Computers Get A New Look For Kids

Don't be fooled by the brightly colored boxes. There's serious engineering behind kids' computers. Few other industries have to please so many masters. Children complain if their electronics aren't fun and easy to use. Educators grumble if they seem too much like mere entertainment. And parents won't buy them if they're too expensive.

The Pico system arrives

Sega of America, maker of the Genesis video-game console, has launched an aggressive new line of children's electronics. Offering everything from electronic organizers similar to the Sharp Wizard to video games for kids, Sega's bright new products have brought excitement to an industry dominated by clunky computers with gray-white graphics and embarrassingly bad audio. The Sega Pico, a console that connects to televisions like a video game machine but reads storybook cartridges, has been hailed by critics, educators and consumer advocates.

Designed for children ages 3 and up, Pico is quite simple to use. The cartridges are similar to those for video-game machines. The difference is that there are children's books attached to the tops of these cartridges. Open the book to a page, and its content is displayed on your TV. Then you touch an electronic pen to the "page" on the TV to access various activities. With Richard Scarry's "Huckle and Lowley's Busiest Day Ever," for example, you use the pen to animate a bakery, bring a playground to life or paint pictures.

So what makes this educational? Remember, it was developed for preschoolers. Not only will they learn about colors, shapes, words and bakeries, they'll also get valuable early exposure to computers.

Pico is constructed of brightly colored plastic and folds up like a little briefcase for safe storage. Though the suggested retail price is $169, it can be found for about $139. Additional story cartridges cost about $49. More computers for kids

Well-known for electronic toys for toddlers, VTECH Smart Play manufactures several computers for elementary-school children, from talking Sesame Street computers to a quick-thinking little laptop that uses your TV as a computer monitor.

Super Color Whiz is a cartridge-running laptop computer for children 6 and up. With color TV and video games so pervasive, kids quickly tire of black and white computer graphics. The Super Color Whiz has a tiny color LED screen. Compared to back-lit screens, this LED looks washed-out, but kids will forgive that if they can call it their own. The Super Color Whiz comes with an educational cartridge, and there are five additional activity cartridges.

In truth, some of the Super Color Whiz's activities are only slightly more interesting than the talking "see-and-say" drills found on less expensive electronics. Suggested retail is $149.99; additional cartridges, $24.99.

Also of interest is VTECH's Master Video Painter ($99.99), a 14-color drawing utility that connects to your TV. The Master Video Painter looks like a drawing tablet with a line of colors running down one side. To use it, children touch an electronic pen to the various colors and draw on a static-sensitive working surface. Their art appears on the TV screen.

A number of companies have recently released similar "utilities," as they are called. But the Master Video Painter is nice because it is durably constructed and can be hooked up to a printer or VCR so you can save those works of art.