If you have enough power, Encarta has plenty of facts


April 19, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

The idea of packing an entire encyclopedia on a single compact disc has a magical, gee-whiz ring to it. And if the number of entries in the field is any indication, reference books on disc may well become best sellers as multimedia computers become more widely available.

Encarta, the newest CD-ROM encyclopedia, comes from Microsoft, the King Kong of software companies. Since Microsoft invented most of the multimedia tools that other software publishers use, many people hoped that Microsoft would be the first company to do it right.

The good news: Encarta is a delightful product that integrates text, images, sound and animation far better than any other electronic encyclopedia. Youngsters will find the package particularly inviting.

The bad news: You'll need some pretty high-powered hardware to make it run at a speed that won't try the patience of a 12-year-old. While other encyclopedias may not be as fancy, they'll get you where you're going a lot quicker.

Encarta runs on IBM-compatible computers under the Microsoft Windows graphical environment. To use it, you'll need a computer with an 80386 processor, a CD-ROM drive, a hard disk with eight megabytes of free space and at least two megabytes LTC of internal memory. In reality, an 80486 computer running at 33 MHz, with eight megabytes of memory and a high-performance CD-ROM, willmake Encarta a lot more friendly.

In addition, to take advantage of the extensive audio that Encarta provides, you'll need a Windows-compatible sound card.

At the heart of Encarta is the Funk & Wagnall's New Encyclopedia. Britannica snobs will undoubtedly turn up their noses, but Encarta's 25,000 articles are certainly adequate for youngsters in elementary and middle school and for high school students looking for a quick information fix. The writing is straightforward.

Microsoft also has provided thousands of photographs, maps, charts, tables and animations, as well as a dictionary, thesaurus and a wonderful time line, which shows a multicultural history of the world with descriptions of major events, places, people and inventions.

When you run Encarta, you'll see a screen divided into three segments with a menu bar at the top. At the right is the text of the current article. At the top left is a window that shows the category of the article (history, religion, social science, art, sports, etc).

At the bottom left is a window for any photo or illustration that may accompany the article.

This is a departure from other encyclopedias, which display text only if you ask for an illustration. While it makes for a visually interesting display, the addition of a graphic element on every screen slows the program down considerably.

Luckily, you can display text covering the entire page, which speeds things up a bit.

Encarta allows you to find information in a variety of ways. You can search for articles by title or category, or you can type in reasonably sophisticated word searches. You can also search for specific recordings, animations or illustrations.

A Search Wizard, an on-screen interview conducted by an animated fox designed to make friends with children, makes complex searches relatively painless, although answering all the questions can be time-consuming.

Browsing is easy, thanks to a "see-also" list that pops up to allow you to select cross-referenced articles.

But other reference works, such as the New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, make it easier by allowing you to click on any word in an article and immediately get a list of articles containing that word.

If an Encarta article includes a photo, illustration or audio clip, you can click on an icon and bring it to the screen or play it.

Although Encarta doesn't have the variety of full-motion video clips that other reference works such as the Grolier encyclopedia provide, it does have a variety of clever animations which illustrate topics that range from dancing the polka to the Doppler effect.

The maps in Encarta's atlas are fairly crude, but you can quickly zoom in on any area of the world, click on the name of a city to hear it pronounced, and bring up related articles, photos and sound clips.

Also, unlike other encyclopedias, Encarta is downright friendly about allowing you to copy not only text but also illustrations, charts and audio clips into your own documents (Yup, if you have a sound board, you can copy a sound clip, which shows up as a little icon in a word processing document. Click on it,and the sound clip plays). Friendly but firm instructions, particularly geared to young students, remind you to credit Encarta for the information and deal with such issues as the difference between paraphrasing and the use of direct quotations.

While Encarta is nicely designed and pleasing to the eye, its speed is absolutely dreadful.

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