Saitek's Mephisto Maestro Travel Chess Computer showed me that I'm really, really rusty at chess.
The Maestro sells for around $100 (Cdn.) and looks a lot like a Palm computer on steroids. It's got the same basic shape (albeit a bit wider), backlit touchscreen and clip-on stylus as a Palm handheld PDA, but it's closer to the thickness and weight of a small paperback book.
That's my biggest criticism of the design. The Maestro fits well in a coat or backpack pocket, or a carry-on bag or attaché case, but it's not going to fit in the pocket of your blue jeans or slip surreptitiously into the inner pocket of your blazer. It comes with a soft protective case that adds more bulk, too, but you'll need it to keep the screen from getting scratched.
In other words, if you're a road warrior in need of something ultra-portable, keep looking (or get a good program for your Palm or PocketPC). But if the size doesn't throw you, the rest of the Maestro's features will be music to the ears of beginner and intermediate chess lovers.
The monochrome screen isn't fancy, but it's clear and big enough to see the pieces easily at arm's length. It also has a very bright, two-level blue backlight. The Maestro's display makes digital chess MUCH more enjoyable than, say, squinting to see the pieces on a PDA chess program screen.
The screen is touch-sensitive, but while the pieces are big enough visually, they're too small for all but the tiniest fingers to select easily. Instead, there's a stylus for moving the pieces around the board. It clips into a slot on the side of the unit, and stays snugly in place when put away.
The controls are simple. Other than the touchscreen, there's a power button on one side of the Maestro and the backlight slider-control is on the other (it can be set to off, normal or bright). On the face there's a four-way mini directional pad for scrolling through the on-screen menus, too. The button on the left calls up the menu or starts a new game, one on the right clears instructions or calls up strategic tips.
Mastering the Maestro is simple, and you shouldn't need to haul out the manual to get started unless you need a refresher on the rules of chess. The menu can be slightly confusing at times, though - instructions scroll across the bottom of the screen in a narrow bar, and sometimes they can be a bit terse. Until I got the hang of things, I often ended up cancelling a game and started a new one instead of just taking back a move as I'd intended.
The computer takes three AAA batteries — and AAAs are pricier than longer-lasting AA batteries. Given the fact that it wouldn't really have added anything to the unit's bulk, I'd have preferred a design powered by twin-AA cells.
To save you some money, though, the Maestro does have an auto-power-down feature in case you leave it on accidentally. I couldn't find an official power consumption rating for the Maestro, but battery life varied significantly depending on my use of the backlight. If you don't use the light, you can play almost endlessly on a set of batteries, but when I had the light set to full I typically got only a few hours of use from a set of cells.
The processor is quick and responsive, and I seldom had to wait more than a second or two for the computer to evaluate its options and make a move (my own moves took significantly longer to plot...).
Games are stored in the on-board memory. If you're playing and have to turn your attention suddenly to something else, just hit the power button. The system powers down instantly and saves your game. When you power back up, which is also instantaneous, the game will be there exactly as you left it.
You can play against a human opponent, or take on the computer's artificial intelligence (AI) program. The AI has 100 customizable playing levels — 60 listed as "fun" and 40 rated as "Competition." Choose the latter at your peril. I'm not a great chess player, but I found it to be a formidable opponent. In fact, during the entire review period, I only managed to win one game. And that was using quite a few tips helpfully offered by the computer when I was about to do something stupid.
The computer also has a training or "coach" mode with 64 study positions and the ability to use any one of 3,650 different opening gambits (apparently I should have made more use of this mode before tackling the AI...).
There's a standard chess clock, too, but for me the most useful feature is the aforementioned multi-move takeback system. It lets you back out of a jam, retrace your steps and try a new strategy if the going gets too tough. If you REALLY mess up, you can take back up to 200 moves.
In other words, you can just play to while away the hours on a trip, or use the Maestro as a study tool to learn the basic strategies employed by the world's top chess players.
I'm not a chess expert by any stretch of the imagination, I just play (badly) for fun. But chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov knows a thing or two about the game, and he thinks highly enough of the Saitek Mephisto Maestro Travel Chess Computer that he allowed his name to be slapped on the front of the unit. His endorsement is a better evaluation of the AI that my meagre chess abilities permit.
My one criticism is that given the computing power of the unit, it would have been easy for Saitek to build in some other games — even simple ones like solitaire and backgammon. After I got pounded several times in a row by the unrelenting chess AI, I would have appreciated a chance to play something else for a while as I went over new strategies in my head (and let my bruised ego heal). Unfortunately, chess is all this device has to offer.
But if you crave chess, chess and yet more chess, this is the gadget for you. Aside from being a bit too large to be called "ultraportable," this is a great little mobile companion for the chess lover.