Once upon a time, parents hoping to improve their children's' chances at school would dutifully order a multi-tome encyclopedia. Encyclopedia companies prospered, employing countless salesmen around the world to sell their products.
Businesses such as Encyclopdia Britannica, however, came unstuck as upstarts such as Microsoft began to package information on much cheaper CDs that promised more interactive content. People began to appreciate the ability to click through topics on their PCs rather than trawl through dusty books. Multimedia seemed just the ticket for getting the most from the vast array of information included in encyclopedias.
That was the idea, anyway.
Encyclopdia Britannica is probably the most widely known name in this field, so you'd expect its software version to be a leading contender. Although the content is as good as ever, Britannica 2002 can be a bit tricky to use and not very intuitive. For example, it has links from the front page to timelines but they are difficult to navigate. At first it looks like you need to scroll through the dates, but scroll bars are not visible (instead, you need to use the arrow on the dateline).
Not all topics are well served, either. A general history of Australia, for example, had no hyperlinks to other topics, while a page on the prehistoric caves at Lascaux, in France, had six. (But, I found associated information in another area that mentioned Lascaux but did not provide a hyperlink.) Similarly, a search on Banjo Patterson served up a brief summary but no hyperlinks, nor a sound file of "Waltzing Matilda". I found a map of Australia, but there's no ability to drill down for maps with further detail. You can click on place names (Canberra, for instance) for text content. A search on "didgeridoo" returned four articles but no sound file. The much broader search on music came up with only 12 sound files - all part of a history of rock music.
What is good about Britannica is the ability to update the encyclopedia with free quarterly updates and information from the Web site. This task is easily handled via the Update Center. Installation is also straightforward - make sure you select the option to install content from both CDs during setup, otherwise you'll need to have them handy while exploring the content to swap them in when required. There's also the facility to add notes while you research and then have them collated into a report. Entries are well written and easy to understand.
Encarta 2002's interface is much more user-friendly. The first page has a search field (Britannica's is one click in) as well as a list of alphabetical topics. Type a topic into the search field and you get a drop-down list of areas to search: maps, Web sites and articles. That said, Encarta missed some of the links I appreciated in my search on Lascaux in Britannica - for example, the one to how carbon dating works.
Besides usability, Encarta found much more multimedia content for our search topics. There's a great didgeridoo sound file, plus a rendition of "Waltzing Matilda". Encarta's maps are also much better than Britannica's, allowing me to drill down to the Sydney suburb where PC World's offices are located. I also drilled down on a map of the world to the area in Egypt where the Great Pyramid stands.
A search on music found 16 sound files, ranging from traditional music of Ghana and Tibetan chants through to Verde's "Aida" and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. While not exactly comprehensive, it's a start.
In a perfect world, we'd be able to combine Encarta's approach to multimedia and Britannica's range of content to realise the true potential for accessing encyclopedic information via a PC.
Encyclopdia Britannica "2002 Deluxe Edition CDThis stellar encyclopedia could be easier to use and could take greater advantage of the medium, such as providing more audiovisual content and hyperlinking.
Microsoft Encarta Reference Library "2002 CDEncarta's good looks, ease of use and multimedia content make it a worthwhile choice for a software encyclopedia.
URL: www.encarta.com.au or www.microsoft.com.au.