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Breathing new life into the reference source

Despite the move to online data, CD-Rom encyclopedias are better than they've ever been. Hugh John compares and contrasts the best on offer

With the drive towards cheaper and faster Internet access, more computers than ever before in home and school, and the migration of content online, could the end be nigh for multimedia encyclopedias on CD-Rom?

That would be a shame, as since their less than auspicious emergence in the mid-Nineties they have improved immeasurably. Today, the big three - Encarta, Britannica and World Book - are serious educational tools. What's more, each annual publication sees more technical innovations, this year's favourite being the 360o bubble viewer which offers wrap-around panoramic views.

A less attractive consequence of this deluge of information is a proliferation of CDs. Both Britannica (44 million words) and Encarta (12 million words) come as triple packs, and World Book as a double. The good news is that single-disk DVD versions are now available for Britannica and Encarta, with World Book soon to follow.

The Britannica DVD is particularly impressive with additional videos, animations and illustrations. In fact, Britannica is the most improved of the three encyclopedias. Having overhauled its sombre interface, replaced the Merriam-Webster dictionary with the New Oxford, and introduced a research assistant tool, it now deserves the respect its content has always merited. Unfortunately, the sound clips are unadventurous, and the overall feel is still American rather than European.

World Book and Encarta have "localised" their publications for a number of years giving the material more relevance and focus for UK users. Both now offer excellent ancillary resources. World Book features five "wizards" that help students prepare reports, timelines, graphics and charts. Encarta has many of the same organisational tools, plus a collection of lesson plans for teachers that cover arts, science, humanities and Australia.

More impressively, the deluxe edition has a curriculum guide that allows users to specify a country, level of study (A-level, GCSE) and topic, and will then search for the appropriate curricular material. A-level British History: Organised Labour and Protest, for instance, yields articles on the Jarrow March, London Dockers' Strike and Women's Movement.

Encarta is the most complete multimedia encyclopedia. Text-to-speech capability, closed captioning of audio and video clips and support for high contrast and large fonts make it more accessible for those with hearing impairments or poor vision. Encarta is highly integrated with the general Windows environment. Overall, it's anexcellent product, although it might prove difficult for younger users to navigate.

There's no danger of that with World Book, which is clearly presented and simple to navigate. Articles start, where possible, with a concise definition before becoming more complex. Philosophy, for example, opens with this deceptively brief explanation: "A study that seeks to understand the mysteries of existence and reality," then goes on to discuss epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics.

Likewise, the multimedia components of the encyclopedia are both stimulating and educationally challenging. The three-minute videos on Mohandas Gandhi and on Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party must be among the best multimedia essays yet produced. For general ease of use and coherent presentation World Book continues to set the standard.

There are now online versions of all three encyclopedias. Britannica is free, but features heavy advertising. Encarta and World Book are available on a free limited trial and purchasers of the Encarta Reference Suite will receive a year's free subscription.

Mid-range, the two serious contenders are Compton's 2000 and Hutchinson's Educational Encyclopedia 2000. Both feature a host of Web links with age-appropriate guidelines, monthly Internet updaters and multimedia tools such as report maker. Compton's Deluxe is bundled with a National Geographic CD containing every issue from 1997 and 1998, but Hutchinson's 2000 has more curriculum-based material and is localised. Neither has the authority or sophistication of the big three, but they're worth considering.

The choice for younger users is far more limited, but in their own ways the Oxford Children's Encyclopedia and Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia continue to impress. Eyewitness with its bright DK house style is more visually exciting and has more multimedia content, but the Oxford Children's is reassuringly solid.

Microsoft Encarta 2000 StandardMicrosoft Encarta 2000Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 2000 Deluxe Price:pound;19.99pound;69.99pound;99.99 (latter is also available on DVDfor the same price) Britannica StandardBritannica DeluxeBritannica DVD 2000 Price: pound;29.99pound;49.99pound;69.99 World Book Deluxe Millennium Edition Price: pound;39.99 Compton's Standard 2000Compton's Deluxe 2000 Price: pound;19.99pound;29.99 Hutchinson's Educational Encyclopedia 2000 Price: pound;39.99 Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia Price: pound;19.99 Oxford Children's Encyclopedia Price: pound;39.99

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