Big does not mean better
Whether the extra content is worth the inconvenience caused by loading and reloading two or three discs is debatable, especially when much of the new multimedia material - the panoramic views, the collages - tends towards edutainment. Parents and teachers are more likely to be concerned with the relevance and topicality of multimedia material especially since most electronic encyclopedias are produced in the States. As video and animation techniques reach some sort of technical plateau, and when all the multimedia hoopla has subsided, what remains is information, its value and its accessibility.
Which is exactly why localisation, the re-focusing of material for a specific area or market, has been such a big selling point for Encarta and World Book. Microsoft's flagship multimedia offering has been prepared by Websters at their London office and World Book now publishes an international edition.
One of World Book's strong points has always been its presentation of information and the 97 edition is no exception. The interface has been overhauled and modernised but the subdued colours and near minimalist visual style which makes navigation simple and intuitive, have sensibly been retained. Menus and drop-down options have been arranged to make information easy to access and retrieve. Articles are clearly written, well structured and accompanied by a sidebar which provides a clear outline of the text. New and useful research features include electronic sticky notes and the ability to highlight important information.
Microsoft acknowledges concern that some articles and language in previous editions of Encarta were inappropriate for younger children. It recognises the need to "improve access for younger users while avoiding patronising older students or limiting the depth of content to that suitable for a younger age group". And the 98 Encarta does manage to balance the learning needs of younger and older children. Sidebars, which supplement the encyclopedia text with primary source material such as eye-witness accounts, documents, speeches, are a new and useful feature.
Encarta and World Book continue to set the pace and standards in multimedia publishing, and there is little to choose between these two encyclopedias. Both offer excellent source material, high quality, cutting-edge multimedia and easy Internet access.
Encyclopedia Britannica (Pounds 128) is still playing catch-up in the multimedia stakes. With its rich text base (44 million words), EB 98 still displays its print-set origins. Authoritative and respected, it would benefit from localisation.
Hutchinson's 98 is surely the most improved multimedia encyclopedia. Compiled and updated in Britain, it claims to be the only truly British multimedia encyclopedia on the market. Maybe. Certainly more contentious is the GCSE approved sticker. With 42,000 articles it is topical and wide ranging but it is doubtful if many of the entries (average length 136 words) are detailed enough for GCSE work. It is a lively, idiosyncratic encyclopedia with a contemporary feel and teachers may find it bridges a gap between serious encyclopedias and those aimed at a younger market.
The Oxford Children's, intended for children between 8 and 13 remains the standard for younger students. Well-presented articles and sophisticated features such as hypertext links and instant dictionary access (just click on any word in the text) make this disc a delight to use. A more informal alternative is Learning Explorer (ages 7 to 12) which incorporates five Kingfisher books: Children's Encyclopedia, the Illustrated Dictionary, the Illustrated Thesaurus, Great Lives and the Kingfisher Book of Words. Children in the intended age range should find it a stimulating source of information.
Dorling Kindersley's Children's Encyclopedia is not a direct competitor to the more conventional multimedia offerings but any parent or teacher looking for an engaging, alternative way of presenting knowledge and information will find it impressive. The text-to-speech software, a high level of interactivity and this unique presentation, makes this title suitable for special needs children.
Finally, a note of caution. Bigger may indeed be better; it can also be bother. The new generation of multimedia encyclopedias require extremely powerful computers. Digital video (DVD-Rom) is on the way, and DK has already astonished journalists at the preview of its forthcoming atlas. More than a few IT co-ordinators and parents will be looking at their hardware specifications, and budgets, with dismay.
Hutchinson Pounds 39.99 PC
World Book International Pounds 49.99 PC
Grolier Pounds 39.99 PC and Mac
Grolier Deluxe Pounds 49.99 PC and Mac
Encarta Standard World English 98 Pounds 49.99 PC
Encarta Deluxe World English 98 Pounds 74 98 PC
Oxford Childrens Pounds 49 99 PC
Kingfisher Learning Explorer Pounds 39.99 PC
DK Children's Encyclopedia Pounds 39.99 PC and Mac
When all themultimediahoopla hassubsided, what remains isinformation, its value and its accessibility.