CD-ROMS get better every year. The 1995 versions use richer sound and video to enhance the text in the program. We've selected titles based on their content.
Some of the newest releases take advantage of Windows 95's ''auto-play'' feature. They start right up when inserted into the machine.
But better features require more power. Unless otherwise noted, these programs should run on an IBM-compatible computer running Windows with at least 4 megabytes (MB) of random-access memory (RAM). There are plenty of programs for Macintosh-users too. (Look for the .) Prices listed are what you can expect to pay in stores.
3 TO 6 YEARS
Math Ace Jr.
Youngsters join Bit Bot the Robot in his submarine for a variety of games designed to strengthen their arithmetic skills. Skill levels range from basic counting and becoming familiar with clocks to multiplication through 12s and money handling. A neat undersea treasure hunt helps with learning geographic direction. Older children will enjoy this too. Packaged with five other programs as the ''Kids' Fun and Learning Pack.'' DOS version available. $29.95
6 TO 9 YEARS
Spellbound/Outnumbered/ Gizmos and Gadgets/
(The Learning Company)
We've never seen a Learning Company CD-ROM we didn't like, this one included. These four package have young ''supersolvers'' testing their budding skills in spelling, math, mechanical, and reading comprehension against the ''Master of Mischief,'' who is always trying to do something nefarious, like painting the school with disappearing ink. Excellent on-line help gives new players tips as they play their first few games. Appeals to older children too. $45 each.
9 TO 12
What's the Secret? (Vol. 2)
(3M Learning Solutions)
Based on the PBS series ''Newton's Apple,'' this will appeal to older children and adults. The volume covers flight, how the brain works, glue, and an Arctic adventure. The flight section is especially good, with a mini-flight simulator, a flying school, and clear explanations of the principles involved. ''What's the Secret'' makes liberal use of video clips from the TV show. $50
This wacky outer-space game show teaches critical reading skills. Quizzes are based on selections from classic children's books and presented with intelligent humor. Broderbund again shows that good CD-ROMs can teach and entertain at the same time. $40
of the New World
(Future Vision Multimedia)
Human acting combined with computer graphics give youngsters studying early American history a detailed look at the lives of Columbus, Cortes, and Magellan. ''Explorers of the New World'' also gives less detailed looks at the lives of dozens of other European explorers in the New World. The Cortes segment does a reasonable job of addressing the moral issues of colonization. $45
Beyond the Wall:
Stories Behind the Vietnam Wall
(20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
This is a moving, dignified tribute to American soldiers who gave their lives in Vietnam. Beautifully designed, the program describes various aspects of the war, as well as the building of the memorial, including letters from soldiers, along with video clips, testimonials, photos, and newspaper clippings about them. The best part is the virtual tour of the memorial. It's one of the most touching experiences ever captured on CD-ROM. Requires a powerful 486 computer with at least 8 MB of RAM. $45
Other Notable Titles:
For Preschoolers: Let's Explore The Jungle; Macintosh WiggleWorks: Story Pack 2 (Apple Home Learning).
Ages 9 to Teen: Leonardo the Inventor (Future Vision Multimedia); National Geographic Geo Bee (National Geographic); Microsoft Ancient Lands (Microsoft).
Saves the Zoo
Putt-Putt the car is on another adventure, and preschoolers will love helping him make it through. They have to navigate several obstacles to stop a big zoo disaster. Great graphics and music. Windows 95 compatible. $35
6 TO 12 YEARS
Timon & Pumbaa's
(Disney Interactive & 7th Level)
Two zany characters from the movie ''The Lion King'' guide you through their arcade of five games. The music and animation are excellent. The games have little redeeming social value - especially Burper - but they are lots of fun. Timon and Pumbaa's version of pinball drew gales of laughter from one child-tester. Other games include Hippo Hop, Slingshooter, and Bug Drop, and Jungle Pinball. $35
Hansel & Gretel
and the Enchanted Castle
(TerraGlyph Interactive Studios)
Nicely rendered game of the classic fairy tale. Once the witch zaps the children into prison, players must find hidden friends to escape from the castle.
