What: This year's crop of football simulations. Details: Break out the team jerseys, the big foam hands and the game controllers--football-sim season is here. For the most part, all the football games offer the same set of core features: a full set of NFL teams and players, all the stadiums, and various scenarios, ranging from simple exhibition games to all-out season and playoff modes. (NFL GameDay 2000 and NFL 2K also include a practice mode, where players can drill through specific plays until they get a feel for them.) It's game play that sets these titles apart this year. For the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and PC, you really can't go wrong with EA Sports' Madden NFL 2000. Graphics are typically excellent, with new player animations and richer colors, while the Madden Challenge puts you on the field to accomplish particular goals, like beating last year's passing record. Nintendo 64 owners take note: Last year's choice title for that platform, NFL Quarterback Club, is this year's biggest disappointment. Although the game looks great, playing the game is excruciatingly painful. Control is horrendous, making pass attempts an exercise in futility. Likewise, PC owners should not be faked out by the low, low price on Microsoft's NFL Fever 2000. The visuals are excellent, but the features are definitely lacking here, with no create-a-team option, no playoffs-only mode, and lame commentary by Fox Sports' Dick Stockton and Matt Millen. The best overall, however, is none of the above. Sega Sports' NFL 2K, only available on Sega's $199 Dreamcast console, crushes the competition with extraordinary graphics that make this the closest thing to watching an actual game. But the title delivers more than looks. Its controls are intuitive and approachable, even for beginning players--on other games, selecting a play means choosing from a selection of minimalist diagrams, but NFL 2K overlays a sketch of the play right on the field. This is video-game football at its finest . . . at least until next year. Bottom line: Madden NFL 2000 unless you own a Dreamcast, in which case NFL 2K takes the trophy.

-- Tom Ham

Madden NFL 2000, EA Sports;

Win 95-98, $40; Nintendo 64, $50;

PlayStation, $40

NFL Fever 2000, Microsoft; Win 95-98, $20

NFL GameDay 2000, 989 Sports; PlayStation, $40

NFL Quarterback Club 2000, Acclaim Sports;

Nintendo 64, $60

NFL 2K, Sega Sports;

Dreamcast, $40

DESCENT 3, Interplay

What: Zero-gravity indoor flight simulation. Details: Descent 3 is a first-person shooter like Quake or Unreal--but you're the pilot of a spaceship pod, so directions such as "up" and "down" have no meaning. The enemy robots you hunt in this game (the first in the series since 1996's Descent 2) are fairly smart and will make the most of the zero-G environment to get on your tail or whip through evasive maneuvers. To compensate, you're given a wide variety of weapons, including microwave cannons, guided missiles, napalm and the standard quad lasers. This game features some of the most impressive graphics I've ever seen--even better than the video clips that play between levels to explain the story line and humanize your character more than in the earlier Descent games. It's surprising that these beautiful levels are actually playable--if you have the hardware to back it up. You'll definitely need a 3-D accelerator with the latest driver software, a lightning-fast Pentium II or faster processor and plenty of RAM to rocket around corridors here. And a strong stomach: Zooming around upside down and sideways in photo-realistic environments can make you dizzy. Bottom line: Gamers should twist and shout to grab this game.

-- John Breeden

Win 95-98, $50


What: Image-editing tool kit. Details: Photoshop 5.0 LE, a stripped-down version of the product many graphic designers live in, is aimed at people who have outgrown the entry-level software that came with their scanners and digital cameras. LE can handle all the popular image formats and offers a robust set of image-manipulation tools for drawing, painting, cropping, airbrushing, smudging, stamping, zooming, blurring and sharpening images. One hundred powerful, fun filters let you warp images with special effects such as glow, twirl, ripple, crystallize, pointilize, emboss, mosaic, charcoal and texturize. Or add new plug-in modules for even more image-transmogrifying fun. The powerful layers feature lets you change one part of a graphic without messing up the rest, saving lots of redo time--helpful, since LE only lets you undo one action. Unfortunately, LE is as user-insensitive as the pro version: It offers little hand-holding, it has the same complex interface, and its manual is very technical. If you just want to de-redden the eyes in snapshots, look elsewhere. LE also lacks high-end features such as animation options, "color separation" facilities and Web-output tools. Bottom line: Powerful for its price, but don't run a major business on it or make a first-timer use it.

-- Daniel Greenberg

Win 95-98/Mac, $99

CLICKTHEBUTTON, Click the Button

What: Comparison-shopping browser add-on. Details: ClicktheButton does the same thing as such price-finder sites as PriceScan or BottomDollar, but it breaks the bargain-hunting task out of the browser window. Instead of having to spring open a new Web window and then wait for the Web page to load, type in your search term and wait a second time for the results to display, you find the book, CD, video, toy or computer gadget you're looking for at one store's site, then click on a small bull's-eye icon in your system toolbar to look for the same thing elsewhere. This saves time and keystrokes, not to mention dollars, as I found in test searches on Palm V handhelds (starting from a listing for it at Shopping.com) and Dick Francis's book "Second Wind" (begun at Amazon.com). But a similar search for Lauryn Hill's CD "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" went nowhere, with consecutive attempts yielding either no hits at or a mere two price listings, both at the Best Buy site I'd started from. Note that there's a registration to complete and that it will take a few moments to download an installer. Bottom line: Some glitches, but handy for born shoppers who weren't born rich.

-- Sacha Cohen

Win 95-98, Mac, free at http://www.clickthebutton.com

CAPTION: NFL 2K: This year, the best football simulation isn't on a PC, it's on TV.

CAPTION: Descent 3 puts the "go" in "vertigo."