worry about finding the perfect Christmas gift. There's a program or gadget out there for everyone.

One of the neat things about writing a computer column is that I get to try out a lot of them, and as the holidays approach I like to share my favorites. Some of these are new and state of the art, and some are old stand-bys. On the gadget front, my first recommendation is that you treat yourself and your computer to a multimedia upgrade, if you don't already have one. This is a pretty big gift, but it's worth it. A multimedia kit consists of a CD-ROM drive and a sound board for IBM-compatibles and a CD-ROM alone for Apple Macintosh computers, which come factory-equipped with sound capabilities.

A CD-ROM drive (short for Compact Disk-Read Only Memory) uses the same kind of CD you use in your home stereo. But computer CDs store vast amounts of programming, data, graphics, sound and video clips. Freed from the storage constraints of standard hard disks, software publishers have produced a virtual explosion of CD-ROM titles ranging from full encyclopedias to national phone books to interactive video dating games.

A sound board complements the CD-ROM by giving your computer the ability to play back sound, voice and music, bringing a new dimension to entertainment and educational software. The better boards even let you give your computer voice commands, although this end of it is still pretty crude.

If you already have a sound board, you can add a CD-ROM and vice versa. Good sound boards are available for $100 to $200, while CD-ROM drives run anywhere between $200 and $500. If you don't have either, I recommend buying one of the many multimedia kits on the market today. These packages include the drive, the sound board, a set of inexpensive speakers and a handful of CD-ROM titles. Buying a kit also eliminates the hassle of getting your sound board and drive to work together.

Make sure the CD-ROM that comes with the package is a new "double-speed" drive. These are much faster than earlier models. Also make sure the sound board is compatible with Creative Labs' Sound Blaster card, the closest thing to an industry standard. A label that the kit is MPC2 compatible is a sign that the hardware is of the latest design.

Multimedia kits

Two popular kits on the market that fit this bill are Creative Labs' Discover CD 16 Upgrade Kit and Media Vision's Fusion DoubleCD 16. Both are available for less than $500. More money can buy you a faster CD-ROM drive and a better sound board, but either of these will do the trick. If you have a Mac, CD-ROM drives start at about $300.

A word of caution here. If you have an IBM-compatible computer, you'll have to open up your PC to install these items. If you're squeamish about this, buy them from a computer dealer with a competent service department and pay him whatever he wants to do the job. It can save you a lot of hassle.

The neat stuff

Now for the neat stuff you can do with a multimedia system.

On the serious end, CD-ROMs put an incredible array of reference tools at your disposal. One of the best new packages I've seen combines the CD-ROM version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary with the hardbound version for an

introductory price of only $100, which is about what you'd pay for the book alone. It may also set the record for the heaviest software package ever sold.

The CD-ROM contains Windows, DOS and Macintosh software. The dictionary program is easy to use and lets you search for words even if you don't know exactly how to spell them.

The most spectacular CD-ROM applications, from an reference point of view, are electronic encyclopedias. These include not only text, but also photos, drawings, maps, sound recordings, animations and in some cases, video clips of famous people and events.

The search software makes finding the information you need a snap, even across multiple encyclopedia entries, and the programs turn looking up cross-referenced articles from a chore into a single mouse click.

The three best-known volumes are Compton's Newmedia Encyclopedia, Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia and Microsoft Encarta. They're aimed at slightly different age levels and each has its advantages. Although Encarta is the flashiest, my kids have tried all three and generally prefer Grolier's for finding information quickly. But publishers are constantly updating their software, so I suggest you try before you buy. Prices are also fluctuating rapidly, so look around.

CD-ROMs have also spawned a whole genre of imaginative, specialty reference works.

For music lovers

For music lovers, Microsoft's Multimedia Beethoven (and Mozart and Stravinsky) bring each composer's music to life, with well done performances, full scores, part-by-part analyses, and biographical data. For CD or tape buyers, Selectware's All-Music Guide contains more than 200,000 reviews of all types of music.

If you're a movie buff looking for something interesting to rent for the weekend, Paramount's MovieSelect will interview you and draw up a list of recommendations or let you browse through thousands of descriptions by star, director or genre. Microsoft's Cinemania contains thousands of reviews from major publications, plus hundreds of stills and dialogue clips. For connoisseurs of the low-brow, Medio's bizarre Midnight Movie Madness contains full-motion video clips from 100 of the world's greatest drive-in movie classic.

You can find complete atlases, references such as the CIA-KGB World Fact Book, the Guinness Book of Records, a variety of Bibles, photos of the Great Masters, and literally hundreds of other kinds of works on CD-ROM.


(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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