Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

A Ballpoint With a ‘Brain’

The perennial dilemma when buying gifts for a child is whether to get something fun or something educational. Most toys that claim to be both are either barely educational or hardly fun. But we think we’ve found something that might simultaneously enlighten and entertain all but the most jaded young users. And it’s a high-tech gadget, to boot.

FLY Pentop Computer
FLY Pentop Computer

The FLY Pentop Computer comes from LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. — a respected and well-known company that makes educational toys for kids. This $100 digital toy, geared toward kids aged eight and older, is a thick ballpoint pen, with a brain. Using built-in software, it reads, and reacts to, certain things you write with the pen. In effect, it turns paper into an interactive medium.

With FLY, you can hand-draw a calculator or a simple musical keyboard and actually use them — the calculator really does math and the keyboard really plays notes. You can practice math and spelling and geography; and play educational and noneducational games. The pen offers extra instructions, sound effects and encouragement through a tiny speaker. There’s no shooting, no sex, and nobody dies.

FLY’s brain is a small cartridge that snaps onto the pen; the standard cartridge can be removed and replaced with different cartridges that power separately sold programs called FLYware. The whole thing runs on a single AAA battery. The pen has a switch for retracting its ballpoint ink tip; a speaker; a power button; and a green light that glows when the pen is turned on.

The most important feature of the pen is a small, almost unnoticeable camera positioned near the pen’s ink tip. It watches what you write, capturing about 70 images per second, sending that data to a small computer chip built into the pen. The FLY’s camera only works when you’re writing on special FLY Paper, which is covered in a near invisible crisscross of dots. This pattern of dots allows the camera to detect the coordinates of whatever you write and to associate a function with that image.

All of this behind-the-scenes technology works unbeknownst to the user, creating a gadget that functions like a friend sitting right beside you, commenting on your work and offering entertaining sound effects to encourage kids through tests and games. FLY keeps its target audience in mind, using hip phrases and various sounds that cause kids (and some adults) to giggle, like a flushing toilet, a kissing sound or a burp.

This pen comes with some fun offerings, and functions on its own without separate games — as long as you’re using it with FLY Paper. Simple instructions explained how to use FLY, starting with how to write individual letters or whole words using capital letters that were instantly recognized and announced back to us through FLY’s speaker. (Attachable earbuds are also included for silent study halls or long car rides.)

Drawing certain letters and then circling them creates what LeapFrog calls “FLYcon symbols.” When drawn, these letters prompt the pen to recognize them and perform various functions. For example, when “M” is written and circled, FLY’s main menu is retrieved. Each time you tap on this circled letter, a different submenu is announced from FLY’s speaker, like “scheduler,” “calculator” or “time.” Drawing a check mark to the right of the circle selects a different section, and the pen instructs you on how to proceed within each section.

This is more tedious and annoying than using a printed menu, but, at least for a while, your delight at the pen’s cleverness overcomes the downsides.

Objects can also be drawn and used by following the correct steps. For example, “FT” circled represents FLYtones, a program that allows you to draw a keyboard (eight simple connected rectangles) or set of drums (circles) and actually play these instruments by tapping on them and listening to the FLY. Self-drawn games work in a similar manner, as does a calculator that can be drawn on your FLY Paper for whenever you want to use it.

Pentop Computer

Thirty-five sheets of FLY Paper come with the FLY, and more of this special paper is sold separately in three different size packs ranging from $5 to $10.

We used a pad of 13 sample games that came with FLY, including word searches (FLY knew exactly when we found each word in the puzzle), hangman (letters were guessed by drawing them in a box, while FLY announced where each correct letter fit in the phrase) and matching games (one asked us to match classical composers with their works).

We also used an included map of North America and games that were designed around it to practice locating state capitals and in timed quizzes.

“Hint” buttons are integrated into each game, and vocal prompts are announced from the FLY speaker if enough time has passed for the pen to think you might need help. We never felt confused during the games, thanks to helpful instructions, but these instructions were smart enough to stop when we skipped ahead and started playing.

We also had fun testing the sold-separately FLYware games and educational programs. Currently, there are eight different types of FLYware programs available, each with its own snap-on cartridge and booklet or accessory of some sort, depending on the FLYware. Four are educational and four are just-for-fun games; each costs between $25 and $35.

First, we tested FLY Through Math: Multiplication and Division, working through an instructional booklet and writing our answers on special grid FLY Paper that kept our problems neatly arranged. This enabled FLY to follow our work, offering suggestions to make long division a little easier.

We moved on to FLY Through Spelling, a program that incorporates fun games like treasure hunts, Battleship-like letter games and word scrambles to get kids more familiar with their spelling words.

We also tried the Flyball interactive baseball game, playing against one another after selecting our teams from included FLY-activated baseball cards — baseball sound effects, like the roar of the crowd as a bat cracked a ball, were included. The game was fairly sophisticated, with specific information about each player that allowed you to select the best pitches or to incorporate particular plays or strategies.

FLY Friends, a booklet packed with personality quizzes and mad libs, would keep any teenage girl and her friends occupied for hours.

Next year, LeapFrog will introduce more FLYware, with a focus on educational games for high-school students. The only thing we worry about is how kids — especially younger kids — will keep track of these cartridges, which are small and easy to misplace.

Overall, after we got the hang of FLY’s various functions, we were impressed with its quick responses and learnable shortcuts. FLY’s funny remarks and goofball sound effects are sure to be a hit, and might lighten up the learning process for some kids who get stressed out when they can’t understand something.

The FLY Pentop Computer is a smart product, made to help kids become smarter, and it would make a useful gift for any child, if you can afford it.

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