CD Encyclopedias

"Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects," Will Rogers once quipped. If he had lived to see the day of CD-ROM encyclopedias, Rogers might have added that while his axiom is still true, it's "less true" than it used to be. The fact is that with the low cost and high accessibility of new digital reference tools on the market, there's not much excuse for remaining ignorant on any subject.

The new CD encyclopedias have it all over their leather-bound cousins. For starters, they're much easier to search. Instead of having to browse through multiple bound volumes until you come up with the right keyword, a CD encyclopedia lets you simply enter search terms at the keyboard. Even better, in addition to the main articles, you'll likely find cross-referenced hyperlinks that will take you to other relevant articles or even to World Wide Web sites.

The other obvious advantage of CD encyclopedias is their multimedia capabilities. Throw in video and sound clips, and a dry and often boring reference source is transformed into an educational experience. CD encyclopedias have other advantages that especially endear them to teachers and librarians. For one thing, they are a lot easier to access. Because you can install CD encyclopedias on network servers, users can access them from classroom terminals instead of trudging to the library. As any teacher will testify, the easier it is to access material, the more likely it is that students will do so.

What's more, CD encyclopedias are easier to track and share. Because multiple users can access a CD, there's no problem with five students trying to find the same volume.

Wrap all these advantages up, attach a price of less than $200, and it's no mystery why so many schools are turning to CD reference programs. Even when you add in the cost of setting up a CD server (see story, Page 31), the benefits far outweigh the costs of the traditional encyclopedia. Still, once the decision is made to move to CD references, schools have to decide which reference is best for them. All CD encyclopedias-like their hard-copy predecessors-are not created alike.

We examined the deluxe editions of four of the biggest names: Encyclopedia Britannica 98, 1998 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1998 and Microsoft Corp.'s Encarta 98. (We were unable to receive IBM Corp.'s WorldBook in time for inclusion.) We rated each product on content, interface and price.

In addition to looking for tools such as outliners, bookmarks and the like, we looked up four topics in each encyclopedia to see how they were treated: black holes, Abraham Lincoln (specifically, his assassination), the economic theory of comparative advantage, and Michelangelo's works (we looked specifically for a photograph of the statue of David).

As an educational resource for secondary schools, we found the Encyclopedia Britannica to be the strongest overall product. With this new version, Britannica has adopted a more user-friendly look, added a good deal of multimedia and, as before, delivers the widest range of detailed content of any of the encyclopedias.Encarta also offers a strong package, with the most attractive interface and the best use of multimedia tools, including sound, video and animations.

Encyclopedia Britannica CD 98Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.Chicago, Ill. (800) Content: .....Interface: ...Price: ...

If content is your prime criterion and you can do without extensive multimedia effects, Britannica is the product of choice. Britannica offers only a few video and animation files and only about half the still images of the other products. But among its 72,000 articles you'll find many topics that the competition never quite seems to handle. Not that Britannica is dull and drab. This version introduces a new interface built on top of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. While a tad cluttered and nonintuitive, it's a big improvement. The main screen offers five options: Spectrum, Compass, Analyst, Timelines and Spotlights.

Spectrum offers a searchable list of articles as well as a text search tool. You also can filter articles according to five criteria: biographies, comprehensive articles, place, category and media. Compass is an atlas that offers more than 1,000 maps. Timelines is a nifty utility that offers a chronological list of events in history grouped according to 10 categories, including medicine, literature, technology, religion, music and architecture. You can jump directly from an entry in Timelines to full articles on the topic.

Analyst is a feature that lets you create statistical comparisons-using tables and graphs-between countries and regions. For example, you can work up a demographic or economic comparison between, say, the United States and China.Spotlights is a kind of haphazard collection of material on six topics: the Olympics, ecosystems, human anatomy, dinosaurs, the American Civil War and Britannica Classics (sort of a "best of" collection from previous editions of the encyclopedia). More so than the other products we examined, Britannica is a serious research tool. The discussions of topics are detailed and no-nonsense, and the articles are enhanced with more than a million hyperlinks to articles within the product and about 15,000 links to external Web sites.

No other product matched Britannica in its treatment of our four test topics. Britannica provided a 788-word article on black holes, 9,337 words on Abraham Lincoln and 4,920 words on Michelangelo, along with a full picture of David and six other works. What's more, Britannica was the only product that provided an explanation of the economic theory of comparative advantage.

Britannica's content is so good that it should satisfy all but the most specialized students through secondary school and beyond. It's a bargain at $125.

Compton's Interactive EncyclopediaThe Learning Co.Cambridge, MA(800) 227-5609(510) Content: ..Interface: ...Price: ....

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia doesn't have the depth of Britannica or the polish of Encarta. But it does have its niche. CIE is easy to use, and the language is always kept simple and direct, making it better-suited, perhaps, for middle schools than high schools. The product also offers a number of extra features that suit it especially well for those just learning to do academic research.

There are actually two versions of CIE: a standard ($45) and a deluxe version ($65). But don't even think of trying to save $20. Both editions offer the same 38,000 articles and 450 maps. Yet the Deluxe Edition offers twice as many photos as the standard version (16,000 instead of 8,000), half again as many videos (150 instead of 100) and 20 hours of sound clips instead of 16.

You'll also find extra tools in the Deluxe Edition, such as Ask the Librarian. Click on Ask the Librarian, fill out the online form about your research question and send it off. Within two business days, you'll get an e-mail answer back from Compton's with suggestions of online and offline research resources.Whichever version of CIE you opt for, you'll be offered the same simple and easy-to-navigate interface. The main display presents three panels. When you first boot the program, the upper-left panel is devoted to searching articles, while the articles themselves are displayed in the right-hand panel and photographs in the lower left-hand panel. If you scroll text down to where a photograph is embedded, it isn't automatically called up, as in Encarta, but you can simply click on the icon to call up the photo in the lower left-hand panel.

