MINDGYM, Simon & Schuster Interactive
What: A tool to boost mental stamina and creativity. Details: Working out at the MindGym is like being stuck in some Dali knock-off -- it's surreal and silly. But while this title aspires to teach people how to think outside the you-know-what, its lame mishmash of IQ tests, trivia, personality tests and memory games made me want to hit the Escape button. Your first stop here is the Changing Room. Before you can enter the gym and begin the "real" workout, you have to make your way through a series of odd exchanges such as deciding various uses for a trout (could a trout be a mayor? A light? A drill?). After a few such Dada-esque encounters, the program purports to rate you on your openness to new ideas and whether you are a "challenger" or "receiver" of information. Accompanied by a whiny Three Stooges/Richard Simmons "Personal Trainer," you're then free to wander around the Games Room, where you test memory skills and spatial awareness; the Think Tank, where you turn creative ideas into practical applications; and the Pool of Ideas, a place to limber up your imagination. The most puzzling brain teaser of all, however, is: What were the people behind this product thinking? Bottom line: Go elsewhere -- like to the library -- to get your brain buff.
-- Sacha Cohen
Windows 95-98, $30
WINDOWS MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES 4.0, Microsoft
What: New digital-media format. Details: All right, another Internet audio "standard"! And why do we care? Because, true to Microsoft's hype, this one actually uses about half the bytes of the sexier MP3 format but sounds just as good, so you can cram more music on your hard drive. And when streamed "live" over the Net, it sounds punchier than RealNetworks' RealAudio G2. Just like the press release says! But bandwidth still rears its ugly head: When audio is paired with video, presentation quality crumbles, and the promised "intelligent streaming" failed to eliminate annoying hiccups and stutters in audio-only playback. And Windows Media offers only a limited, odd choice of tunes for sale -- Juice Newton, Jefferson Starship and Jim Belushi will set you back $0.99 each. Free downloads tend to be more current, but force users to log on to a Web site to fill out a licensing agreement; this dubious copyright-protection scheme allows only limited use, often as little as 90 days. Bottom line: Remember Betamax?
-- Bob Massey
Win 95-98, free at http://windowsmedia.microsoft.com