Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kids' Electronics

Turning red and green (with envy) for the holidays

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

December 12, 1996 -- For my 29th birthday (yes, [Image]
my first 29th) I took a trip to a couple of toy
stores. My mission was twofold: First, I needed to do
some research for my next column and second, I wanted to
feel like I'm still a kid, keeping in touch with my
"inner child," as some might put it.

With my consumerism-loathing, "all things corporate are
evil" boyfriend in tow I scoured the aisles, taking
notes, playing with samples and shoving little tykes out
of our way. (It was my birthday, after all.) The day
started out fairly well. I saw lots of the products I
already knew about from press releases and trade shows,
but soon I became overwhelmed. The shelves in the
Toys-R-Us electronics section started looking like an
endless collection of dream-gadgets. My boyfriend and I
darted out suddenly -- me in a fit of jealousy (where was
all this stuff when I was a kid?), and he to escape the
ordeal of spending so much time next to in-store
point-of-purchase displays. After the hyperventilation
subsided I faced the fact that I'm a year older and yes,
kids today have got it good. Well, the rich kids do, that
is. This stuff is not cheap.

The big stars of electronic products for kids continue to
be the gaming systems. Leading the pack are the Sega
Saturn, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64, each for about
$200. I tried to get in a game with everyone's favorite
Italian-American, Super Mario, but the toy store crowd
was so fierce that I had to give up. If your kid's
already got a gaming system and there's no way you're
shelling out the dough for a new one, there are dozens of
new control pads, steering wheels and joysticks that can
enhance his mastery of the digital competition.

If you'd like your child to learn a little more than mere
eye-hand coordination, there are lots of electronic
learning aids (ELAs) for kids aged 2-1/2 to about 12.
Most have LCD screens and keyboards that fold up,
laptop-style, to get children used to the look and feel
of a computer. VTech makes many of the talking ELAs and
has vastly improved the quality of the synthesized voices
since I first started reviewing them six years ago --
when many sounded about as clear as the school teacher
from Peanuts. Products like PC Fun and Alphabet Desk
start out with basic activities like teaching letters,
numbers and phonics, while more advanced ones like the
Talking Whiz Kid series come with computer-like mice and
activities that teach geometry, music, science, geography
and algebra.

If your kids have access to a computer with a CD-ROM
drive, then you'll be better off with software that
covers the learning activities you're looking for. The
advanced color graphics and high-quality sound you get
through your computer will make the ELAs look really lame
in comparison. Kids software has been around for a while,
but it's only recently that manufacturers have started
tailoring computer hardware to fit children's needs.

Compaq and Fisher Price have teamed up to offer the
Wonder Tools Keyboard and Cruiser, two products that
replace your keyboard and mouse (each one sells for under
$150 and is recommended for ages 3 and up). The keyboard
features big buttons, a touchpad and thoughtful details
like vowel keys that are color-coded to distinguish them
from other letters. The Wonder Tools Cruiser is a
super-friendly interface that allows kids to navigate
through special software (CD-ROM for Windows 95 and 3.1)
by using a steering wheel, horn, throttle, play phone,
number pad and joystick. Products like these help make
the computer seem less like a daunting putty-colored
grown-up machine and a lot more like something that's fun
to use.

Virtual sketchpads like the Sega Pico and the Sony
HB-A5300 ($99, pictured under "see photo") let kids
create drawings on the family TV screen using a pen-like
stylus on a special surface. Nothing on a screen is as
good as a tangible paper-and-crayon drawing that can be
added to the refrigerator art gallery, but both
electronic units let kids edit their drawings on-screen,
and the Sega model has animation capabilities.

Play telephones have always been popular, and today
they're a lot more satisfying than tin cans on a string.
The V-link portable communications system for ages 7 and
up gets kids hooked on cell phones early. Shaped and
styled like a real flip-phone with a keypad and LCD
screen, it works like a sophisticated walkie-talkie with
a range of about three blocks. Three-digit codes can be
programmed in to act like telephone numbers so kids can
dial between phones, and it even has a voice-mail
feature.

The store shelves have some new toys for the young
paparazzi in your life. The Tyco Videocam for about 100
bucks needs to be hooked up to your VCR in order to run.
In other words, it's basically a camcorder without the
"corder" part that works by sending black-and-white video
signals to your VCR for live recording. I'm sure it's
pretty cool at first, but just how many videotapes of the
living room can your kids make? Unless you feel like
toting your VCR all around the house, it'll get boring
mighty quickly.

One camera toy that gives kids the freedom and autonomy
lacking in the Videocam is the Fisher Price Creative
Effects Instant Camera (about $55). The digital black &
white image is fairly crude, but your kid has total
control over everything, including the printing. The
picture shoots out of the camera like a Polaroid, and you
can buy special paper to output pictures onto pre-printed
backgrounds or greeting cards.

I survived my day in the toy stores (which is more than I
can say for the bank accounts of the parents I saw there)
and lived to subject my boyfriend to a late showing of
101 Dalmatians as my final birthday wish. Even in my old
age I love looking at kid stuff, but if you see my mom,
please tell her that this is not a hint.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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