Encyclopedias are exceptional learning tools and are of great educational value for all types of people. The traditional thick, bound-volume print format used to often make finding the right information a tiresome task. Digital versions of encyclopedias now make finding and cross-referencing information far less cumbersome, and make the learning process much more enjoyable.
The two heavy-hitters in the digital encyclopedia space, Encarta and Britannica, have just released their 2005 versions - ready for the new school year. Microsoft's Encarta features over 130,000 articles and entries, 25,300-plus photos and illustrations, and over 3250 videos, animations, sound and music clips. Britannica is no slouch either, with approximately 101,000 articles, 18,500 images and multimedia, plus 2514 world maps.
System specifications required for both types of software are meagre: they should run on most systems, but the big difference is the amount of hard disk space that each package occupies. Minimum specifications include Windows (98, 2000, Me, XP), Pentium 350MHz and up to 250MB hard disk space for Encarta and 550MB for Britannica. Extra features (other than the basic install) can be installed, but may require additional hard disk space. If the basic install option is chosen, you may need to have the CDs/DVD at the ready when prompted for other content.
Microsoft's Encarta definitely has a slicker, more visually appealing interface, with the 3D animated icons (Visual Browser) and drop-down menus for easy navigation. The included Search Bar can even be docked to the Windows taskbar to be used when the application is closed. Encarta also has a dedicated section for children (ages seven and above) called Encarta Kids, with a colourful interface plus large images and icons to encourage learning.
Britannica is more streamlined, with three main sections targeted at general, students and elementary libraries. For the 2005 version, Britannica also has a feature called Brainstormer. It is a visual browsing tool that allows you to search on related topics between different subjects that you may not be aware of.
Another of Britannica's features is the Classics archive. This is great for reading back over older editions of the encyclopedia or excerpts of text written by famous authors such as Sigmund Freud. Encarta definitely has the upper hand with the multimedia content though; the inclusion of Discovery Channel videos and 360-degree view panoramic images from around the world must be seen to be believed.
Both versions include a dictionary, thesaurus, timeline, atlas, research tools, homework helpers/organiser and online updates. Linked online articles or information are also included with both versions, but are closely guarded to withstand the barrage of inappropriate content, keeping parents' minds at ease when children are surfing from site to site. Britannica and Encarta are both extremely easy to use and finding the correct information is done by simply entering a search string or using the "browse feature". A list of related alphabetical topics opens and you then click on the applicable topic.
Encarta has dropped $50 from last year's version, making it more affordable. But if you find the price tag for Britannica is beyond your reach or you have no need for additional content, Britannica offers cut-down versions: the Deluxe edition (ages 12 and over) priced at $89.95 and the Student encyclopedia at $49.95 (ages 7-14).
If you're looking to consolidate your current print encyclopedias or to help your children learn more in a fun environment, both versions are more than adequate.
Microsoft Encarta 2005 Premium Suite CD: Intuitive to use and supported by Australian content, the exemplary multimedia features captivate and encourage learning. Also available in DVD format for the same price.
PRICE: $129.95; VENDOR: Microsoft; PHONE: 13 2058; URL: www.microsoft.com.au
Encyclopadia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2005 DVD: Great for education centres/families, and the streamlined content targets specific audiences well. The cut-down versions in CD format are also a great option for the budget conscious.
PRICE: $129.95; VENDOR: Encyclopadia Britannica; PHONE: 1800 000 060;URL: www.britannica.com.au