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Hard act to follow;Software;Education

Two new updates have appeared among the many multimedia encyclopedias available - and they've made an impressive entrance, says Hugh John

It's getting crowded in there. The multimedia encyclopedia market has grown in the past four years from a handful of titles, each on a single CD-Rom, to a flood of multi-disc wonders. To recap: of the class of '98 launched for the Christmas rush last year, Encarta has to be the star pupil. Well written articles, impressive multimedia features and an excellent refocusing of content for British users make it the first choice for many homes and schools. The only serious reservation is that the interface could be too complex for younger children.

And now, a brace of 1998 encyclopedias actually released in 1998. These two honourable laggards are the Europress Family Encyclopedia and World Book. The first, based on the Cambridge Encyclopedia and 20 other reference books, including The Cambridge Guide to Theatre and Cambridge Encyclopedia of Evolution is keenly priced to compete with the likes of the Hutchinson Multimedia Encyclopedia. The interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, and most of the articles are adequate if somewhat brief. Following the now ubiquitous two-disc format, text is on disc one and a collection of the videos and animations on disc two. The videos are short and take a while to load but, thanks to some astonishing technical jiggery-pokery, can be replayed in full-screen mode with little loss of quality. The second disc also contains Firefang, a general knowledge adventure game. Be warned; something of a cross between Trivial Pursuit, Myst and Snakes and Ladders, this game is woefully addictive.

Family Encyclopedia has a Project Creator which allows you to gather multimedia material from the two CDs and make on-screen slide shows or presentations. There are also Web links to selected sites containing additional material.

There's no doubt that World Book's partnership with IBM, now in its third year, has been beneficial both in terms of marketing and, more importantly, product development. Generally, however, the production team has resisted any temptation towards hi-tech overkill or exhibitionism. The interface has been modified and is, if anything, even simpler to use. Animations have been carefully chosen to complement articles and the Simulation section - 11 interactivities where users can manipulate a number of parameters to influence the outcome of experiments - is a clever way of explaining scientific principles such as buoyancy and aerodynamics.

With high-storage capacity DVD-Rom (Digital Video Disk) still a way off, it looks as if the multi-disc format is here to stay. World Book has made a serious effort to minimise the inconvenience of disc swapping and it is now possible to check all the multimedia content on disk one or two by clicking on the Browse Media button.

VIDEOS are generous in length, few being less than 20 seconds and many over a minute. The feature on Mohandas Gandhi, narrated by actor Saeed Jaffrey, is almost three minutes long and careful selection of original footage and thoughtful commentary make this a paradigm of clarity and presentation. There are similarly well crafted biographies of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. It's possible to toggle the size of videos from the high-quality smaller window to a larger one which, though slightly pixelated, is quite watchable.

World Book has comprehensive Internet links and comes with software for connecting to the IBM Global Network. It also works with Internet Providers such as America Online and Compuserve. More than 3,000 articles from the World Book archives, dating back to 1922, are now available from the website. Other online features include an update facility which imports material and integrates it into the relevant article. More than 1,200 websites are linked to articles in the encyclopedia.

New to World Book '98 is the homework toolkit comprising Research, Chart and Timeline Wizards, which are intended to help students better organise and present their work. The Chart Wizard allows you to create and print graphs in various formats; horizontal bar, vertical bar, line graphs or pie charts. The Research tool provides templates for writing first or final drafts or preparing a bibliography. Help features which were introduced in the '97 edition - electronic "sticky notes" which allow students to annotate articles and a "highlighting" function which can be used to flag important information - have been retained. Clicking on any word in the text of the encyclopedia will activate the dictionary which is still, regrettably, abridged, presumably in deference to the sensibilities of younger users.

World Book's strength has always been its emphasis on presenting knowledge in a simple and direct manner. Articles usually start with a short definition that is expanded and then elaborated upon. Chemistry, for instance, "is the scientific study of substances. Chemists investigate the properties (characteristics) of the substances that make up the universe." Similarly, "Poetry is an arrangement of words in patterns of sound and meaning. Poems can combine patterns of rhythm with images to create beautiful or powerful impressions."

This limpidity of style, allied to sound educational content and highly sophisticated multimedia presentation makes World Book '98 a hard act to follow.

Europress Family Encyclopedia 1998 CD-Rom for Windows Multimedia PCs, requires minimum Windows 95, double-speed or faster CD-Rom drive, 16 megabytes of memory and 14.4 or higher modem, pound;29.99p inc VAT Europress 01625 855000 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia 1998 International English Edition CD-Roms for Windows Multimedia PC, minimum Windows 3.1 and same as above, pound;39.99p inc of VAT. Education version with medical dictionary pound;49.99. Network version also available.

Learning Pathways 01332 297729

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