July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

SHOPPING SMART

Looking for a new VCR or refrigerator? Trevor Traina offers one reason to start the search at CompareNet (www.compare.net), his company’s product-comparison Web site: “No more going to a big chain store and asking some 17-year-old kid in a red jacket a lot of questions.” At CompareNet, users can research more than 20,000 products—appliances, cars, electronics—by choosing desired features and creating side-by-side matchups of competitors. More importantly the site explains each feature, so you know whether your VCR really needs, say, a flying erase head.

CompareNet staffers meticulously research each product, and the San Francisco company is starting to rake in ad dollars. That’s good news for Traina, 29, the son of social scenesters John Traina, an investor, and Dede Wilsey, a philanthropist, and stepson of author Danielle Steel (who separated from Traina’s father in 1995 after 15 years). CompareNet now draws 200,000 users to its site each month. The most requested products? “Breadmakers and lawn mowers,” says Traina. Although, he adds, “I’ve told Danielle that maybe we’ll have a summer literature section too.”

IT’S ALIVE!

Tamagotchis, those beeping “digital pets” on key chains, may be sweeping the junior highs of America. But two new CD-ROMs showcase virtual critters with much stronger claims to achieving artificial life. The first, released here in April by Fujitsu Interactive, is Fin Fin on Teo, the Magic Planet. Kids befriend the half-bird, half-dolphin Fin Fin by talking to him gently through a sensor. The timid Fin Fin gradually learns to trust them, come when called and do tricks to reward his new friends.

Creatures, to be released by Mindscape this month, will delight science-minded older kids and adults. The CD-ROM asks you to play keeper to cutie pies called Norns. Newly hatched Norns learn from exploring the world around them, from other Norns and from users, who can even teach them up to 100 words in any language.

Norns can trace their origins to electronic DNA designed by the British company Cyberlife. Their offspring sometimes surprise even their creators. One user, says Cyberlife vice president Anil Malhotra, reported that two of his adult Norns had become inseparable. When the male died, the female stood by his side, refused to eat and died an hour later. “There’s no program code at all for that,” says Malhotra—which makes these creatures, in a sense, seem very much alive indeed.

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