The magic of computers is in how software turns a machine into anything. One moment it's a typewriter and the next it's a calculator - turning it into a Christmas present ought to be easy. Take the idea of giving a pet for Xmas - it needs thinking through until you meet Dogz and Catz, virtual pets that live on the screen. You feed and water them, brush and tickle them, and give them toys to amuse them.
Dogz (any age, Pounds 20, for PC) can learn tricks, fetch a ball and will bite the mouse pointer if a stranger, without the password, uses the computer. Each day these credible home or classroom creatures grow into contented pets. Since they appeared last year, this year's versions let you pick up new breeds from the Internet and set them to play or scrap with your pet. For children that won't take "no" for an answer, could this be a parent's escape?
In Lego Island (6-12, Pounds 30, for PC) the virtual bit is a Lego landscape you can explore infinitely. Lego characters help you to get around, as you mess with the scenery - and say, turn trees into lamp-posts. There's a challenging game to catch a villain intent on pulling the island apart and you can build a car, jet-ski or helicopter to race round the island on. Like real Lego, it adds up to weeks of play that is anything but mindless. It's remarkable and hard to follow.
The people at Disney have been at this for a few years now. Their Hercules Action Game is a fast, problem-solving, platform-style game. Children take Hercules the hero through a 3-D landscape, chopping down obstacles, lifting boulders and using their intuition - like catching Pegasus for a ride to get about. A mere game it may be, the quality animation and 3D sounds that fade as you walk past are a treat (age 6-12, Windows 95, Pounds 40).
Computers are excellent for making things with a printer. They let you draw and make cards, banners, party invitations - so much that every home should have one. There are plenty of packages to choose from and this year's offerings outshine any seen before. Disney's Magic Artist (Windows 95Mac, for ages 4-14, Pounds 39.99) is a painting program that reminds of Br?derbund's Kid Pix with its wacky art effects and sounds. The Disney offering surpasses the competition in that the crayons, chalk, and felt-tips not only look and sound real but textured backgrounds show their grain as you draw over them.
It's great too that overpainting makes new colours just as it ought, while drawing with toothpaste and whipped cream is pure fun. Younger kids will find hundreds of stickers (Donald Duck, Mickey, Goofy) and drop these into a choice of scenery - they can then turn these into a slide show. Capable children will like the drawing lessons which show how each Disney character is put together - otherwise this is easy and even worth looking at for school.
For teens and adults, Micrografx Windows Draw Print Studio (for PC Pounds 49) is a choice creativity package. It takes you step-by-step through making calendars, signs, brochures and newsletters. To make these it helps you scan photographs, choose from thousands of pictures supplied and add stunning 3-D text effects. If you want to make Internet pages, it takes you through doing some very smart effects. Extremely good value for money, it will be used all through the year.
You don't know Jack (adult, for PCMac, Pounds 29) comes with warnings about bad language and mature content not to take lightly. It's also a fast, intelligent and very funny quiz game. The questions are cryptic - for example "Is a Friesian a cow or a pat?"; "Is a postman a cow or a pat?".
Getting a wrong answer incurs personal abuse from narrator Paul Kaye (aka Dennis Pennis). In fact, he says things that teachers might want to say when children get things wrong in class. It's young, vulgar and drunken dinner-party culture that teachers obviously have little to do with, so be warned.
Turning a computer into an encyclopedia is probably more in character. What's more, today's software - including Microsoft's Encarta '98, or World Atlas '98 - is astounding and just the thing you're expected to have in your head or at least at home. The only warning is put aside time when you look up facts - there's much here to attract (11-plus for PC, Pounds 40). For those with less cash, or with less important relatives, software publishers have re-released golden oldies at prices between Pounds 10-Pounds 20. For example, you'll find Dorling Kindersley's Human Body, or The Way things work at Pounds 15, while Maris' Redshift now sells at Pounds 10.
All titles are CD-Roms, prices include VAT. Available from stores and mail order outlets.
* Other good titles: National Geographic Swinging Safari - creativity, fun and facts about animals in Africa. Ages 8-12 for PCMac. Price Pounds 30 * BBC Alive and Kicking Show Maker - on screen creativity for Saturdaymorning telly addicts and aspiring TV producers. Ages 6-12 for PCMac. Price Pounds 30.
* Dorling Kindersley's Children's Encyclopedia - a fun approach to looking upthings and exploring information. Entries are also read aloud. Age 7-12 for PC. Pounds 30