LYRA PERSONAL DIGITAL PLAYER, RCA
What: Portable digital-music player. Details: Several MP3 players have hit the market by now, but RCA's Lyra is the first with a recognizable consumer-electronics brand name behind it. It's also the first to also play songs digitized using the RealAudio G2 format and the first to come without built-in memory (instead, you load sound files onto a memory card, then shuffle it from an adapter attached to your computer to the Lyra itself). But the Lyra is also the first MP3 gadget confusing enough to force me to break down and open the manual. Nothing seemed very intuitive with this product. It requires two different cables--one connects to the (conflict-prone) printer port, the other to the keyboard port. It's full of puzzling error messages--trying to use the included RealJukebox software to listen to files that I'd moved from the player to the computer yielded "missing plug-in" and "unknown file type" alerts. It balks in unpredictable ways--when I started converting some songs to digital files while offline, I couldn't figure out how to get the software to download the CD track info when I got back online. And even when things work properly, you wait a lot: An annoying little "Loading software--please wait!" notice occasionally pops up when you turn the device on to play music. I suspect that there are more rough interfaces like this on the way as companies bring the first line of "secure" music devices to the market. I dread that development. Bottom line: Hit Erase, not Play.
-- Mike Musgrove
Win 95-98, $200
JET FORCE GEMINI, Rare
What: Action-adventure shooter. Details: The planet of Goldwood has been taken over by the evil alien race Mizar and his horde of drones, and it's up to the Jet Force Gemini team to wipe out the deadly threat and rescue the Ewok-looking inhabitants of Goldwood, known as the Tribals. Players alternately control one of three characters: Juno, Vela and Lupus the dog. Each has a unique skill--Juno can walk on lava, Vela can swim, and Lupus can hover for extended periods of time. These special abilities come into play throughout the game, as players must figure out when to use a specific character to access different areas. For example, if there's a door on the other side of a lava pit, there's no way for you to make it across if you're playing as Vela, so players have to return to that stage of the game with Juno to cross without getting harmed. The game gets a bit tedious when levels like this require visits from all three characters, and to make things even more challenging, players have to rescue every Tribal in every level to complete the game. (Before you finish this, you'll hate these little guys.) At its core, though, Jet Force Gemini is a shooter that delivers in fine form. Bottom line: Action coupled with occasionally tedious adventure.
-- Tom Ham
Nintendo 64, $60
NETZIP CLASSIC 7.0, NetZip
What: File-download and decompression utility. Details: Downloading has been going on for decades, but why can't anybody give us the tools we need before we start to pile up files across our hard drive? Instead, Windows users have had to download one or another "unzipping" tool; The powerful but clunky WinZip has traditionally been the favorite, but NetZip has mounted a strong challenge lately. Like WinZip, it can decompress and install downloaded programs with a single click. But it can also let you resume an interrupted download where you left off--great for those 50-megabyte game demos that always seem to cut off with only 2 megs left to go. Its NetZip Folders feature lets you run, view and copy compressed files inside the archive as if they were normal files and will even run your virus checker on the downloaded zip file. NetZip's interface, however, suffers from a number of eccentricities that are likely to confuse first-time users. Don't feel like paying the $30 registration fee? You get the usual "nagware" screen when you fire up the program--but you're also graced with an ad window while your download completes, with ads based on the file type and download site. Bottom line: Great tool, especially if you like ads, but people who only download files are better off with free, decompression-only alternatives.
-- Daniel Greenberg
Win 95-98, $30 at http://www.netzip.com
CAPTION: RCA's Lyra: The muse isn't in this one.
CAPTION: Jet Force Gemini offers action, but also some tedious moments.