But CIE didn't do particularly well on our sample searches. The encyclopedia offered a very basic discussion, at 562 words, on black holes. The program's entry on Abraham Lincoln ran to 7,628 words, with 176 words devoted to his assassination. There was no entry at all on the theory of comparative advantage. And CIE's entry on Michelangelo was only 1,138 words and did not include a photograph of the statue of David.

But if CIE lacks detail on topics, it does offer several extras that can help engage easily distracted young minds. For example, there is StarQuest, which is a game that helps users learn about the constellations, and there is a planetarium that offers point-and-click access to articles about the universe. In similar fashion, the Explore feature offers a small set of pre-designed graphical search "environments," such as a space ship for exploring space, that are clearly aimed at a younger audience. Finally, a scrolling time line offers details on U.S. history in one panel and world history in another.

CIE also comes with more tools for students to use in performing their research, including a built-in word processor and notepad, and bookmarks. In addition, The Learning Center offers a curriculum integration guide for teachers.

Microsoft Encarta DeluxeMicrosoft Corp.Redmond, Wash.(800) 426-9400(425) Content: ...Interface: .....Price: ....

Encarta? What does Encarta mean? Alas, the Microsoft Encarta 98 encyclopedia doesn't offer any explanation. But that's about all you won't find explained. Encarta offers the most appealing mix of content, interface and price of any product we looked at.

True, it isn't quite as broad-ranging and detailed as Britannica, offering only about half the number of articles. But Encarta is far ahead of Britannica when it comes to employing multimedia tools to good effect. The product's integration of 14,000 photographs, 2,300 sound clips, 150 videos and animations, and more than 30 360-degree photographs is unsurpassed.

Encarta's well-designed interface is easy to follow. When you search for and retrieve an article, you'll find an outline of the article along the left-hand side of the screen that makes it easy to jump to the information you want. A multimedia window at the top of the screen displays any associated image or video; as you move through the article, the element in the window changes as appropriate. If there's more than one element on a page, you can change the element by simply clicking on the appropriate icon in the text.

Encarta delivered moderately good results on our test searches. The encyclopedia includes a 688-word article on black holes. It also includes a generous 13,411 words on Abraham Lincoln, with 441 of those words discussing his assassination. Encarta does not provide an entry on the economic theory of comparative advantage, but it does offer a 2,000-word article on Michelangelo and includes a picture of the statue of David as well as photos of seven other works.

Encarta includes a host of tools to help engage students. There is, of course, the expected time line and atlas. Beyond that, Encarta offers a MindMaze game to challenge users' knowledge, and it offers "collages" of multimedia presentations on 20 topics, covering issues from the birth of TV to the economic rise of the Pacific Rim.

If you opt for the Deluxe Edition of Encarta, you'll find additional tools as well as 2,000 more articles, 6,000 photos, 300 sound clips and 50 videos. InterActivities are interactive presentations on such topics as the structure of DNA, world languages and nutrition. Some of the modules also offer educational games. There are also 19 Virtual Tours of sites around the world, from a cheese factory to Westminster Abbey. The Deluxe Edition also includes a nifty Research Organizer that makes it a snap to gather information from Encarta, books and online resources to arrange everything into an outline and construct a report. There's also a dictionary and word processor available.

The Standard Edition carries an estimated retail price of $54.95, with the Deluxe Edition at $79.95. Schools can get the Deluxe Edition for $69.95. Unless you need the depth and detail of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Encarta is a hard bargain to pass up.

Grolier Multimedia EncyclopediaDanbury, Conn. (203) 797-3530Fax (203) 797-3835www.grolier.comContent: ...Interface: ...Price: ....

The 1998 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia offers a solid combination of content and multimedia in a very affordable package. But what really sets the Grolier product apart is its links to more resources on the Web. In addition to the more than 35,000 articles on the GME CDs, all it takes is a click of the Online button below any article to pop open a dialog box that lets you search either Encyclopedia Americana or the New Book of Knowledge for further information on the subject.

Not that you can't get quite a lot of information from the CDs alone. In our test sampling, we found that GME offered a detailed 950-word article on black holes. Abraham Lincoln didn't receive quite the same level of detailed treatment as was provided by Encarta and Britannica, with the entire GME article only running 2,255 words. And there was no entry at all covering the economic theory of comparative advantage. GME does, however, deliver 1,800 words on Michelangelo, including photos of four of his works, including the statue of David.

GME does not quite come up to Encarta's measure of integrated multimedia, although it does include 10,000 images as well as 48 videos and animations. There are also 31 guided tours of subjects such as Shakespeare and modern medicine. In addition, there are seven Interactivities, which are similar to the guided tours except that the reader chooses where to go within the topic. Look for a lot more multimedia in the 1999 version of the encyclopedia, which is due to be released in September.

Grolier's interface is a little cluttered and not as easy to navigate as it could be. There's a panel on the left that displays either the browsable list of articles or bookmarks or the search panel, depending on which tab you click. Most of the display is devoted to the current article. If there is an associated multimedia element, you'll see a small representation of it to the left of the article, but to activate the element you'll first have to click on the appropriate tab above the article.

In similar fashion, if you want to see an outline of longer articles, Grolier provides one, but you have to click on a tab above the article to pop open an outline window, and that window covers the article itself.

GME's feature set is rounded out with a dictionary, a nifty drill-down atlas and an extensive time line. Finally, the product even includes a hard-copy study guide that covers a variety of topics, including quizzes for users to take.

The Deluxe Edition of GME has a suggested retail price of $59.99.


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