Deluxe balancing act

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Hugh John on the changes to the latest Encarta encyclopedia

It just got bigger. Reflecting a growing trend in multimedia encyclopedias, the new Encarta 1998 World English Edition has spilled over on to two CD-Roms (three, if one includes the Research Organiser). For the first time since its initial publication in 1993, it is available in two versions, regular and deluxe. This, says Microsoft, is in response to users' differing needs. Essentially, the deluxe edition has a larger multimedia and interactive content and includes the Research Organiser.

Both versions contain more than 30,000 articles, some 4,000 of which are new or updated. There are more than 1,000 maps, 8,000 photos and illustrations and 3,500 sound clips and illustrations. Encarta 98 Deluxe includes 10 virtual tours, 35 panoramic (360-degree) views and 10 multimedia collages. There are links to more than 5,000 Web sites, and monthly updates can be downloaded free until December 1998.

Microsoft seems to have recognised concern that some articles and language in previous editions were inappropriate for younger children. The company acknowledges 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 Encarta 98 does manage to balance the learning needs of younger and older children. Sidebars, facilities which supplement the basic encyclopedia text with primary source material - eyewitness accounts, documents, speeches - are a new and useful feature. The article on the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, has, in the sidebar, the complete text of President Kennedy's broadcast to the American nation. Younger children should enjoy Dinosaur Structure and Insect Structure in the InterActivities section. It's fun, and it's educational.

The Research Organiser is exclusive to the deluxe version and, once installed on a computer's hard drive, does not need to be reloaded again from the CD-Rom. Its purpose is to enable users to gather material from a variety of sources which can be used as a basis for projects and reports. Assignments can then be imported into a word-processing program and printed. Unfortunately, while the idea is undoubtedly sound, using the Research Organiser is by no means easy. The good news is that struggling users can avail themselves of a concise and helpful three-minute, on-board video.

Multimedia technology moves at such a pace that it hardly seems worth mentioning that clicking on any word in the text will open the on-board dictionary, in this case the Concise Oxford. It is, however, worth applauding Encarta's editiorial policy to include a complete, unabridged dictionary rather than the proscribed, emasculated lexicon offered by some multimedia publishers. If children are going to look for "naughty" words, then they'll surely find them anyway.

Home users may find using two discs a mere irritation, but teachers and librarians are going to find the swapping of discs at best a distraction and at worse a hindrance to classroom presentation. Micro-soft's claim that disc swapping is kept to a minimum by organising Encarta content on the CDs by topic area doesn't bear close scrutiny as many articles have multimedia content on discs one and two. Hopefully, the eventual introduction of DVD (Digital Video Disc) with its huge storage capacity will see a return to single-disc electronic encyclopedias.

The London-based editorial staff at Websters have again re-focused Encarta for the home market with style and sensitivity. Encarta 1998 World English Edition is a valuable and significant educational aid. It's also fun.

* Encarta 1998 World English Editions: Encarta 98 Encyclopedia(2 CD-Roms) Pounds 49 99Encarta 98 Encyclopedia Deluxe Edition (3 CD-Roms) Pounds 79 99Platform: PC, Windows 95 and NT only. System requirements: 8MB (RAM) minimum; 16 MB for NT.20 MB free hard-disc space. Double-speed or faster CD-Rom drive. Hardware for Internet access: 4MB additional free hard-disc space and 1 MB for each monthly instalment. Minimum modem speed: 9600 baud.For Encarta Research Organiser: an additional 5 MB free hard-disc space

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