CD encyclopedias: Encarta 2004 Premium Suite CD and Britannica Reference Suite 2004 CD

Encyclopedias have always been about heft. Although many of us have passed the era of multi-tomed print editions, this fact remains true in the multimedia arena. Take Encarta, for example. This latest version offers over 130,000 articles and entries, 24,000-plus photos and illustrations, and over 3100 sound and music clips. Not to be outdone, Encyclopædia Britannica promises some 101,000 articles and 25,000 images and multimedia files amongst its statistics.

Of course, all this material makes demands of your PC. Encarta lists its system requirements as 64MB RAM for Windows 98 or Me and 128MB for Windows 2000 Professional or XP plus up to 260MB available hard disk space, while Britannica’s six CDs need 256MB RAM and 315MB free hard disk space (both give you the option of a basic installation to save space, but you’ll need to have the CDs handy to swap in when required).

The true test of a good multi-media encyclopedia is how well it makes use of the medium in helping you get to and use all this content. Forgetting the individual flourishes, the encyclopedias have similar interfaces for accessing material. On both you’ll find a search field on the left plus links to other methods of navigating the material and to other sections like the dictionaries or maps.

The little differences, however, will appeal to different users. Encarta has the slicker, more accessible look with its rotating pictures that lead you to different topics (the Visual Browser - see here for a screenshot), but Britannica appeals with details like filters for switching between the general Library, the Student Library, and the Elementary Library for younger kids. In Browse mode, click between the various libraries and you see how the content is streamlined for different audiences.

The Browse feature opens a list of alphabetical topics under the search field — a similar list opens automatically in Encarta — but hover over topics and a useful short description appears so you know whether it’s worth clicking on.

In terms of what’s included, both encyclo-pedias tick the timeline, atlas, research and homework organiser, online updates, and dictionary/thesaurus boxes. Both also have vetted online links, which will help to allay the fears parents have that kids will surf to inappropriate or misleading sites.

Differences do appear when it comes to how the encyclopedias present themselves. In Encarta, the multimedia is front and centre: you’re presented with images flashed at you by the visual browser, in addition to the links to videos from the Discovery Channel. Encarta also presents a timely topic each day you log in. One of the times I started it, for instance, it suggested the Mars topic area, given the headline-grabbing forays to the planet that week.

Britannica’s highlighted extras are no less attention-grabbing. For example, Britannica Classics lets you read extracts from versions of the encyclopedia over the centuries or written by famous people such as Albert Einstein.

If you’re shopping for a CD- (or DVD-) based encyclopedia, both these options will more than fit the bill. Those with the 2003 version, however, may want to carefully assess the new features before forking out for a new version.

In brief: Microsoft Encarta 2004 Premium Suite CD
Easy-to-use encyclopedia has fun additions like Discovery Channel videos and a quote library, plus straightforward access to the essentials.
Price: $169.95 (DVD version at same price)
Vendor: Microsoft
Phone: 13 2058

Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2004 CD
(pre-release version, not rated)
This encyclopedia stalwart wins points with filters for different audiences and new ways to present its impressive back catalogue.
Price: $129 (DVD version at same price)
Vendor: Encyclopædia Britannica
Phone: 1800 000 060

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