Two Cool Tools to entertain the kids during winter, spring or summer vacation

Over the past few weeks we've been snowbound several times, which also included a school vacation week. With my kids asking me for the one-millionth time "What can we do, Dad?", fortunately I had two technology-related items for the column to test out, and they would also appeal to the youngsters as well as adults.

Anki Drive

The scoop: Anki Drive racing system, by Anki Drive, about $200 (available for purchase online or at Apple retail stores; additional cars about $70.

What is it? A modern-day slot-car racing system, but without the slots, the weird smell and controllers via iPhones or iPads, the Anki Drive starter kit includes two small cars, a special vinyl track mat and a three-cable power charger that can recharge three cars (up to four cars can be used in a race).

Players control their cars through the iOS app on their phone or tablet (iOS 7 is required), which gives them a throttle to speed up or down. Turning the car on the vinyl track is done automatically, but the player can switch "lanes" by tilting their device left (for the inside lanes) or right (for the outside lanes). This should remind older players of slot-car systems that didn't include the slots, where you could switch lanes with a quick trigger click.

Why it's cool: This game brought me immediately back to my childhood in the late 70s / early 80s, in which my brother and I would battle furiously for slot-car dominance. Anki Drive ups the ante by giving the cars virtual weapons. So if you're falling behind in the race, you can pull in an opponent with a tractor beam, and then fire your guns to disable their car. Using weapons requires energy, however, and if you use up the energy your car becomes vulnerable to attack from other drivers.

Another cool feature is how the system uses artificial intelligence in the cars. When a car is not being controlled by a player, it uses its AI to drive, attack and defend all by itself. This provides for a single-player experience for those times when your brother is too upset because you beat him in 10 straight races. Up to three other AI-controlled cars can race with you, or you can race other players and then fill out the roster with the AI cars. Watching four cars battle each other and spin each other out was exciting and fun.

Cars can be upgraded with additional weapons and defenses, and the more you play the better you get. Anki does a great job at providing app updates to keep the system interesting.

Some caveats: The batteries on each of the cars can last for only about 20 minutes before they need a recharge. In one case during our testing, the battery died in the middle of a race. It only takes between 8 to 10 minutes for the cars to recharge, but that can be a drag when you're trying to entertain your kids during a snowy or rainy day.

We also experienced some odd behavior from one of the cars during the tutorial, which took us longer to set up as it kept resetting. Each time you set up a new controller (iPad or iPhone), you have to run through the tutorial again, which was also a bit annoying. In addition, the track tends to attract dust/dirt rather quickly, which could affect the cars' tire traction (a possible cause for our one car's odd behavior). I'd suggest placing the track on a large table rather than a floor to help combat that issue. Having enough controllers (iPads, iPhones, etc., all needing iOS 7) can be an issue as well if you're going to try to race four cars.

Bottom line: The combination of real-time racing with a video game app should appeal to adults and children alike.

Grade: 4 stars (out of five)

Singtrix

The scoop: Singtrix karaoke system, by Singtrix, about $300

What is it? The Singtrix system includes everything you need to turn bad karaoke singers into relatively tolerable karaoke singers. If you are OK at karaoke, you'll get even better with Singtrix, which includes a microphone stand, speaker, professional microphones and a device that features pitch correction, professional vocal effects and "backup harmonies" that are created from your own voice.

Why it's cool: First off, the Singtrix was created by the makers of the Guitar Hero video game, so it automatically gets bonus points. The device is easy to set up just attach any music player (phone, tablet or MP3 player) to the device, then dial up the preferred effect you want. The basic settings include about 15 styles for beginner singers you'll want to select the ones that correct your pitch. You can sing along with existing versions of the song and try to drown out the singer's voice, or you can play a karaoke version of the song if you have it (the Spotify app is good for this purpose). A button on the Singtrix unit also lets you turn down the volume of the singer on a regular song, although I found this not as desirable as using a karaoke version, because this means your audience can hear more of your voice.

My 8-year-old daughter and aspiring pop star absolutely loved the Singtrix it let her belt out songs from her favorite movie, "Frozen" with the benefit of correcting her pitch and giving her voice more depth (and harmony).  My two younger children loved the "sound effects" settings on the Singtrix unit. For example, beyond the pitch-correction and harmony settings, you could dial up effects like "Darth Vader" or "Robot voice", or the always hilarious "Male to Female" or "Helium" effect.

Mobile users can also download a Singtrix app that includes some free karaoke versions of popular songs (which includes the lyrics to the song), but it's also quite easy to just play the song (or use a streaming service like Spotify) and then print out the song's lyrics from the Internet.

A second microphone jack is included if you want to sing a duet with someone, but be warned the second microphone doesn't have the same pitch correction, harmony or sound effects. Give that microphone to the person who sings better than you.

Some caveats: At $300, this is a big investment for someone looking to do this once or twice to have some fun I'd imagine that professional karaoke operators (you know, those DJs that run a bar's karaoke night) would initially buy this system and use to give singers a better experience (especially with the cool effects like backup singers and harmonies).

Grade: 4.5 stars

Keith Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow him on Twitter: @shawkeith

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