Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia. (Evaluation)
by David English
What has 9 million words in 32,000 articles; 15,000 images, maps, and graphs; 60 minutes of sound, music, and speech; 45 animation sequences; 5,000 maps, charts, and diagrams; and the complete Webster's Intermediate Dictionary? No, I'm not talking about your local library. This is much smaller--in fact, it's all stored on a single five-inch disc that's only a fraction of an inch high. Give up?
It's Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia on CD-ROM, and it's now available in a Windows version as well as a DOS version. The DOS version won a 1991 COMPUTE Choice Award earlier this year. But as good as the DOS version is, the new Windows version is a significant upgrade. While both offer a screen resolution of 640 x 480, the Windows version has as many as 256 colors instead of just 16 colors (the DOS version has to switch to 320 x 200 in order to show its photos in 256 colors).
The DOS version currently supports only the IBM Speech Adapter, Covox Speech Thing, Digispeech DS 201, and Tandy Sound, in addition to the CD-ROM drive's own radio output. The Windows version can produce sound with any sound board (including the Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster Pro) that's compatible with Windows' new multimedia extensions (called Windows with Multimedia).
Finally, because the Windows version supports that multimedia extensions, you can now have an article, a high-resolution picture, an animated sequence, and music--all going at the same time. The DOS version contains all of these elements but has to stop and switch from one to another. The Windows version truly lives up to the name MultiMedia Encyclopedia.
The only catch with the Windows version is that you must have Windows with Multimedia and the hardware necessary to run it. This can take the form of one of the new MPC (Multimedia PC) computers or an upgrade kit (which usually includes the Windows multimedia extensions, a CD-ROM drive, a compatible sound board, and possibly a Super VGA video-display card). You'll then be ready for the many multimedia applications due to be released during the next 12 months. Compton's is just the tip of the iceberg.
With all 26 volumes of the Compton's Encyclopedia and more on just one CD-ROM disc, you need more than just an online index to find your way around. Fortunately, Britannica Software (a division of Encyclopedia Britannica) has designed an extremely easy-to-use interface. Wherever you are, you can always see the same eight icons on the right side of the screen. Using them, you can quickly find the information you need.
To some degree the icons take you to categories of information, but to a larger degree they offer different views of doors to the same overlapping information. For instance, after clicking on the History icon, you can click on Stock Market Crash and bring up an article on the 1929 crash, which can lead you to related articles on the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the stock market.
Each of these articles can have pictures, sound, and animation and can lead you to other related articles. For example, "Stock Market" can lead you to the related articles "Business Cycle," "Foreign Exchange," and "Herbert Hoover."
As an alternate route, you can click on the Topic Tree icon and move from Economics to Finance and Government to an article on inflation. There you can call up the same "Business Cycle" article that you saw when you took the path through the History icon.
As a third route, you can click on the Finder icon, type the word business, watch the words business cycle move to the top of the list, double-click on the phrase, and find yourself once again at the "Business Cycle" article.
For an even closer look at how these various paths work, let's take a brief look at each of the eight icons. The eight icons are History, Topic Tree, Search, Finder, Science, World Atlas, Picture Tour, and Go Back.
The History icon brings up a time line of American history from 1492 to 1990. Above the time line are the important periods of history, including Revolutionary War, Major Inventions, and Roosevelt's New Deal. Clicking on any of these will lead you to a list of related articles.
Below the time line are more specific events, such as Boston Tea Party, Telephone Invented, and United Nations Formed. Clicking on any of these will lead you to that specific article.
With the Topic Tree icon, you begin with a list of 19 broad categories of knowledge (Arts, Communication, Earth, Economics, and so on). Clicking on any of these broad topics brings up a list of three or more subcategories and a list of related articles. The subcategories lead to another list of related articles. Using the Topic Tree to branch from the general to the specific, you can quickly follow a logical path of learning--such as Living Things, Animal, Animal Products, and Silk.
The third icon, Search, lets you type in a word or phrase and see a list of related articles. You can then doubleclick on the article's name and read the article. Each instance of the word or phrase is highlighted in the article so you can quickly find the reference. You can also search through the pictures (or, more precisely, through the pictures' captions) to call up related pictures and articles.
Finder, the fourth icon, is simply an alphabetical index for the entire encyclopedia. To help you deal with this extremely long list, the program includes an intelligent title finder. Type a letter, and the list will move to the words and phrases starting with that letter. Type a second letter, and the list will move to the words and phrases that start with both letters (for example, type di, and the list will move to diabetes).
The fifth icon, Science, offers still another way to progress from the general to the specific. Four broad science categories--Living Things, The Human Body, Inner Earth to Outer Space, and Going Places--lead to subcategories and their related articles.
World Atlas, the sixth icon, leads to a map of the world which you can use to zoom into a country or region. You can click on the name of a country, city, or body of water and quickly call up its related article.
Picture Tour, the seventh icon, lets you randomly browse through 15,000 pictures and drawings. Click on the buttom marked Article, and you can move directly to the related article.
The final icon, Go Back, simply lets you move back through the various screens you've visited up until that point--including screens from past sessions.
I had a great time exploring the new Windows version of Compton's. Using the various search methods, I enjoyed browsing through the lists and stopping at whatever article seemed interesting. While you lose the higher-resolution pictures and immediacy of the printed page, you gain the ability to search on a grand scale--in addition to the music, speeches, sounds, and animation.
It's not a bad tradeoff, especially when you consider that this 26-volume encyclopedia is considerably smaller than a paperback novel.