From timpani to the Marx brothers

Encarta 97 World English Edition Microsoft multimedia encyclopedia on CD-Rom. Available only on Windows format. Requires 8 mb of memory for Windows 95 and 3.1,and 12 mb for Windows NT.Pounds 42. Available from most software dealers.

Bigger? Inevitably. Encarta 97, World English Edition, Microsoft's electronic multimedia encyclopedia, now contains over 28,000 articles (3,000 of them updated from previous editions), 8,000 photographs and illustrations, and more than 100 videos and animations.

What statistics cannot convey, however, is the huge improvement in quality since Websters became involved in the first "localised" edition of this American product last year. The introduction of UK spellings and pronunciations is the most obvious manifestation of this change, but of much more significance is what the executive editor, Latha Menon, has called "a profound re-focusing" of the encyclopedia. A team of 40 has overhauled many of the articles and injected a clarity and relevance that, for UK users, was previously missing.

The result is a disc where multimedia and text are complementary and exceptionally well-integrated and in which the emphasis is firmly on information rather than technology. The article on Victorian England, for instance, is accompanied by readings from works by Charles Dickens and Tennyson, and a sound clip from Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. Likewise, the feature on Shakespeare includes music of the renaissance theatre, readings from Macbeth and the 18th-century sonnet "Shall I compare thee . . .".

While video clips convey an unmatchable sense of occasion and drama, animations can often be more educative and are particularly well-suited to an understanding of movement and machine mechanics. Plate Tectonics? Quantum theory? Gravitation? Glaciation? They're all here. Sometimes, though, less really is more. The low-tech animated sequence of the Battle of Hastings, with coloured counters representing the various groups of combatants, is a model of clarity and design.

Reflecting the general move towards global information retrieval - 5,000 to 6,000 UK schools are now thought to be on-line - Encarta has extensive Web links, approximately 2,000 in all. The Web Links Description provides users with a summary of each site, and there's certainly quite a variety, from The MarxEngels Archive to The Marx Brothers, from The NASA Space Center Home Page to the Timpani, Frequently Asked Questions site. What questions? You'll have to visit.

One of the most useful features of Encarta is the ability to highlight any word and, by double clicking on the mouse, look it up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the full text of which is included in Encarta.

It's a simple enough technique and should help children when they come across difficult words. Using the same highlighting technique on a larger scale makes it possible to cut and paste relevant sections of text into the on-board word processor for editing.

If there is a criticism to be made it's that the interface, despite the subdued brown and grey background colours, can still seem overly busy. On-screen information boxes slither out of drop-down menus and there are times when the user could be confused by the number of options available. One welcome addition, however, is an Outline button which, when clicked, gives a synopsis of the article under review.

Better? Most definitely. Encarta 97 is now a serious educational tool and, until the launch of a localised World Book Multimedia CD-Rom later this year, remains the only significant general information multimedia encyclopedia to be prepared for the home market.

* Teachers may be pleased to know that primary and secondary resource packs are available for Encarta. Developed in association with theeducational software house, TAG Developments, and a team from Goldsmiths College, London, the packs contain an overview and navigational guide, pupil worksheets, a selection of electronic templates and classroom activities. The TAG Developments curriculum support packs cost Pounds 49.99 (they do not include the Encarta CD). Tel: 01474 357350

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