Once upon a time, the best portable learning device was a textbook, but in today's world of plugged-in students, technology offers so much more. Take the case of LeapFrog's latest palm-held device, the Crammer($59.99, requires three AAA batteries and an Internet connection).
Don't get caught up in the terrible name. This unit offers a proactive way for students 8 to 14 years old to quickly access more than 16,000 questions on math, science, language arts and social studies, culled from actual quiz curriculums.
It's lightweight and uses an 81 MHz processor, 2.5-inch-wide gray-scale screen and 1 gigabyte of onboard Flash memory.
Students click through the eight-icon navigation menu using a pair of buttons and a plastic screen that tilts when pressed. The method is a bit clunky and takes a while to get used to; I would have preferred a real touch-screen option with stylus.
The key to the system is content downloads requiring use of a PC or Mac and the LeapPad Connect software interface. A quick installation on the computer with the Crammer attached via a USB cable leads to the ability to create flashcards and download those precious quizzes.
The connection can be a bit tricky because the Crammer often dropped out of sync with the computer, resulting in confusing error messages. My suggestion is always make sure to eject the unit using the LeapPad Connect option, even if it looks as if it has been disconnected.
Developing flashcards is painless, using forms and drop-down computer menus. Students enter a topic name and compose a question and answer that will flip when the student tries it. Additionally, those taking Spanish can easily translate words, often with an audio pronunciation included, in a flashcard series. Let's hope more languages will be available soon.
The quiz portion is even easier. Just pick from a mind-numbing selection of detailed topics, ranging from data analysis and probability to world history and grammar usage, then hit the download button.
Quiz packs loaded to the Crammer are a fantastic mix of dozens of multiple choice and true/false questions that include a hint on each and two difficulty levels. The system keeps tracks of wrong answers to redo the quiz and statistics to help a student improve.
Let me state for the record, the quizzes are challenging. Try nuclear chemistry and exploration in the Americas to see what I mean.
Crammer is billed as a "study and sound system" with definite appeal for the multitasking student in the family. As a student, I would have appreciated the Crammer for its music playing options — I always found blasting multiple media sources helpful when studying. The system conveniently plays (only through headphones) about 10 hours of tunes (with an obligatory shuffle function) while junior attacks the questions. MP3 songs are painlessly loaded via the LeapPad Connect interface right from a user's computer.
The Crammer's functionality also is extended with two onboard games to cool the brain down. The first, Domino Madness, mixes Tetris with tile matching. As the dominoes fall, players must maneuver the pieces so sides with the same number of dots line up so they can be removed from the board.
Wheeler Dealer is a bit more complex. It tests entrepreneurial skills as junior business folk manage a scooter rental shop, working their way from employee to tycoon. The action requires setting a balance sheet to determine how many scooters to put out, how much to charge for a rental, etc., watching fortunes rise and fall over a 30-day span.
Crammer's glaring miscue is with the monochrome screen that lacks backlighting. That is not the future of edutainment, and I can't see any tween or young teen jumping aboard the Crammer bandwagon if any of his peers own an iPhone, Nintendo DS or Sony PlayStation Portable.
Despite that, the price and educational content are major pluses and the combination makes for a potent package for the motivated student.
Here's an abbreviated look at some spooky multimedia titles for the entire family just in time for Halloween:
• The Last Guy (for PlayStation 3, Sony Computer Entertainment America, $9.99)-A new twist to the sci-fi survival horror genre of gaming replaces the usually graphic violence with a set of puzzle mazes featuring plodding zombies and human-consuming creatures.
In this addicting downloadable PlayStation Network title, Earth is bombarded with a mysterious purple ray, turning anyone caught outdoors into the mindless monsters we love so much.
Over-the-top — in perspective and anxiety levels — the action has the player control a caped soldier from the Unified Rescue Force. He must carefully search 15 locations around the world and find survivors, leading them to clearly marked pickup zones.
Each time-sensitive mission's objective requires saving a certain number of humans hiding in buildings, garages and shrubbery while avoiding giant bugs, massive scorpions and 10 types of zombies.
As humans are found, they form a sort of panicked conga line behind the hero as he maneuvers them to the rescue spot.
The clever design uses real aerial photography maps of such famed locales as San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, the National Mall and London's Trafalgar Square, mixed with the ant-sized populace and larger bad guys.
The game also features some strange music, screams from the distressed survivors, powerups such as time freezes and invisibility and the chance to find special citizens to help boost point totals.
Especially high-scoring players not only get their numbers prominently posted on the PS Network, but also can unlock additional levels.
• Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy (HER Interactive, for PC, $19.99) - The famed sleuth's virtual adventures have consistently been a hit with the casual gaming crowd, especially girls, and the latest edition should be no exception. This time out, the heroine confronts some of the spookier elements of folklore while find a missing groom.
Nancy is maid of honor at the wedding of pal Kyler Mallory at a creepy Irish castle, setting sets the stage for some creepy happenings involving a banshee.
Through first- and third-person perspectives, the player points and clicks through three-dimensional environments as she gathers and manages clues, interrogates suspects, deciphers puzzles and solves the mystery.
The well-rounded experience mixes traditional puzzles such as tile sliding, matching and spot the difference with activities such as sheep shearing, printing wedding programs, mixing drinks and even using a jetpack.
Compared with Nancy's latest DS adventure, this game packs a much better presentational punch with vibrant animated characters and scenes, full lip syncing, photo realistic environment exploration, eerie sound effects and macabre music.
Two difficulty levels and plenty of hints bought from a fortunetelling machine (collect coins when playing games such as darts) help beginners enjoy the mystery.
The addition of learning a bit about Ireland and topics such as the zodiac constellations make the game an ideal choice for not just Nancy Drew fans but tweens looking for an intelligent adventure.
• Joseph Szadkowski's ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.