THE BAT 2.0, RitLabs
If your day starts and ends with e-mail, The Bat may be the program for you. A longtime cult favorite, this shareware application recently received a major update that makes it a serious rival to Qualcomm's Eudora (reviewed in this space last week) for high-volume correspondence. It now supports the increasingly popular IMAP mail-access protocol, as well as the older POP system, and it can both compose and display Web-formatted mail. It also works better with Pretty Good Privacy encryption and supports spam-filtering plug-ins; unfortunately, none are included in this roughly three-megabyte download.
Even without add-on junk screening, however, The Bat does a lot to tame an overflowing inbox -- starting with options to inspect and delete mail while it's still on the server. Its otherwise familiar inbox view adds a column showing to whom a message has been addressed, making it easy to pick out mail sent to you personally from bulk-rate junk. It sensibly blocks executable file attachments out of the box. A scrolling ticker displays senders and subjects of unread messages; we found it distracting, however, and were glad we could easily turn it off. A strong set of filtering options can sort mail into folders, alert you with particular sounds when the boss writes and, when combined with The Bat's message templates, automatically draft replies.
The Bat: weird name, useful mail program.
A new Scheduler brings basic calendar tools and allows you to tag a particularly important message with a "Remind later" command. There's even a notepad to jot down your thoughts. The address book can store enough data about friends, family and colleagues to substitute for external contacts-management programs. (The Bat can't synchronize this data to a Palm or Pocket PC handheld organizer, although its vCard file compatibility lets it easily swap contacts lists with Palm Desktop and other address books.)
This program does suffer some outbursts of jargon and uses a quirky menu lineup, but its default choices are usually the right ones for beginners. And it's safe to experiment with, since it imports and exports numerous mailbox formats (Outlook's message stores are the sole major exception, requiring an extra step to move into Bat format). The Bat may be an embarrassment of riches for some, an outright overload for a few. But many other e-mail users need all the help they can get in managing their correspondence, and they're not likely to find more assistance than in this program. -- Rebecca Rohan
Win 95 or newer, $35 at www.ritlabs.com ($25 for students, $45 for businesses, 30-day trial available)
STAR WARS JEDI KNIGHT: JEDI ACADEMY, LucasArts
This lightsaber-fest starts by handing a big chunk of the script to you: You can create your character Jaden almost from scratch, choosing a gender and one of five races, then selecting skin color and clothing. Then you can pick from 15 different models of lightsaber, including such options as blade color and design (do you prefer the traditional sword-type setup or a "saber staff" like Darth Maul's?). Then class starts -- Jaden learns the Jedi way from Kyle Katarn, the hero of the earlier Jedi Knight titles, and Luke Skywalker himself. But when a mysterious cult starts to gain power, Jaden and his fellow students from the Academy have to put their training to use.
The ensuing missions follow linear paths, but you can break up the action by returning to the Academy for more training, learning new skills and Force powers (12 in all) before going back to battle. As in this title's predecessor, Jedi Outcast, using the Force is the best part of the game. It's a real pleasure to "Force Push" a stormtrooper off a cliff or choke an Imperial guard using "Force Grab." The graphics display the sort of excellence we'd expect from LucasArts, between the lightsaber-combat animations and the changing, detailed environments.
But in single-player mode, Jedi Academy ends too early -- we had the game wrapped up in 20 hours. Fortunately, a robust set of multiplayer options redeems the situation. In addition to the typical Deathmatch, a creative Siege mode lets players work as a team to complete objectives; if you don't have fast Internet access, you can set up matches against surprisingly challenging, computer-controlled Bots. -- Tom Ham
Win 98 or newer, $50 (Xbox version due this winter)
CABELA'S DEER HUNT: 2004 SEASON, Activision Value
Low prices and mass-market distribution through the likes of Wal-Mart have helped deer-hunting games become a surprising hit on PCs. Now publishers are looking to extend this success to consoles -- this is actually the second hunting title Activision shipped this year for the PS2. But these realistic simulations haven't been modified to mollify twitchy console gamers, which means game play remains slow and methodical -- i.e. boring to this audience. Each hunt begins with you choosing one of five hunters (two are female) and one of nine locales, including Alaska, Arizona and Florida. Based on the season and environment you've chosen, you'll have to equip your virtual hunter with clothing, guns, gadgets, water, food and camping equipment.
The forests are stocked with nine different species of deer, which do their best to avoid your bullets. So bringing one down requires a lot of time and patience. Even the gunshots take time: When you fire your rifle, the camera tracks the bullet and shows the deer going down in slow-mo. (The resulting visuals may upset fans of any of the Bambi movies.) Deer Hunt's controls aren't intuitive compared with most console titles', which will cause some frustration as beginners make their way through the woods -- all for the reward of seeing the deer's head mounted on your hunter's living-room wall. If you don't hunt yourself, steer clear of this game. -- John Gaudiosi
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $30