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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

With Computer Chip, The Pen Gets Mightier

NEW YORK -- The holiday season may be a time for love, hope and all that jazz. But let's face it: for many people, a big part of it is getting new toys.

And one toy in particular, though it has been available for only a month, already appears high on the "hottest toys" lists prepared by eBay, Toys "R" Us and others: a $100 educational gadget called the Fly Pentop Computer.

But you don't use the Fly on top of a pen. Instead, the Fly is a pen -- a fat ballpoint pen.

The Fly is so fat because it contains a AAA battery, a computer chip, a speaker and, mounted a half-inch from the ballpoint tip, a tiny camera. For all of its educational, interactive tricks, the Fly pen requires special paper whose surface is imprinted with nearly invisible micro-dots. As you write, the pen always knows where it is on the page, thanks to those dot patterns and the camera that watches them go by.

Logitech and other companies sell exactly the same technology to adults, but it has not ever caught on. Those pens simply store what you write -- not as text, but just as a frozen graphic -- and later transfer it to a Windows computer.

But Fly's maker, LeapFrog, has much greater ambitions. In its incarnation, which is aimed at "tweens" (8 to 14 years old), no PC is required or desired; instead, you get crisp, instantaneous audio feedback from the pen's speaker.

Staggering possibilities await a pen that can read software right off the page as it moves, and the Fly package comes with a sparkling sampler. For example, as you tap countries on a world map, the pen pronounces their capitals or plays their national anthems.

The Fly also comes with something called Fly Open Paper: a sheaf of blank pages that permit a much more free-form range of creative activities. You indicate which program you want by writing its initials in a circle.

For example, in Scheduler (circled S), you can write "Tuesday 3:45 P.M. student council"; at the specified time, the pen will turn itself on and speak the appointment's name.

These starter programs are stored in a white plastic cap on top of the pen. But the Fly can accommodate additional cartridges -- sold separately, of course, for $25 to $35 each.

Each comes with appropriate pads, sheaves or books of the specially printed paper. There are hits and misses among these add-ons -- which include Spanish, math and spelling -- but the good ones break some interesting new ground.

Fly Through Math, for example, is dedicated to multiplication and division. Like a watchful parent or teacher, the Fly's little voice-over elf comments when, for example, you forget to carry the 1 or misplace a decimal point.

Fly is not solely about academics. You can also buy kits like Flyball (interactive baseball cards that let you manage a team) and Fly Journal (a lockable diary with daily writing prompts).

The Fly is a very unusual and highly engaging educational tool. There are, however, some flies in the ointment.

Sometimes the Fly speaks your written words perfectly; other times, you wonder if the little camera needs a tiny contact lens. I filled an entire sheet of Fly paper trying to get it to recognize my block-lettered "LUNCH WITH STEVE," but it never did stop pronouncing the middle word as "W dot."

Making choices from a menu is also clumsy, since you can't actually see the menu. You have to wait for the pen to read off your choices; when it says the one you want, you draw a check mark on the page.