Stuck for ideas for Christmas stockings? Roger Frost dodged trade show arcades to bring you a selection and sampled a catalogue on CD-Rom for more suggestions
If you want to see really new computer software you have to visit a trade show. The annual BETT show in January is for teachers, while autumn's ECTS is for the home market. ECTS is a place for great discoveries, though it is also the place for arcade games, which dominate the scene at Olympia.
As you search for things educational, you get used to dodging bullet noises. You even feel guilty for asking for the clever stuff. "Got something for the little kids?" you ask. "Yes mate, wanna come round the back?" But persistence pays as this year we have seen Microsoft's Barney and Lego's "intelligent brick" - both smart, new directions in home education. Another offering, Creatures 2 (Pounds 40, Mindscape) is even smarter than its million selling original. It puts you in a working fantasy world and lets you hatch creatures from eggs, nurture them into adults ready to breed the next generation.
Not only do the tiny creatures learn, but their hearts beat too. A miniature computer teaches them feelings while you teach them who you are and what is what. You type them words and they use speech bubbles to reply, ask for food and so on.
Search and you will find a gene-splicing machine with digital DNA, so you can play with the gene pool as the creatures reproduce. You have to protect them from hazards and diseased creatures, though they do eventually die. To avert problems, there is a medical kit. You can monitor their breathing and check if they are eating enough.
All around is cartoon scenery, with varying weather and seasons. Plants grow, insects breed, fish swim and can even be caught for food. You reward compliance by tickling a nose, though you can also give them a smack. Doing so teaches the creatures to hit each other - so there is some moral here. Produced by Cyber-media, based in Cambridge, it almost seems educational. It lasts ages, making it good value for home but less feasible for school.
Lego too has been building virtual worlds after last year's Lego Island game (age 6-12, Pounds 30) offered a fully explorable world of bricks. Now there is a heap of titles, including Lego Loco (age 6-plus, Pounds 25) featuring a train set with an infinite amount of track, roads, trees and buildings. Cars buzz around and crash, trains stop at stations, passengers appear, walk around and change trains. There are many things to discover as you click the mouse.
A useful feature for school networks is that you can split the layout between computers and then watch the train travel between screens. What is more, you can make postcard messages which the mail train delivers to other stations, to people on the network or to other Loco users on the Internet.
Two more new Lego titles are Creator (age 8-plus, Pounds 35) and Chess (age 6-12, Pounds 30). Creator is a construction set where you can make jeeps that move and helicopters that fly. You build a Lego landscape, go inside buildings and things come to life. You can also film the action and print instructions for models that you have created.
Chess is fun too, hilarious even, as Lego pirates and wild west characters battle it out when a piece is taken. There is a tutorial to introduce the game to children and a bank robbery story where the chess game affects how the story unfolds.
earning to touch-type is a modern new year's resolution and software can help. The latest Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (for adults) has encouragement, background music and games to help you put off the moment when you regress to two fingers. It adapts to your strengths, offers exercises with poetry and makes a computer a teacher.
Even so, I went for the jungle fun in Disney's Adventures in Typing with Timon and Pumbaa (age 7-plus, Pounds 30). Here the characters from Disney's Lion King teach finger placement in sips, exercise them up to speed and encourage you all the way. Between bouts of stretching tiny fingers, there are games where you hit the right keys as Pumbaa slurps up bugs or Timon works a water pump.
The more topical title is Mulan Story Studio (age 5-9, Pounds 35), which features Eddie Murphy as a puny dragon. Helping to dry the tears after Disney's cartoon, it mixes his antics with a read-along tale and a karaoke sing-along. There are games, including a real Mah-Jong and a logic puzzle where you hit the right gongs to wake Mulan's ancestors. Add a feature that prints costumes to dress a paper doll and you have a measure of a quality title.
Also worth looking for is Disney Maths Quest, which won the British Interactive Multimedia Award for home learning earlier this year.
All titles are Mac and PC compatible except Creatures and Lego (PC only). Titles can be bought at a 10 per cent discount fromKidzone mail order. Catalogue onCD-Rom from Kidzone, Coppins House, Park Horsley, Leatherhead, Surrey KT24 5RZ.Tel 01483 284576. Fax 01483 285082.