MICROSOFT WORKS 8,
Works is finally ready to get to work -- with this update, Microsoft's entry-level bundle of word-processing, spreadsheet, database, calendar and address-book applications is no longer the puny sibling of the company's Office suite. Works 8 brings substantial improvements to most of its core components, plus a pair of thoughtful new additions.
The headline attraction here is better compatibility. Unlike previous Works releases, in Works 8, the word processor and spreadsheet accurately open, edit and save files created by their Office counterparts. There's also a new PowerPoint slideshow viewer, a helpful addition for people who work from home. Works 8's database application, however, remains fairly humdrum.
A new, surprisingly intuitive dictionary -- which includes a thesaurus -- can be run from the word processor or as a stand-alone program.
Works 8's calendar allows up to four people to schedule their lives (as long as they share the same Windows XP user account); you can view and print everyone's appointments at once, minimizing last-minute coordinating to squeeze in Jane's softball game and your yoga class. The address book, meanwhile, finally makes it simple to store multiple street addresses and track birthdays and anniversaries. Both sets of data, as well as your e-mail (handled by the aging Outlook Express), can be synchronized to a Palm or Pocket PC handheld organizer.
A streamlined Task Launcher gives quick access to Works' various components, as well as frequently used documents and Projects (bundles of multiple files and appointments that users can assemble to keep track of ongoing assignments). A similar-sounding but unrelated Portfolio feature can arrange a wide variety of documents into galleries for easy access; it and the Projects option, however, are cumbersome.
Works 8 throws in 500 prefabricated documents for such tasks as taking inventory of a wine cellar or writing a family newsletter. All of these upgraded tools still don't make Works a replacement for Office, but that's not the point; Works 8 can finally stand on its own. It's a realistic option for home users unwilling to spring for the $150 Student and Teacher edition of Office -- and even a good deal compared to the upcoming $100 Works Suite 2005, which will add Money and the Streets and Trips mapping program, but offers only the 2002 edition of Word. -- Michael Tedeschi
Win 98 SE or newer, $50
ASTRO BOY, Sega
This game started out with a great story (it's based on a cult-classic 1950s Japanese cartoon) and a great team (it was developed by the creators of Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog series), but it fails to capitalize on either advantage. A third-person adventure, it lets players take on the role of the title character, a robotic kid who must save Metro City from the evil Dr. Tenma. The deck is slightly stacked in Astro's favor: He can fly, see with X-ray vision, shoot lasers from his hands, punch through any obstacle and pick up and throw cars.
Just as in the animated series, game play consists of Astro flying around, knocking around some bad guys (sometimes in the air, sometimes on the ground) and then doing it all over again. Unlike most games, Astro Boy doesn't split its action among different levels or stages; instead, the game is divided into four large, visually distinct zones, from Metro City's soaring skyscrapers to the Brokken Volcano's bubbling, flowing lava. After you've made their way through each zone, you'll face a Boss, and the resulting fight is usually epic.
But the run-up to those climactic clashes gets boring, with too much time spent flying around and talking to random characters to move the story along. Some of these segments felt like they would never end -- but the entire game took only four hours to finish, making it a lousy value even as a rental. Fans of the series who own a Game Boy Advance would do better with a simpler, cheaper ($20), but more interesting GBA release called Astro Boy: Omega Factor. -- Tom Ham
PlayStation 2, $40
I SPY: SPOOKY MANSION DELUXE, Scholastic
This newest installment in the popular I Spy series challenges kids to venture into a mysterious manse -- then make their way out of it. Signature rhyming rhythms greet kids at each turn, challenging 6- to 10-year-olds to solve 39 riddles in 11 haunted rooms. The game offers only three ways out of this spooky dwelling, a sufficiently involving mission to provide hours of fun for my 9-year-old daughter, Anna, and her buddy, Danielle Farrell of Centreville. They spent an entire play date on all these riddles, which had them searching for slimy snakes, drippy eyeballs, and serrated saws within the distractingly detailed artwork.
In addition to coming packaged with a small book of five picture riddles, this game offers twice as many riddles and a few tricks not found in the original, 1999-vintage I Spy: Spooky Mansion, including a scene in which kids create seven ghosts after collecting parts to repair a ghost machine. As with all the I Spy adventures, the puzzles aren't too tough -- yet their solutions aren't always easy or obvious. And you can't find the exit until you decipher all these brainteasers, however obscure they can get. (A special shrinking soup is one key to a way out -- but, uh, you didn't hear it from us.) -- Hope Katz Gibbs
Win 95 or newer/Mac OS 8.6 or newer/Mac OS X 10.1 or newer, $20, ages 6 to 10