Play Gizmos Mega Pak
Fun stuff, but not as essential as its makers claim
Gizmos Mega Pak
One of the curses of hitting the ball out of the park on the first try is that everyone expects a lot of your follow-up act. Microsoft certainly learned this the hard way: Plus! 95, a collection of add-ons, utilities, and frivolous knick-knacks for Windows 95, became popular enough that many people are genuinely surprised that some of its features aren't part of the standard Windows interface. More to the point, Microsoft ended up incorporating some of Plus! 95's features in Windows 98. What was once considered optional became essential.

Unfortunately, Microsoft's Plus! 98--naturally, a companion to Windows 98--didn't enjoy the same kind of success; that left them wide open to something like Play's Gizmos Mega Pak, a similar collection of... well, stuff. Or, as they call them, Gizmos.

I figured there'd be good reason to be enthusiastic about the Gizmos Mega Pak, because Play's got a certain level of geeky cool: there's the omnipresence of Play co-founder Kiki Stockhammer, who immediately invokes the whole Amiga/Video Toaster "nerdy but ahead of the multimedia curve" thing; the offhanded way they toss Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Star Trek trivia around; and the light-hearted tone that populates their manuals (just look up "Rancho Cordova" in the Gizmos Mega Pak manual's glossary: "...Best known as the home of the intergalactic headquarters of Play Incorporated...").

Play's secret, I think, is that they let the naturally gonzo atmosphere of a high-tech firm filter through to their products. Quirky fun permeates their manuals, their user interfaces, and the legalese on the boxes, even as they create powerful yet easy-to-use products like the Snappy video framegrabber. The Gizmos Mega Pak, then, would seem to be a logical successor to Plus! 95: after all, the Play staff can do the "powerful yet fun" thing in their sleep.

My theory seemed to be borne out by the Mega Pak manual's introduction, which details the Gizmos' genesis: essentially, a bunch of fun-loving programmers made a bunch of small programs they'd like to use themselves.

The end result is a collection of programs that generally embody geeky cool--but not necessarily in a good way. I found the most remarkable set of Gizmos to be the most frivolous: the games and screen savers. I love solitaire card games, and there are seven in here, ranging from simple to neuron-frying, and all quite customizable (there's also no undo, which makes things more challenging).  And then there are the eye-popping screen savers, including a lovely bit of eye candy called the Color Organ, whose endlessly tweakable color patterns hypnotically shift and pulse to any music piping through your sound card. It's the kind of thing that makes people sit up and exclaim "Cool!"

Such exclamations are great for screen savers, which have long since evolved past any useful purpose. The trouble is, I get the feeling that the rest of the collection aims for that "cool!" factor as well--even if it undermines the practicality of some of the Gizmos.

Take the desktop accessories, for instance. Among other things, the Mega Pak includes a collection of calculators (basic, financial, scientific, and programmer) with a remarkably complete set of functions for each. Very useful, but it doesn't stop there. Each is rendered to look like a real calculator, and they do a remarkably good job--I almost expected the scientific calculator to have an option to use reverse Polish notation--but some of them ate up about a fifth of my 1024x768 desktop. Then there's the Pro Linear CD player, which can get CD track info from the Internet CD Database and, naturally, looks very cool. But it's a monster which just takes up a fair chunk of the screen. When I can get RealJukebox for free with a skin that can fit it into my toolbar and play MP3s on top of that, I have to wonder why I would bother. Finally, there are the daily, weekly, monthly, and annual calendars. They're very nicely designed and easy to use, but unless I can find a way to change the typefaces to something more legible and get rid of the crisply-photographed background images, I'll have to pass.

I can't seem to shake a general sense of disappointment with the Gizmos Mega Pak. On the box and the manual, it's written that it "makes Windows better in four key areas", defining those areas as file security, picture management, games and screen savers, and desktop accessories. I suspect my lack of enthusiasm stems from that claim. When a company uses terms like "key areas", they're implying that their product carries a certain level of necessity. Aside from the Vault (secure file encryption) and the Shredder (secure file deletion) and the addictive games, the Gizmos Mega Pak doesn't even come close.

The programs are solid and as entertaining as expected, but what the overall package was missing was a little soft-pedaling. Microsoft Plus! 95 wasn't completely necessary either, but they never claimed it was, and its programs quietly folded into the Windows interface. Then we discovered we couldn't live without it. Or, to put it in Play's terms, they were the calm and reserved Spock instead of the blustering Kirk. And really, which of the two is cooler?

A Critical Eye exclusive (January 2, 2001)
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