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YOU CAN TOY WITH A COMPUTER JUST AS WELL AS YOUR CHILDREN

SHARE YOU CAN TOY WITH A COMPUTER JUST AS WELL AS YOUR CHILDREN

ATTENTION, grownups with computers! You don't have to spend all your time in front of that screen typing things into word processors (the way I'm doing now). You don't have to be locked in spreadsheet hell forever! Sure, it seems like all the cool new computer programs are for kids, those ungrateful little urchins who already have more stuff than they deserve.

But even if you lack the joystick reflexes of a 12-year-old, don't despair. An exhaustive investigation by this columnist has turned up at least five really neat computer programs we grownups can use to pursue hobbies, plan purchases and trips and just to amuse ourselves. They make great gifts and can be played again and again.Best of all, most are interactive programs that let you control how they unfold and work with your personal data and preferences. All you need is an IBM-compatible PC that runs Microsoft Windows (alas, only one comes in a version for Apple's Macintosh). For several of the programs, you will also need a CD-ROM drive. (I'll indicate which.)

3D Landscape: This terrific multimedia package from Books That Work, Palo Alto, Calif., will let you create a detailed layout for your yard, right down to the plants, trees and shrubs you want and the best positions for them. You first select the plantings from a large database, in which you can search for varieties that do well in various parts of the U.S. and in various light and moisture conditions and that meet numerous other criteria you choose - down to what color blossoms they yield. Then you drag images of your selected plants wherever you want on an image of your yard.

The $50 program, which comes in CD and floppy-disk versions, is smart enough to show you where the plants' shadows will fall on any date or time, based on the latitude and orientation of your yard. It will even show how the plants you select will look after five or 10 years. You can view the yard from the top or on a slope or in 3-D. There is also an extensive how-to section, with text and animations, and various calculators for figuring things like soil acidity. You can even print out a materials list with estimated prices for your design.

Popular Mechanics New Car Buyers Guide, 1995: Another program by Books That Work, this $30 CD-ROM is the best automobile software I've seen, allowing you to do extensive comparison shopping before setting foot in a dreaded showroom. You simply tell the program what style, price, safety and other features you're looking for, and it generates a list of choices, complete with illustrated reports on each model. You get all the specs, color pictures of the exterior and interior and even a limited ability to see each car in different colors. Price estimates are provided and can be printed out.

There's a complex and sophisticated options feature, with prices, for building just the model you want, and loan and lease calculators that use the actual price figures for the cars you're considering. There's also information on car-buying tips, ratings where available on model safety and warranties and detailed reviews from Popular Mechanics for about 50 cars.

Rand McNally TripMaker: This $45 floppy-disk program lets you create detailed itineraries for family or business car trips, reflecting your preferences for daily driving distances and various intermediate stops. You can set up the route manually or use an automated step-by-step process called Trip Guide that will even suggest vacation destinations and sightseeing stopovers from an internal database. The program produces a list of written directions and a map, which can be printed out. My only complaint is that, surprisingly for Rand McNally, the maps do a poor job of labeling small local streets.

Family Tree Maker, Deluxe CD-ROM Edition, Version 2.0: The long-winded name of this $59 program is misleading, because this is a full-fledged genealogy program, not just a way to mock up family trees. It lets you create a detailed database of all your relatives and their relationships and can even incorporate photos if they have first been transferred to a Kodak photo CD disk.

Not only that, but the program's publisher, Banner Blue Software of Fremont, Calif., has built in a list of 100 million deceased Americans. The program tells you what sort of historical government records contain information on each person - Social Security records, census data, military records and so forth. You can then go to a library and look up indexes to the relevant records, or Banner Blue will sell you a CD-ROM containing detailed indexes to the records for about $25, in most cases. The indexes alone often contain key dates and other data.

Dilbert Screen Saver: Scott Adams's Dilbert comic strip chronicles the frustrating, stupid and petty world of the typical American office worker. This $45 floppy-disk program, from Delrina of Toronto, lets that caustic commentary decorate the screen of either a Windows PC or a Mac.

There are numerous scenarios, including one where a character reads a budget in disgust, rolls it up and uses it to smack a manager - whom you can name after a real boss you hate. In another scenario, a group of executives are shown falling asleep, one by one, during a boring presentation. In yet another, called Secretary with a Crossbow, secretaries everywhere can live out their dreams of revenge.