If you have a computer user or two in your house, you won't have to worry about finding Christmas presents this year.
There's a software package out there for everyone. In fact, one company executive I chatted with last week told me that educational titles alone are appearing at the rate of 250 per month.
Parents, naturally, want to buy their kids educational programs to justify spending a couple of grand on that fancy hardware, while kids would rather use that fancy hardware to play games. Fortunately, it's possible to entertain yourself and learn something at the same time, no matter what your age.
Here are some examples to consider as stocking stuffers.
For originality, entertainment and hours of delightful I-didn't-know-that discovery, look at The CD-ROM Cartoon History of the Universe from Putnam New Media.
Available in Windows and Macintosh formats, the two-disk program is based on Larry Gonick's irreverent, entertaining and informative comic book history, spiced with animations, games and puzzles. Labeled as Volumes 1 through 7, it covers everything from the Big Bang to the Golden Age of Athens.
This isn't watered-down kid's stuff. The program is recommended for ages 10 and up, and a lot of the material is definitely on the high-school to adult level. That doesn't mean younger children won't enjoy it, because your host, a ditzy little professor who rides around in a helicopter, reads every panel aloud, and there are 2,000 animations, 7,000 sound effects and 350 pieces of music to keep youngsters interested.
You can travel through history using The Professor's time machine, by looking up topics in an index, and through adventures based on artifacts in the professor's study. For example, you can wander through the Tomb of Cheops, solving puzzles along the way, reconstruct buildings on the Acropolis and battle the Minotaur in a mystifying maze.
The only down side is that you'll need some horsepower to run The History of the Universe at acceptable speed -- a 486SX or better with eight megabytes of memory is recommended. The program will also claim about 12 megabytes of hard disk space. But it's worth the investment.
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Its animations, graphics, sound and wealth of accessible information are prime examples of what multimedia is all about.
For information, contact Putnam New Media, 11490 Commerce Park Drive, Reston, Va. 22091.
Tie-ins between computer software, movies and TV shows are really hot this year. One of the most complex examples is Broderbund's Carmen Sandiego series. These perennial best-selling educational games offer painless lessons in geography, culture and history as they pit your youngster and the Acme Detective Agency against the evil Carmen and her gang of international thieves and vile henchmen.
While TV shows and movies have spun off computer games for years, Carmen was the first computer program to spin off its own TV cartoon series for kids. Now Broderbund has borrowed new characters from the show to create Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego: Junior Detective Edition on CD-ROM.
Designed for younger children (5 through 8) than the original series, Carmen Jr. doesn't require that youngsters look up clues in an atlas, dictionary or encyclopedia. Instead, it teaches its own lessons in geography and culture as youngsters put together a picture puzzle of the thief they're pursuing around the world.
There's a whole new set of humorous villains, including Anita Dayoff, Jim Shorts, Hardly Worthit and Hugh Stink; the heroes of the TV show, Zack and Ivy, and a crew of delightfully inept photographers.
The graphics, animation and sound are excellent. Better yet, this version runs under Microsoft Windows, which means there are virtually no installation hassles. And unlike many other CD-ROM games, this one doesn't make great demands on hard disk space -- a mere 500K.
Younger game players will undoubtedly enjoy this one, particularly if they've seen the TV show. In a few years they'll be ready to move up to Carmen Sr.
For information, contact Broderbund Software, 500 Redwood Blvd., Novato, Calif. 94948.
If you have a history or Civil War buff in the house, Swfte's Gettysburg CD-ROM will provide hours of pleasurable what-iffing.
With a narration by historian Shelby Foote, Gettysburg is a twofer of sorts that runs under Microsoft Windows. There's a simulator that lets you re-create the famous Civil War battle as it was fought -- or as you'd like to fight it. There are also dozens of integrated clips from the Ted Turner production of Gettysburg, a movie that stunned audiences last year with its four-hour length, epic battle scenes, phony facial hair and its ability to get terrible performances from fine actors.