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The World Atlas Millennium Edition invites comparison with the magisterial Times Atlas, being very similar in size (500 giant pages), weight and price. Both are impressively monumental publications; the DK atlas, with that distinctive ultra-hype that seems to go with all atlas publishing, claims "a sheer splendour that is unlikely ever to be superseded".

But there the similarities end. This atlas, subtitled "a portrait of the earth in the year 2000", offers a menu in striking contrast with its more senior rival. It provides more than 150 pages of satellite images to complement the regional maps.

Such images have become an emblem of modernity for atlases, and many are indeed aesthetically spectacular, a claim strengthened by the thousand-image CD-Rom that accompanies it. Close-ups reveal, among much else, that Belgium is "the world's most outstandingly visible country by night".

Unfortunately, this emphasis on satellite imagery reduces the pages largely devoted to maps to around 170, compared with the Times Atlas's 260. Furthermore, the map pages are crowded with small colour photographs and captions which can be misleading.

This has the effect of reducing the scale atwhich regions can be shown. Israel, for instance, has a two-page spread in the Times Atlas at 1:500,000, while the best coverage of the country in the DK atlas is within a regional map of the Near East at just 1:2,750,000. And it shares a two-page spread with six pictures, two diagrams, two small maps (land use, industry), a graph (urbanrural balance), and data on transport.

The Millennium Atlas formula of reducing the maps to just one of several components in an encyclopaedic format means the index lists just 80,000 places, compared with the Times's 200,000.

There are some welcome innovations, notably several fold-out maps, that are very effective for sprawling territories such as Russia and Indonesia. I also liked a sequence on political geography, with case studies of topical boundary issues. But in such a major atlas, room should surely have been found for some discussion of map projections.

This new atlas seems to exemplify a wider trend in the commercial world where water companies offer double glazing and motoring organisations will insure your house. As a general geographical reference work, it's a serious contender, but if you reach for an atlas primarily to consult the maps, the Times Atlas is still unrivalled.

Michael Storm

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