Old enough to remember what a 'Heath Kit' was? If so, you'll have a sense of deja vu looking at CyberCrafts: Digital Lab..
Digital Lab is an updated version of the venerable electronics kits of the 1960's. Just like its predecessors, Digital Lab comes with an electronics workbench, a box of assorted components, and a collection of build-it-yourself projects. There the similarity ends, however -- Digital Lab is focused on explaining digital electronics, the basis for most computer hardware technology.
Don't know the difference between a bit and a byte? a capacitor and a resistor? a nand gate and an xor gate? Digital Lab will explain it, illustrate it, and demonstrate an application.
The program has four major sections: a fun primer on the various components in the kit, an excellent tutorial on digital basics, ten rather weak examples of electronic gadgets and how they work, and most importantly -- instructions on how to build a dozen projects. These projects are grouped into four categories: lights, counting, basic electronics, and random numbers. Examples include building a light sequencing array, a sound activated light switch, a siren, and a random number generator.
Ease of Install / Use
Digital Lab installed without difficulty on our test machines. On a PC, the program asks the user to confirm a default install drive, directory, and program group - or specify another. After the quick installation, the installer tells the user where to find the program icon.
There are two aspects to ease of use: the program and the projects. Our reviewers found the program to be very well laid out, with clear instructions and intuitive navigation. For example, each step in a project is described by a narrator, shown in written form, and illustrated graphically. If the user somehow remains confused (perhaps by a narrator who speaks too quickly at times), the explanation is a simple mouse click away from being replayed.
The other aspect of ease of use, is in the assembly of the electronic workbench and the dozen-plus projects. The workbench is a heavy-duty cardboard box, with 84 pre-cut holes. Each hole is designed to hold a tightly coiled, half-inch spring. Assembling the workbench is the first step - and one we'd strongly recommend that parents do ahead of time for young children. Pressing the springs into the holes was a finger numbing experience.
After the springs are in place, the user must insert and correctly wire into place 20 electronic components. Although not difficult tasks, they require repeated reference to a small instruction manual, and some fine motor skills. Mistakes here will cause failures later.
"Actual project assembly was much easier than setting up the workbench," noted one father, after spending more than an hour with his frustrated son hovering nearby. Most simply require connecting small wires between different spring combinations. In addition to being able to follow directions, the child must be able to bend somewhat stubborn springs enough to allow the insertion of wires. We found some young users unable to do this consistently - but happy to help a parent.
Digital Lab presents an integrated look at digital electronics, covering everything from the underlying science, to building real electronic devices. Our teacher reviewer felt that "this is a wonderful teaching and reinforcement tool that [she] would use as an introduction to electronics for sixth to eight graders."
Proxy Parent Value
Proxy parent value is SuperKids' measure of how well a program captures and holds a child's attention. Digital Lab scored well with older children (12-14) interested in building things, and with younger children interested in doing something with a parent.
Digital Lab is best suited for 10 to 14 year-olds interested in building things. A certain degree of manual dexterity and direction-following ability is required.
This is an excellent, hands-on teaching program, appropriate for home and school use.
|Operating System||Windows 3.1, Win95||System 7.0.1 or later|
|CPU Type and Speed||486SX/33 or faster||68040/25 or faster|
|Hard Drive Space||<1 MB||none|
|Graphics||640x480x256 colors||640x480x256 color monitor|
|Audio||Windows-compatible sound card|
|Other Needs||9 volt battery||9 volt battery|