The world on a platter. (Microsoft Encardia Multimedia Encyclopedia) (Software Review) (Column) (Evaluation)
by David English
Until recently, you could sum up the major CD-ROM encyclopedias like this: One has better multimedia, while the other has better text. The better multimedia encyclopedia has been Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia (Compton's NewMedia, 2320 Camino Vida Roble, Carlsbad, California 92009; 619-929-2500; $395). Formerly called Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia, it has introduced several innovative techniques for gathering up electronic information.
The better text encyclopedia has been The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (Grolier Electronic Publishing, Sherman Turnpike, Danbury, Connecticut 06816; 800-356-5590; $395). Its text is written on a higher grade level than Compton's, with many of its articles penned by experts in their respective fields.
During the last nine months, Grolier has worked hard to close the interface gap by finally introducing a Windows version of its encyclopedia. It's much easier to use than the earlier DOS version. Compton's has responded with its new Virtual Workspace technology that more closely approximates how we collect information in the real world (sort of a books-open-and-scattered-in-a-logical-order approach).
Just when things had settled into a predictable two-way competition, along comes Microsoft to shake everything up. Microsoft's entry in the world-on-a-platter sweepstakes is called Microsoft Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia (Microsoft, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052; 800-426-9400; $395). Quite simply, it's one of the best multimedia applications I've seen. While the 25,000 articles that Microsoft has taken from the Funk & Wagnalls' Encyclopedia may not be as strong as the 33,000 articles contained in Grolier, Microsoft has added so much additional information and organized the material so well that Encarta is easily the most browsable and usable of the three products.
Like Compton's and Grolier, Encarta offers a time line for a chronological view of events, an atlas for a geographical view of events, and a knowledge tree for a conceptual view of events. All three CD-ROM encyclopedias let you get at their vast bodies of knowledge by letting you choose the most appropriate path. This multiple-path approach lets you follow from one fact to another until you've explored a series of connections guided by your own interests. Encarta improves on the multiple-path approach by offering a more logical structure and building up the components that are best suited to multimedia. The overriding structure for Encarta is its 93 categories, which include 9 primary categories (Physical Science and Technology; Life Science; Georgraphy; History; Social Science; Religion and Philosophy; Art, Language, and Literature; Performing Arts; and Sports, Games, Hobbies, and Pets) and 84 subcategories. For instance, the primary category of Performing Arts includes the subcategories of Music; Musical Instruments; Musicians and Composers; Dance; Theater; and Cinema, Television, and Broadcasting. Once in a subcategory, it's easy to view a list of each entry in that subcategory, browse each entry in alphabetical order, or switch to a new category or subcategory. By stressing a categorical organization, Microsoft has recognized how we learn best: by exploring a group of associated ideas and then jumping to a related group of associated ideas.
Wherever possible, Microsoft has added material to Funk & Wagnalls' Encyclopedia to exploit the new medium of multimedia. Fully half the CD-ROM is made up of images and audio, with another 10 percent devoted to animations and videos.
For example, the Gallery section, where you can quickly browse Encarta's 7000 photographs and seven hours of audio, includes a Special Lists button. Included among the special lists is a Foreign Language Samples lists, which, when combined with the automatic slide show, lets you sample common words and phrases (spoken by native speakers) from 46 nations and cultures. A slide show of World and Folk Music offers a similar tour with a generous helping of musical examples and stunning pictures.
I could go on and on about the gems of wisdom you'll discover as you explore Encarta. Suffice it to say, if you're the type who can spend hours in a library moving from one reference book to another, this is the one product that will make it worth your while to buy a CD-ROM drive and sound card. It's that good.