Microsoft Dinosaurs. (educational multimedia software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
They say everything old eventually becomes new again. It must be true, because you can't get much older, yet more in fashion, than dinosaurs. From children's playful TV pals to big-screen terrors, these ancient creatures seem to fascinate us more than ever. Despite the renewed interest, however, myths and misconceptions persist. Microsoft helps bridge the gap between paleontology and pop culture with Dinosaurs, a brilliant interactive journey that takes you back in time.
True to its larger-than-life subject matter, this multimedia Windows CD-ROM packs a huge amount of information - nearly 400MB, including full-motion video, fantastic audio, and a gallery of beautifully scanned artwork. The main program weighs in at over 200MB, featuring a dazzling display of more than 1000 illustrations, 200 hypertext articles, and 800 pop-up windows. For dinosaur lovers, about the only thing better than this would be living next door to New York's American Museum of Natural History.
Big numbers are impressive, but they don't guarantee a good program. Atop this mass of megabytes sits a fabulous interface that allows the curious to explore in four ways: Atlas, Timeline, Families, and Index. For the timid, there's also Guided Tour, which is hosted by "Dino" Don Lessem, founder of The Dinosaur Society and editor of the Dino Times. His soft, folksy style uses humor to hook our curiosity and expert knowledge to keep us following his lead on 16 different tours. You can abandon a tour at any time if you find a subject that piques your interest. Unfortunately, there are no video bookmarks, which would allow you to quickly return to specific points of interest.
Atlas takes you where dinosaurs roamed, areas divided into six geographic regions: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Learn how each species adapted to its particular climate and social order. A fascinating sidebar, The Shifting Earth, offers a crash course in plate tectonics. Here you'll see how land movement created new continents, restricting animal migration and possibly dooming some species to early extinction.
In addition to the interesting sidebars that offer explorers more information, most of the program's screens sport special hot spots - hypertext links to additional information. Click next to Dimetrodon's sail to learn how this "reptile radiator" helped regulate the giant lizard's body temperature. Branch off yet again to discover creatures with similar radiator sails, such as the warm-blooded Spinosaurus. Like any good reference, these hot spots allow your imagination to wander. There are no wrong moves or dead ends, and to backtrack, you simply click on the back icon.
Timeline begins with a graphic representation of the earth's history, divided into four major eras: Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. Each era is then broken into small chunks of time, called periods. You'll learn that all dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic era - divided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods - roughly 160 million years, yet merely a drop in the cosmic bucket. When viewing such a grand scale, you can't help but be humbled by man's meager stake on terra firma. The Mesozoic era holds many hypertext links to the Atlas section, particularly the Cretaceous period, when dramatic plate movement and rising seas helped isolate many species. The end of this era saw the end of the dinosaurs. The program offers several dramatic theories to explain the cause of their extinction, as well as clues to some species that may have survived.
The section on families proves especially interesting for fledgling dinosaur explorers. It teaches the difference between the two main orders of dinosaurs - saurischians and ornithischians - designated, remarkably, by hip structure. You'll also discover that some creatures often mistaken for dinosaurs were actually reptiles, such as the flying Pterodactylus and Quetzalcoatlus. The who's who of dinosaurs is in this section, including the meanest (Tyrannosaurus Rex, of course), biggest (the plant-eating Sauropods), and smallest (the chicken-sized Compsognathus), among others.
Are you tongue-tied by these strange, multisyllabic names? You're not alone. That's why the designers included spoken pronunciations, one of the program's best features. Click on the speaker icon next to particular words or phrases, and you'll hear them pronounced in crystal clarity. Cindy Shrieve provides the voice; she also speaks the introductions to sidebar stories.
The fourth navigational option, Index, allows speedy access to every major article and species. Entries are both alphabetized and graphically displayed. Browsing through Index is also an excellent way to find articles on subjects you might otherwise miss, such as the fascinating art of skeletal reconstruction.
The program's multimedia highlight - six full-motion mini-movies - was added almost as an afterthought just prior to release. Culled from the PBS series "The Dinosaurs," most feature quality animated watercolors, sound effects, and narration. The centerpiece film, The Hunt, was taken from Phil Tippett's 1984 work, Prehistoric Beasts. Filmed with stop-motion models, intricate backgrounds, and horrific sound effects, this exquisite animation depicts a deadly encounter between a Triceratops and a T. rex.
The program detects your current Windows graphics mode - either 16- or 256-color VGA - and loads the appropriate version. As you'd expect, the 256-color VGA graphics are stunning, from the stone-textured icons to the scanned artwork and digitized photos. The big surprise is the outstanding quality of the 16-color VGA version: Apart from only a slight loss of detail due to the dithering process, the graphics are just as attractive using a 16-color palette. This is especially good news for users with unaccelerated video cards, as well as those who simply don't want to switch video modes to run the program. Somewhat of a system hog, the program task-swaps well but prefers your system's undivided attention. Running resource-heavy applications in the background will slow Dinosaurs to a crawl.
Microsoft forgoes a printed manual in favor of online graphic help screens. Overview Movie is a special feature that helps new users; a talking tour of the program's main functions, it's delivered in the humorous style of a vaudeville revue. Another helpful option is the ability to print virtually any screen or active window, in either gray scale or full color. The overall quality is excellent, but because these are screen dumps, graphics will print better when they're displayed in 256-color mode.
Believe it or not, there's more: Attached to each dinosaur profile is a Fact Card, a printable index card containing a full-color picture, an information chart, an interesting fact, and a scale drawing. And there's the dinosaur art gallery, complete with 50 high-quality pictures that can be exported via the Clipboard or turned into wallpaper for a Windows background. There are even two built-in screen savers, your choice of stomping dinosaur feet or dinosaur heads. Finally, a slide-show option displays randomly selected program screens for those who simply can't decide where to begin.
Both highly entertaining and educational, Microsoft Dinosaurs is a wonderful blast from the past. The next time you're asked what the storage capacity of a CD-ROM is, just smile and say, "About 160 million years."