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Toy traditions go back to the future

MSNBC’s Alan Boyle looks at some of this year’s new high-tech toys — and retro-tech gadgets that do similar things.
Fisher-Price's PowerTouch Learning System updates the activity book as a laptop for the preschool set.
Fisher-Price's PowerTouch Learning System updates the activity book as a laptop for the preschool set.
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In the beginning, there was the Tinkertoy set ... and chemistry sets, and crystal radio kits, and phonographs, and plenty of other gadgets to put under a fresh-cut Christmas tree. Those retro-tech toys are still around, but this holiday season also offers plenty of electronic twists on the old traditions. Here are a few of the latest gizmos, plus some golden oldies.

For examples of how timeless toys adapt to new generations, you need look no further than “Today’s Toy Test,” the annual roundup of top-rated toys, as judged by kids and teachers. Remember the Spirograph? The classic circles-within-circles drawing contraption is still around, at $10 or less. But the Spiral Draw Book by Klutz, which was rated as a Toy Test bargain (at $14 to $20), puts the same concept together with gel pens and instructions for making craft items.

Other Toy Test picks include the GeoSafari Talking Telescope, which combines a small-power telescope, microscope and a wealth of activities ($40); the Fly and Discover Globe by VTech, which adds a toy airplane, magnifying glass and a joystick controller to your classic globe ($25); and the EdgeRunner 2 by Taiyo Edge, a radio-controlled all-terrain vehicle with huge gyro wheels that make it easier to handle that those “classic” R/C cars ($40 to $55).

Here are a few more gizmos that hark back to golden oldies:

Activity books
Remember those books that could squeak, talk to you or contain hidden surprises? Today, electronic books such as Fisher-Price’s PowerTouch or Leapfrog’s Leap Pad Learning System have turned the concept into a kind of laptop computing for little folks (3 to 8 years old).

As children page through specially designed books, they press areas with their fingers or a stylus to hear, say, an oink from the picture of a pig, or a word of encouragement after getting a math problem right.

This year Leapfrog has come out with a “Leapster” handheld version ($80) that’s designed for the GameBoy set. The device can be used to play interactive videos as well as e-books and educational games. If the name sounds a bit like Napster, so much the better for marketing purposes.

Of course, you can always buy the old-fashioned activity books for preschoolers from SoftPlay for Kids, at prices in the $15 to $20 range.

Construction sets 
The classic Tinkertoy construction set is still alive and well ($10 to $30 or more, depending on how big a kit you want). But if you want to bring the concept into the 21st century, magnetic construction sets like Magz or Strange Attractors are definitely the way to go.

Depending on which set you get, you click together the magnetic ends of bars, tubes or X-shaped pieces with metal balls to form geometric shapes. The Strange Attractors starter kit ($40) provides tubes of varying length, allowing you to come up with complex polyhedra it would take a trigonometry whiz to untangle. The kits are great stress-reducers for kids and grown-ups alike.

If your heart is set on building things that move, you can go the classic route and build a toy crane or mini-Ferris wheel with an Erector set ($15 to $120), or take the higher-tech road with robotic construction kits from Lego MindStorms ($60 to $200).

Drawing tablets
How about the Etch-a-Sketch? The classic, two-dial magic slate can still be had for $15 or so, and there are miniaturized versions that are priced at less than $6. You can even get a heart-shaped Etch-a-Sketch for that special someone.

But if you want to take the higher-tech, higher-priced route this holiday season, Fisher-Price has come out with Pixter Color ($80), an electronic tablet-and-stylus set that lets kids (4 and up) do freehand drawing, connect-the-dots puzzles, color-by-numbers and other artistic tricks. A built-in speaker adds sound effects, and you can buy expansion cards at $15 each to do drawing projects with, say, Barbie or SpongeBob SquarePants themes.

Note that the similarly priced Leapster also includes drawing among its abilities. Yet another toy manufacturer, The Original San Francisco Toymakers, was planning to release a handheld learning toy called iSprout — but it decided to wait until next year.

If color is too expensive, you can go with a black-and-white version of the Pixter for $30 to $35.

Spinning tops 
Toy tops go back well more than 3,000 years, to the time of the ancient Egyptians. But Tutankhamen probably would be baffled by Hasbro’s Beyblade remote-control tops and launcher ($25 to $40, for ages 8 and older).

You zip your battle top into an arena, then operate a trigger device to make it surge ahead or reverse. To get the full effect, you’ll have to have two of the top sets, each tuned to a different radio frequency — and buy a customized walled stadium as well to contain your fighting tops.

If you want to wage virtual top battles on your TV set, you can opt for a Beyblade Arcade system ($70).

Then again, if you’re tut-tutting at the cost of radio-controlled toys and all those accessories, you can always go with the basic Beyblade fighting tops ($7 for a starter set), or even a completely non-Beyblade, thoroughly old-fashioned wooden top with a price tag of less than $15.

Video view-masters 
A good number of tech toys are small-fry spinoffs of grown-up gadgets like handheld audio players (HitClips) or video cameras (Barbie Video Camera). So it shouldn’t be surprising that personal video players are on the toy market this year.

Hasbro’s VideoNow player ($50) looks like a CD player with a 1.7-inch-wide, black-and-white LCD screen. It plays $15 disks that contain 30-minute episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Transformers” and other kid TV favorites (for 6 and up).

HandHeld Entertainment has just started taking orders for its Zvue personal video player at $99, with delivery promised by Chrismas. Zvue has a 2.5-inch-wide color screen, and will play programs from piracy-proofed multimedia cards that you plug into a slot. The titles available so far include music videos featuring Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz, and how-to videos about skateboarding and basketball. The device also can play MP3 audio and display JPEG images.

Because the video display is based on a proprietary format, buying the player is just the first step. It’s like a high-tech View-Master: The thing you look through isn’t any good unless you purchase the things to look at from the same company. In the case of Zvue, however, the company says that is due to change early next year: A software upgrade will make the player backward-compatible with videos encoded in the MPEG4 format.

Extra credit
You can still find retro-tech toys, or versions that have been updated for the 21st century, at places like Edmund Scientific or Auspex Scientific.

Chemistry sets: Auspex’s Chemlab 500 helps young scientists answer the age-old question, “Can you make oxygen with a piece of liver?” Only $16 for 500 experiments ... The Smithsonian MicroChem XM 5000 promises 1,500 potential experiments for $50.

If your child wants to join the genetic revolution, you can go with the DNA Isolation Kit for $20 from Edmund Scientific, or the fancier DNA Explorer Kit for $80 from Discovery.

Scientific tinkering: Even in a digital age, you can still find oodles of crystal radio kits and electronic kits.

If you’re a true do-it-yourselfer, or if you’re just looking for science-fair ideas, Science Toys provides instructions for making a wide variety of gadgets, including a simple AM radio transmitter.

Classic and classy: The 40-Year Calendar from Edmund Scientific ($15) will hold you in good stead until 2039, and looks good on a desktop as well as a school desk.

If you’re looking for a telescope, go beyond the dime-store models and see what Celestron, Meade and Orion have to offer. By the way, good-quality binoculars are becoming an increasingly popular option for the casual stargazer.

If your heart is set on a newfangled flying saucer, the Vectron UltraLite ($32 to $40) seems to be this year’s most popular UFO: The remote-controlled craft can rise as high as 20 feet.

This report from Nov. 26 was updated Dec. 1 with revised information about the Zvue video player.