With its superior graphics and realistic animation, this game is an example of the polished look that all CD-ROMs will have in the future, but it requires at least a 486-33 MHz computer with 8 MB of RAM running Windows 95. $45
9 TO ADULT
(20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
A compelling game that combines strategy with blast-away fun. No one gets destroyed, only pyramids, which have a habit of changing colors and becoming increasingly sophisticated as players move up to harder levels. Some pyramids even chase you, but that's where the fun begins. This game is destined to be a big hit with adults, as well as youngsters. $40
Star Trek Omnipedia
(Simon and Schuster Interactive)
The definitive Trekkers trivia database, Star-Fleet style. The encyclopedia mode, for example, takes you from A&A officer (from the original Star Trek) to Zylo eggs, the alien life form that android Data used as the subject for his first attempt at painting in ''The Next Generation.''
The database also includes thumbnail descriptions of every Star Trek movie and TV episode up through the early Deep Space Nine episodes.
References to Earth history are organized by date. The year 2040, for instance, is the year television no longer survives as a significant form of entertainment. $46
(Centron Software Technologies
and Peter D'Agostino)
This title should please jigsaw puzzle buffs. It takes any bitmap picture file and converts it into a jigsaw puzzle. You control the number and shapes of the pieces. Great for people who live in small homes and don't want to have to pick up 500 puzzle pieces scattered around the house. $29.95 packaged with five other programs in the ''Kids' Creativity Pack.''
TEEN TO ADULT
The Martian Chronicles
(Byron Preiss Multimedia)
Earth is on the verge of a nuclear holocaust and your mission is the planet's only hope of avoiding destruction. Martian legend talks of a most powerful force, but no one knows what it is. Some interpreters think it's a technology; others cite legends that talk of a wisdom. Whatever it is, you have to find it!
Hint: Read the help file before you begin playing. It gets you off to a smoother start.
The game also includes video clips from interviews with Ray Bradbury and computer-illustrated excerpts from ''The Martian Chronicles.'' $49.95
9 TO ADULT
This program is great for astronomy buffs of all ages. It combines a star chart with animated views of the solar system and animated explanations of heavenly phenomena ranging from the creation of the universe to the collision of black holes. $50
World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia
(World Book Inc.)
A must-have for any computer bookshelf, this encyclopedia has a wide range of detailed illustrations, some of them animated. The articles are detailed and authoritative. The encyclopedia also has sound samples of musical instruments, animals, and passages from the works of famous composers.
For seekers of the ultimate encyclopedic text this will be preferable to ''Britannica CD version 2.0,'' which has disappointing multimedia features and a price five times higher than other CD-ROM encyclopedias. That and the fact that it requires users to install a special hardware key make it hard to see how Britannica will fly off the shelves. Worldbook: $99
QuickVerse New Bible Reference Collection
The serious Bible student won't want to miss this. The disk includes three versions of the Bible (including the King James), Strong's Concordance, a Bible atlas, commentary, dictionary, and Nave's Topical Bible. Each reference is linked, so that a scriptural allusion to David, for instance, quickly leads to a commentator's note, several maps of his time, and a dictionary distillation of his life.
The program is more focused than so-called ''multimedia Bibles.'' Those titles, such as Compton's ''The Complete Multimedia Bible,'' and ''Charlton Heston's Voyage Through the Bible,'' include interesting material but not enough to make them true reference works.
Quickverse: $129. (For $249, the deluxe version adds three more versions of the Bible, another concordance, and three study Bibles.)
(Books That Work)
A nicely rendered resource for the beginning and intermediate gardener, this CD-ROM includes helpful videos. But the best part of the program is its searchable database, where you can pick among climate zones, soil types, even colors and times of blooming to find the perfect plant for your back yard. This is part of a useful series of do-it-yourself programs, which covers everything from electrical wiring to designing a new kitchen. $31