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Tuesday, August 24, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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User Friendly

T. Rex, Meet Vdt: Dinosaur Program Is Microsoft's Best Multimedia Disc Yet

Even before "Jurassic Park" became a box-office hit, dinosaurs were garnering something of a cult following among kids and parents.

Something about these prehistoric behemoths holds timeless allure - perhaps the fact they were real, as opposed to the constant drubbery of phantasmagoria dispensed in cartoons, TV and film. Revisiting the Jurassic era provides a whole new appreciation of time, evolution and humans' place in creation, for children and adults alike.

Now comes Microsoft Dinosaurs ($79.95 retail, $59 discounted),

a multimedia personal-computer program that may not match Spielbergian special effects but goes well beyond celluloid in conveying the fascinations of the giant lizards of eons ago.

Dinosaurs is Microsoft's best multimedia software yet. Gradually, the Redmond company is raising the performance level of the genre it helped create. This time it has added movies to the list: surprisingly good film clips that portray various types of dinosaurs, their birth, evolution and demise.

There's even a short, albeit slightly hokey, animated segment of people filing into a theater and getting an overview of Dinosaurs' contents.

I say "surprisingly good" video advisedly. Animation on a computer is in most instances a drink of water compared to what we're used to on TV or in a theater. But Dinosaurs' clips tell their story well, using a compact and informative narration to augment superior-as-PCs-go video.

You need a CD-ROM drive and audio board with speakers to run Dinosaurs on a 386SX or better Windows-equipped IBM-compatible. It helps to have lots of memory - at least 4 megabytes, but 8 will do better.

Dinosaurs is the best reason yet to get a CD-ROM drive with sound capability - designated as the MPC specification. Although a TV and videotape can, as mentioned, do some things better than multimedia PC, the latter offers a whole lot of things a TV cannot begin to touch.

For starters, there's hopping around. Information in books, films and videos is presented in linear fashion. But people don't learn best or easiest in a linear way - you may know an entire section of a given topic, say, and want to skip ahead from the prescribed format.

In any case, it's more fun to customize any experience, picking and choosing topics as curiosity strikes.

The main Dinosaurs screen gives you options for looking at an atlas showing dinosaur ranges, a timeline covering their existence in the Mesozoic era and where that falls into the earth's history, an overview of dinosaur families, and so on.

You don't have to look at these in any particular order as you would a videotape. And you can go back to an earlier panel or move to a related topic instantly - no guessing about rewinding or fast forwarding.

Always in the background authentic dinosaur sounds are playing. There's even a somewhat gruesome soundtrack accompanying a screen of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a large theropod (walking on hind legs) carnosaur (meat-eater),noshing a prey animal.

You can capture images or clips for insertion into other computer programs - a school paper, brochure or desktop presentation (you'd want to make sure to credit the program and wouldn't want to do this for commercial purposes without consulting Microsoft). Be prepared to wait for a printout, however: My LaserJet III with 4 megs of memory took more than 15 minutes to reproduce one screen (Large Theropods).

Dinosaurs' chief asset is its consistently challenging, informative content. Unlike some multimedia titles, it doesn't simply try to impress you with technology while conveying a pedestrian message.

The program is richly textured throughout, with sounds and images complementing densely informative, engrossing narration and text. You'll learn more about dinosaurs than you thought was known, in a manner that manages to be intelligent and entertaining at the same time.

For "Jurassic Park" fans, there's a section on velociraptors; other sections feature giant turtles, egg-eating dinosaurs and flying reptiles. In all, the program has more than 1,000 illustrations, 200 articles and 800 pop-up selections. A couple of dinosaur screen-savers are included for the truly committed.

Dinosaurs installed in seconds - one of the joys of working with compact discs. My bleeding-edge video configuration (an ATI Mach32 board) had some problems with the program, which are duly forecast in the program's "Help" file.

But most parts worked smoothly and comparatively quickly, even bouncing between different sections of the program. Microsoft is putting some work into making multimedia discs lighter on their feet.

Put together with the help of The Dinosaur Society, whose founder "Dino Don" Lessem leads some disc tours, Dinosaurs is a complex, tightly integrated, intellectually and artistically satisfying piece of multimedia software. That it also represents a leap forward for the genre seems almost ancillary to its other rewards.

News bytes

VideoHound, the biggest film/video database yet with 22,000 movies and 52,000 reviews, will be available on CD-ROM for Windows beginning in September (Visible Ink Software, $79, 1-800-776-6265). . . . Cylogic, a small Seattle start-up run by Robert Hayes, has released Voice User for Windows ($79 regular, $39 for disabled users, 283-8800). Used with the Microsoft Sound System for Windows ($199 from Cylogic), the program voice-automates most of the frequently used Windows commands. Hayes' goal is to reduce Windows' learning curve by 90 percent.

Tip of the week

Thinking about getting a new monitor? Check out IBM's new line of energy-efficient, low-radiation, high-resolution screens. In particular there's a "Multimedia Audio Option" model that has built-in speakers and controls for MPC models. Great for business presentations, educational applications and other multimedia uses. IBM also makes a good touch-screen model.

User Friendly appears Tuesdays in The Seattle Times. Paul Andrews is a member of The Times staff.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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