- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

With its cool name and slick lime green and punk pink colors, the Nitro Web Notebook (VTech, ages 5 to 8, $49.99 includes three AA batteries) packs 70 skill- and curriculum-building activities into one neat package.

The Nitro is styled to look like just like an older brother or sister’s laptop. Flip open the cover and find a standard qwerty keyboard, arrow functions and a tethered mouse and cursor pad.

That’s where the similarity ends as the Nitro Web Notebook is basically a game device that also allows mom and dad, or the advanced computer-using kid, to download additional games and functions from a Web site.

The device uses eight category/zone buttons that explore curriculum-based subjects such as foreign languages, language, art, math and social studies.

Zones include the Motor Skills Center, where children can practice typing skills or play games to practice keyboard functionality, such as pressing arrow and enter keys to shoot basketballs or traversing a maze using the arrow keys. The Logic and Memory Plaza challenges players’ decision-making skills, while the Fine Arts Park brings out the musician in the child.

When in Fine Arts Park, press keys to change the musical instrument being heard from piano to trumpet to flute to clarinet to accordion. A tempo key lets composers adjust the beat, and a rest key allows musicians to insert a rest stop into their composition.

It was lots of fun for my testers, and mom and dad will be glad the Nitro comes with volume control as the little maestro conducts her orchestra.

Many games can be played in one- or two-player mode and always start on the easy setting. Players can choose a more difficult level if it is too simple. The Nitro tracks players’ progress, increasing game difficulty as skills improve.

To give those eyes and fingers a break, there is an automatic musical interlude for children to sit back and take a breath after playing any five games in a row.

The VTech Nitro Web, as a standalone product offers plenty of playability, but there are a few troubling spots. The screen, at less than 3 inches wide, is ridiculously small and difficult to see, and is made more visually uncomfortable by the lack of a back light to illuminate the pixilated, gray-scale images.

The smallest of hand-held gaming systems these days employs incredible graphics. The Nitro Web is the size of a small laptop, so I don’t understand why VTech does not offer a larger screen for its rather hefty price point.

Additionally, the Nitro Web does not come with a charge adapter (sold separately, $10.99); so keep a stash of AA batteries handy.

It does have the mouse and UBS cable to connect to an external computer and the VTech Planet Web site where more games and features can be enjoyed.

VTech Planet is a nice add-on and is accessible only when the Nitro is connected. The games there are significantly more fun; they’re displayed in bright colors on an external monitor and in multilevel challenges. Children create an avatar and can explore the extremely robust environment.

A parent can download additional games from the VTech Planet site to the Nitro Web Notebook. They also can keep track of their children’s progress and achievements.

It should be noted that VTech Planet is not an open, chat-based environment, so children are safe while there, although their avatars can greet and have minimal conversations.

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 [email protected]

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