Computers: Surrealist puzzle to brighten up Christmas: David Hewson savours a seasonal feast of CD-Rom offerings for the Apple Macintosh

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The Independent Online
Apple Macintosh owners should feel justifiably superior this Christmas. We already possess what the PC herd is now shelling out hundreds of pounds for - multimedia-ready computers that can handle the sound and graphics of CD-Rom without the nightmare of installing new boards and software.

The Mac has fewer titles available than for PC-compatibles, but they are generally of much higher quality and reliability. Even those which appear on both formats are almost invariably superior on the Mac since, unlike the PC, the computer was designed to handle graphics and sound from the start.

So what do you buy to brighten up your first Christmas with a CD- Rom drive? Top of the list must be Myst, the new title from the team behind Cosmic Osmo, the thought- provoking, if monochrome, interactive cartoon that was one of the first Mac CD titles. Myst's first pressing in November sold out in a matter of days, both in the US and Britain.

Myst is a surrealistic Gothic puzzle which seems to have been scripted by Peake and designed by Escher. It treads perilously close to being pretentious and doubtless some will think it crosses the line. Visually, it is astonishing, a universe of bizarre worlds that falls just short of outright fantasy. Conventional rules of geometry and commonsense are left behind as you explore each nook and cranny looking for 'the answer' - if there is one. It is also exceedingly hard work.

The package comes with a notebook in which you need to write obscure clues, a sealed envelope containing three tips for when you get stuck and an offer for a book containing hints, strategies and maps. Myst is part animated movie, part mind-game and part something entirely new and is going to take huge chunks of obsessive time out of the Christmas - and I say this as someone who hates computer games.

Another Mac exclusive comes from the unlikely stable of Microsoft - the main publisher of PC software - with Isaac Asimov's The Ultimate Robot. Asimov fans are going to weep with joy and there is quite a lot there for normal human beings too: clips from great robot movies like 2001, A Space Odyssey, video interviews with the late great one, an explanation of the principles and practicalities of robotics, text of all Asimov's robot stories and an engaging little animated robot construction set.

Microsoft have a growing range of classy CD titles for both Mac and PC. Musical Instruments, Dinosaurs and Art Gallery - the latter an interactive art collection from the National Gallery - are electronic books with excellent graphics and sound; you can see and read about an enormous range of subjects, from the pedal guitar to a pterodactyl. The style is much like the Dorling Kindersley illustrated books so popular at the moment - which is hardly surprising since Microsoft own a big chunk of Dorling and use their material.

Just Grandma and Me is probably the CD title - on both Mac and PC - that most people remember, an amusing kid's talking book with cartoon-like characters. Some of the other titles released since by the publisher, Broderbund's Living Books, have been markedly less successful, but they are back on form with the new, currently Mac-only, The Tortoise and the Hare. This is firmly in the Grandma and Me style, with lots of hidden cartoons in every page and a funny storyline.

Myst apart, the fashionable CD for the Mac owner over the next few months is going to be Peter Gabriel's Xplora 1. This includes music and videos from Gabriel's US album, a book by him about multimedia, various home movies and assorted ephemera such as clips and sounds about musical instruments from around the world. The disk remains under wraps, however, so I can only pass on an informed opinion that it will be either truly wonderful or truly awful.

When they say video, of course, they mean Mac video, which is a grainy colour image the size of a small envelope with audio and moving images that fail to sync. This is better than most of the so-called 'video' on the PC, but still somewhat short of the quality the Sony generation should expect.

Until we get true television-quality definition on a personal computer, publishers ought to stick with stills and computer graphics, or, like Myst, use the graininess of the image as a feature in its own right. Still, the Mac will put on a show better than any other computer on the market this Christmas.

Apple Macintosh CD-roms

The Ultimate Robot: Microsoft titles are available from retailers, dealers and by mail order. Expect to pay under pounds 50 each including VAT.

Myst; Tortoise and the Hare; Xplora 1: Softline (081 401 1234); pounds 40 each including VAT.

(Photograph omitted)

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