Encarta. (Microsoft's multimedia encyclopedia) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Stephen Levy
Research has never been as easy or entertaining as it is with this comprehensive multimedia encyclopedia, complete with animation and sound.
It's Sunday evening, about 9:00, and your 12-year-old daughter is reading quietly in the family room. Suddenly, a horrified look overtakes her face. "The report!" she cries out. "It's due tomorrow!"
If you have a good reference library in your home, then you have no problem. Most of us, though, don't have the space for a comprehensive library. But we do have room for Encarta, the much-anticipated multimedia encyclopedia from Microsoft. And with access to its more than 25,000 articles, 7000 photographs, seven hours of sound, 800 maps, and nearly 100 animated sequences, your daughter just might get that report written.
Developed from the ground up as a multimedia computer encyclopedia, Encarta is much more than Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, on which it is based. Indeed, Microsoft has incorporated an abundance of copyrighted material that it licensed from numerous sources to create both an excellent research tool and entertaining software.
Encarta has three main parts: an encyclopedia, an atlas, and a time line. The latter two draw on the information in the encyclopedia. Microsoft has also included the game MindMaze.
And it's an intuitive, easy-to-use Windows application to boot. Want to learn about Abraham Lincoln's ability as a military leader? Easy. Simply click on the Contents button and type lincoln; then click on Lincoln, Abraham. In a few seconds the appropriate article appears onscreen. This task is analogous to looking up an article in a standard encyclopedia, complete with pictures and headlines that help you find the exact information you want. This similarity ensures that most users will have little trouble learning to use Encarta.
Encarta's basic textual information is just what you would expect from a standard desktop encyclopedia: a survey of thousands of topics with varying levels of detail. It's a great place to quickly learn about a topic or to begin a research paper.
In addition to its simple Contents-button method of locating information, Encarta has a fast and efficient Find command. You simply type in the topic, concept, or words you want to explore, and Encarta gives you a list of articles that include the words you've typed. The program also allows more precise search requests: birds and food, birds or food, and similar options.
Even as a standard encyclopedia, Encarta offers more than its printed bound cousins. And it's much more than a standard encyclopedia with great search capabilities; it's a multimedia reference guide with animation, pictures, sound, and more.
The program's information database is organized conceptually. All information falls into nine general categories, from Physical Science and Technology to Sports, Games, Hobbies, and Pets. Each of these broad conceptual groups is divided into as many as 15 specific areas, which again are broken down into scores of topics.
Once you've found a topic that interests you, Encarta takes you to the appropriate article. When reviewing the article, you'll immediately notice the small icons that appear within it. These icons indicate a related picture (which shows on the screen automatically as you scroll through the article), sound, animation, map, chart, or table. Each of these is well done, but the ones I find most impressive are the animation and sound. This is where it is obvious that Encarta was designed for the situation instead of being simply an electronic version of the printed page.
Animation is used as a tool to help comprehension; it takes the printed word one step further to aid in understanding. With nearly 100 animated sequences in the program, it was impossible for me to watch each one. By way of illustration, I'll describe just one sequence. It shows, through animated pictures, diagrams, and audio, exactly how a television camera converts an image from the real-life object into the image you see broadcast on your screen. This is something that could not possibly be accomplished as clearly and efficiently with printed words and stagnant pictures.
Sound, including music, is also important to the Encarta experience. For instance, selecting Language Sample under the Gallery Special List group lets you hear a variety of expressions and words in dozens of different languages. Or you can hear an assortment of folk music from around the world. These are just two of many examples of how Encarta can entertain and provide a true multimedia experience without losing sight of its goal as a vast storehouse of information.
The "hot links" feature is another that shows Encarta's strengths. As you read an article, you'll notice immediately that some words are printed in another color and are underlined. These words are hot links to other articles. Click on one, and in a few seconds you'll be transferred to the related article. You can continue to do this and explore articles in any direction and depth you want. And when you want to go back to where you've been, simply select Topic Tracker from the menu; you'll see a list of the topics for your entire session. In this list, you just click on the topic you want to return to, and there you'll be.
To assist the student who is using Encarta as a research tool, Microsoft has included several conveniences such as a dictionary and thesaurus, as well as access to Write (Windows' word processor). In addition, it's easy to print pictures, entire articles, or portions of articles. Pasting text and pictures into Write is accomplished in the same way as in any other Windows application.
Although the encyclopedia is the heart of Encarta, the program does include two other important parts, an atlas and a time line. Selecting Timeline from the main window converts the computer monitor into a 20-foot scrolling historical time line from 15 million B.C. to the present. Using the arrows, you can scroll through time as pictures and a list of historical events move by. Click on any picture or event, and a short text box appears, giving more detail. To Microsoft's credit, this time line is a true world historical time line; it doesn't concentrate on just Western events. Although well done and interesting to explore, it, like any other time line, is limited in its value.
The third part of Encarta is the atlas. Use the pointer to move the globe to the desired world location, or click on Place Finder to locate any area of the world. The map is filled with hot spots where the arrow pointer turns into a pointing finger. Click on any hotspot country, sea, or continent, and the atlas zooms in to give you a closer look. Click on the name of a city or on the currently highlighted country, and you can learn more about that place.
Although Encarta is an excellent implementation of multimedia and a useful educational tool, some will say that the articles lack the depth and content of other encyclopedias. A more objective concern is one that's common to most CD-ROM software: speed. You'll have to wait several seconds before Encarta retrieves information from the CD-ROM. The speed, of course, depends a lot on the access time of your CD-ROM drive and microprocessor. But on balance, Microsoft's implementation of this multimedia encyclopedia is well done with lots added to the original base encyclopedia. Encarta is well worth its price, and who knows? It might come in handy late one Sunday evening.