Computers: Fun and facts to while away summer: School is out, but rain has stopped play. David Hewson checks out CD-rom software to keep the family occupied

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are reading this over a cappuccino in Chiantishire - enjoy. If you are holed up west of Calais with surly children quarantined by a summer drizzle, here is what you do.

One: join the CD-rom generation, preferably with a drive attached to an Apple Macintosh; two: invest in some CD-rom infotainment software; three: sit back and imagine you are in Chiantishire with a cappuccino.

It is only in the last six months that CD-rom technology - compact disks imprinted with computer readable information - has become part of mainstream personal computing. A CD-rom drive, to read the disks, is becoming a standard feature, but they can be added to existing Mac systems easily, and to PC-compatible systems with a bit of commitment.

There are now more than 800 Mac CD titles, covering everything from US government minutiae to big, roaming graphics games. A growing section of the market is made up of titles that could be bought for use by the family over the 'summer' holidays.

We set out on our disk quest with four criteria. Games, pure and simple, were out, though titles which combined fun with entertainment were high on our target list. We wanted titles that could be used for part of the time without adult supervision by primary school children. And we set two quality standards by which disks would be judged.

One was 'stickwithability': will anyone want to use it tomorrow? The second was: does it do anything you cannot get from a book? The surprise winner of the stickwithability prize by several lengths - I feel lucky to have got near enough to the Mac to write this piece - was Cosmic Osmo.

I say surprise, because this appears to be a modest little black and white click-and-find adventure in which you pursue the eponymous alien through interlinked worlds. Once you get used to the monochrome cartoons, Osmo becomes remarkably addictive, an enormous, multi-dimensional puzzle which never looks the same way twice.

Educational? Well, there are a lot of logic games in there if you can find them, even a working old-fashioned typewriter. You do not learn anything, except to be curious and our test guinea pigs, aged five and seven, stayed curious hour after hour, day after day. Osmo always leaves you feeling you have not quite seen everything, a good pointer of quality in CD titles.

We all felt the same way about the other obvious hit, The Animals, made in collaboration with the San Diego Zoo. It is based around a central 'map' of the zoo which lets you explore connected animals and their habitats through articles, sound, photographs and video clips. Just as in a proper zoo, there is a kids corner, with stories, quizzes and activities to be pursued at home. The lazy can just take the guided bus tour through different parts of the world, or you can go direct to any animal or habitat that interests you. The Animals worked both as simple 'ah, look at that' children's entertainment and as a useful zoology reference tool, too, and was far and away the best use of the CD medium we found.

Reference works are obvious titles for CD-rom. Grolier's is one of the oldest in the medium and available both for PCs and Mac. It combines sound, pictures and text from 21 volumes of the American book original. Searching for a subject is a dream - you type in up to four keywords and a list of related entries appears in a couple of seconds. The retrieval system was rapidly mastered by our seven-year-old who flipped through endless bird calls and different musical instruments.

Grolier's is very American, however, and expensive (pounds 249 at list price), though I have seen it on sale for as little as pounds 79 if you shop around. Interactive stories were one of the earliest forms of CD software. The basic idea is that the user clicks his or her way through the text, finding surprises in the pictures, listening to the words which are read back from the screen.

The two leading companies are Broderbund and Discis, which have a wide range of titles, priced about pounds 30. Broderbund's Granma and Me is adored by everyone who reads it. Discis tends to concentrate on less frivolous titles; its Cinderella is aimed at six years up and throws in some tough, long words. Readers are encouraged to explore by clicking on new words and listening to an explanation.

The disappointments? There were quite a few really. The overall quality of CD titles is very variable and some are of little use at all. Aesopolis (pounds 65), a quick run through Aesop's Fables, was boring and failed the 'why is it better than a book test?' The Multimedia Guinness Book of Records was full of interesting information and video footage, but very fiddly to use.

Whale of a Tale (pounds 59.97) was a cute little fairy story about a curious whale called Ernest botched together with pages of text, pictures and sound about the Great War and early American music; not a natural fit. And the prequel to Cosmo, a disk called The Manhole was rather thin on content compared with complexities of the same company's current offering.

After two weeks of close encounters with the world of Mac CD-rom we came away with some strong impressions about the CD titles currently available. A number are greatly overpriced for the average home user. This is also, clearly, a new and developing communications medium - the newer the title, the better it is likely to be.

When it works, CD works beautifully. The Animals and all the Broderbund and Discis titles are visually attractive, a delight to use, cleverly constructed and possess some real house style. But too many CD 'books' are cobbled together with no real underlying structure, so all that wealth of CD information becomes garbled, prolix and hard to assimilate.

For the time being, buy cautiously and try to get a preview before you part with your cash.

Vital Statistics

Cosmic Osmo (Activision, pounds 47)

The Animals (Mindscape, pounds 58.75)

Grolier's (Mindscape pounds 292.50)

Granma and Me (Broderbund, pounds 40)

Cinderella (Discis, pounds 38.75)

Aesopolis (QL Technologies pounds 76),

Guinness Book of Records (Mindscape pounds 60)

Whale of a Tale (Texas Cavier pounds 70)

The Manhole (Activision pounds 27)

(List prices, including VAT, for Mac versions)

The main CD-rom software distributors are:

KimTec (0202 888873)

Optech (0252 714340).

Both have catalogues of titles. Check for current prices .

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing

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