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Encarta ends Britannica rule

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No wonder Encyclopaedia Britannica is in trouble. The latest release of Encarta offers more than that old knowledge storehouse ever could, at a fraction of the size and cost.
I have rarely been able to say this: for the enormous value it offers, it is almost an insult to run it through the Gadget Four Question User Test. However, there are shortcomings, even in such a value-laden offering:

1. Is it ready to use?
Insert, just keep clicking on Next, and away you go.
2. Is it easy to use?
Yes, although it has to be said that the interface has become cluttered and confusing. Explore the menus, and it becomes simple, but entire sub-menus disappear when you click in the wrong place, with no clue as to how to bring them up again. Nevertheless, the Search window is ever-present, and will take over when the menus let you down. As with printed encyclopaedias, aimless browsing will keep you engrossed for hours, especially with the added advantage of hyperlinks that take you directly from one item to a related referenced item.
Both the Encyclopedia (3 disks) and the Atlas (2 disks) can easily be copied directly onto your hard drive so that you don`t have to play disk jockey to get their full value. For some reason, the same approach was not taken to the dictionary, which can only be copied across with great difficulty.
3. Does it deliver on its promise?
An emphatic Yes. You could start with the statistics, like more than 480,000 articles, 80,000 sound clips, 27,000 photos and 200 videos, but that becomes meaningless after the first couple of zeros.
The practical reality is that no international encyclopaedia has ever provided the depth of content that the latest version of Encarta offers. The quality of the content does not suffer either. Even the archive has been extended, with information pulled out of the Collier`s Encyclopedia Year Book back to 1938. The biggest upfront change in the encyclopeida itself, aside from range of information, is the upgrade of Research Organizer to Encarta Researcher, which will make it even more difficult for teachers to tell the original from the cribbed in schoolkids` projects.
The full package comprises:
* Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 2001.
Browse, search or use the Pinpointer function for keyword searches or plain-language questions. It ties into a Web Centre which contains the full content of the suite, accessible from anywhere, and from which you can download monthly updates to the content (print could never beat that, although some tried with Yearbook updates), as well as even more current news clipping. The multimedia offerings keep improving, and the range of historic clippings add to the potential for totally absorbing your interest and your time.

* Encarta Interactive World Atlas.
It`s not enough that they are putting the encyclopaedia salesmen out of work, now they`re doing the same to the Atlas industry! It offers 21 different map styles, climatic and geographic maps, and the facility to access local maps in the local language. Bet you didn`t know what the locals call Egypt “Misr””? My favourite feature remains the ability to fly over the globe, zooming in and out in what amounts to almost a virtual reality tour of a political map of the world. Even some of the farms around my home town of Trompsburg come into view (only in name, of course). A close second is the choice between daytime and night-time views of regions of the globe from space: it is a fascinating indicator of population concentration and industrial development.
* Encarta World English Dictionary.
And now they want to put those Oxford Dictionary guys out of business too! The bad news for you and good news for Oxford University is that the Encarta dictionary is not yet as user friendly as paper alternatives. While upfront menu options are clear, navigation collapses completely once you begin working your way through the wide range of options, from a pure word search to a useful quotation finder and multimedia pronunciation guide. The multimedia also falls down in that, while you can for instance listen to the South African national anthem, the sound stops the moment you try to view the flag or a map at the same time (or click on anything else, for that matter). Of course, the Oxford Dictionary doesn`t usually give you pictures, let alone sound and translations. It includes English-French and English-German dictionaries, so it is in effect a vast language bundle in its own right. Get to know it, of course, and it takes the concept of a dictionary to new levels.
The one big disappointment of the whole suite is that the acclaimed Encarta Africana is not bundled into the version we are getting in South Africa, despite being part of the suite on sale in the USA. Surely it is even more relevant for our part of the world? Don`t treat us like the colonies, Microsoft.
4. Is it value for money?
The encyclopedia alone is worth the entrance ticket of around R800. You can get it by itself, branded Encyclopedia Deluxe, for around R350. Maybe you would argue that you would never have spent an extra R550 on a dictionary and an atlas, but bear in mind that the atlas is more than just a collection of maps. It is an updatable guide to the world that is so comprehensive, it redefines the nature of an atlas. Instant usability aside, the dictionary also adds value beyond a mere word look-up. All in all, Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 2001 is one of the best buys yet this year.”

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