Katherine Boehret

Playing Sudoku Without Pen and Paper

Once you get addicted to Sudoku, you’ll want to work on these number puzzles whenever you have a few spare minutes. So, rather than scribbling in a newspaper or carrying around a Sudoku book, some people use electronic versions on gadgets they carry around every day.

As a steadfast fan of the pen-and-paper method, I resisted the high-tech approach. But when Apple Inc. started selling Sudoku for iPod through its iTunes Store last September, I considered the convenience of having these puzzles on hand in something like an iPod, cellphone or smart phone.

This week, I set aside my trusty Sudoku book and tried these puzzles on four portable gadgets: a Motorola Razr cellphone; Apple’s 30-gigabyte iPod; and two Palm Treo smart phones: the Treo 700p (running the Palm operating system) and the Treo 700w (running Windows Mobile).

The results surprised me — the gadgets enriched an already compelling game. The game I played on the Treos had me competing online against other Sudoku fiends, and the iPod’s bright screen showed off colorful background graphics. Even the lower-tech Motorola Razr cellphone wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.

But there were a couple of big drawbacks. Using these electronic versions took time to master, and a beginner might quickly grow frustrated. Also, the electronic versions were clumsier than the paper ones at entering tentative answers, which most players rely on to help solve the puzzle. These electronic pencil markings were just too tedious to make. It was especially difficult to switch back and forth between making digital pencil marks and permanent entries.

The Treos, running a version of Sudoku from a company called Real Dice Inc., worked best overall, thanks to touch screens and built-in numeric keypads that saved steps. And the Treo game’s optional online competition made an otherwise solitary game social.

A Sudoku puzzle consists of a nine-by-nine grid that resembles a tic-tac-toe board covered in graph paper. Its 81 small boxes are partially filled in with numbers, and the solver must use the process of elimination and logic to place numbers one through nine in each row, column and section of nine small boxes.

I bought EA Sudoku by Electronic Arts Inc. on the iTunes Store for $4.99 and loaded it onto my iPod. This game will not run on a computer screen; it works only on iPods that can play videos.

EA Sudoku emphasizes the game’s Japanese influence. Asian music plays softly in the background while you work on a puzzle (you can also play music from your iPod), handsome backgrounds show scenes from the Far East and even the game’s menus are written in fonts that look like they belong on rice paper.

But the iPod’s methods for navigating the Sudoku grid — using the scroll wheel, four-way-touch or both — are not ideal. Entering numbers into the puzzle involved a tough combination of too much scrolling to find the right box followed by more scrolling to choose a number. Pencil marks are a little more painful — before and after using the pencil, you must select an icon for pencil markings. These show up as tiny numbers in each box.

Journey Points are acquired as you complete puzzles in EA Sudoku; harder puzzles are awarded more Journey Points, and the backgrounds of your puzzles change as you progress. I worked my way up through four skill levels and unlocked a surprise fifth level called “Insane.”

I tested the Treo 700w and 700p by downloading Sudoku Master II, one of the most popular Sudoku games from hand-held gaming Web site Handango.com. The game by Real Dice cost about $15 for the Palm version and $20 for the Windows Mobile version because the latter comes with the original version of Sudoku Master. The game looked the same on both operating systems.

The Treo games were much more usable than the iPod’s, if not as handsome. The Treo touch screen let me use its stylus to quickly jump around the Sudoku grid, and the Treo’s numeric keypad serves as another way to enter numbers. Switching from pencil to permanent marks was still a pain, but not nearly as bad as with iPod’s EA Sudoku.

Though Sudoku Master II lacked striking graphics, it lets you challenge other players online to finish a puzzle with you; whoever fills in more squares without too many errors wins. You can even chat with one another during the game. I found other players in four of the game’s five difficulty levels, and even earned a tie score against someone named TexMex.

While I usually enjoy the unrushed, concentrated thought that goes into solving a tough Sudoku puzzle, after playing a few rounds with others, I liked the challenge of trying to quickly fill in the blank boxes.

On my Motorola Razr cellphone, which uses Verizon Wireless service, I found three Sudoku games in Verizon’s Get It Now downloading section. I bought and downloaded USA Today Sudoku Fusion 2007 for $3.50 a month; $8 buys the game for unlimited use.

I was surprised to see that this download included regular Sudoku and four other versions of the game. As was expected, the interface of the cellphone was cruder than that of the iPod or Treos. But its numeric keypad made number entry easier, and the pound key toggled between permanent and pencil markings.

Because of the phone’s smaller screen, each of the Sudoku grid’s 81 boxes could hold only up to four pencil marks at a time. You can add more, but they’ll be visible only when that box is selected. The regular game is divided into five skill levels.

All of these games let you save and close your Sudoku to do something else on your device, and each puzzle can be timed or solved using helpful hints. But of this small selection of games and devices, the Treo worked best for electronic Sudoku. I’ll stick to pen and paper for the most part, but may be tempted to challenge TexMex to another duel in the online competition.

— Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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