Encyclopedias show off capabilities of CD-ROMs


March 28, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Few application programs illustrate the power and capacity of a CD-ROM better than the on-line encyclopedia. Even folks who can't tell a megabyte from a megabuck understand the notion of an entire shelf full of reference material on a single platter.

But electronic encyclopedias are more than big books on disks. With hypertext references that make it a snap to jump from one subject to another, as well as audio samples, video clips and animations, they bring a new dimension to learning.

Until a year ago, electronic encyclopedias were a bit pricey for the average home user, selling for $250 to $400. But thanks to competition and the explosion in the CD-ROM market, electronic encyclopedias now cost $90 to $150.

The three major players, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta and The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, all have updated 1994 versions with significant improvements. It's a pleasure to report that they're all good, although none is in the class of the two print market leaders, The World Book for children or the Encyclopedia Britannica for older students and adults.

All three electronic encyclopedias installed and ran without a hitchon my 2-year-old 486DX/33 computer with a double-speed CD-ROM drive and a Sound Blaster Pro audio card. While the data remains on your CD-ROM, you'll need between four and 11 megabytes of hard disk space for the programs and their index data bases.

All three ran quickly. Simple searches were virtually instantaneous, while complex requests rarely took more than 15 seconds.

While Compton's and Grolier were a bit easier to use right out of the box than Encarta, none of them will tax your patience. In fact, you'll probably never open the user's manual. If you're at all familiar with Windows, you can click your way around the buttons and icons and figure out everything you need to get started in about two minutes.

At the most elementary level, all three encyclopedias will let you search for articles by title quickly and easily, which will probably handle 80 percent of your information needs. They also provide so-called "Boolean searches" for all articles containing a particular word or combination of words.

Articles are annotated with multimedia links that allow you to call up associated photographs, maps, tables, audio bites and video clips with a click of the mouse. More important are each article's "hypertext links," a fancy term for highlighted cross-references. Click on a cross-referenced item and the article on that subject instantly appears. This basic design feature gives electronic encyclopedias one major advantage over their print counterparts they make it easy and fun to go exploring.

To see how they compared one-on-one (albeit unscientifically), I looked up each encyclopedia's entry on Casimir Pulaski, the Polish-born Revolutionary War hero. My personal impression was that Compton's had the most information and was the best-written.

Using the quantitative tools available in my word processor, I found out that Compton's indeed had the longest article, 197 words, comparedto 171 words in Encarta and 120 in Grolier. The article in my kids' World Book was 162 words long. Interestingly, Grolier used the Polish spelling of Pulaski's first name, Kasimierz.

My grammar checker, which applies a variety of readability tests, showed that Compton's article was in fact the easiest to read despite its length, while Encarta's was the hardest. All were written at the high school level and shouldn't give the average student much difficulty.

Each encyclopedia allows you to copy the text of articles to the Windows clipboard, and from there to your word processor. While Compton's and Grolier won't copy most photographs, Encarta allows you to copy everything, including audio and video clips.

The encyclopedias include atlases with varying degrees of multimedia sophistication, and all have historical "time lines" that allow youngsters to explore history painlessly.

That said, here's a quick look:

* Compton's: Based on the company's 33,000-entry print encyclopedia, Compton's presents a straightforward interface that assumes you want to look up an article by title, which is probably a good assumption. It's also easy to do a word search, although Compton's capabilities here are the crudest of the bunch, returning far more irrelevant entries than the others.

Like Grolier, Compton's allows you to display multiple articles simultaneously in overlapping windows. But it's "virtual" desktop goes a step further than the others by allowing you to visually place groupsof associated items in various places, move between them and save the entire session so you can pick up where you left off. It's a nice feature.

* Encarta: This one gets my vote for most improved product. The 1994 release is much faster than the original, which was virtually unusable, and Microsoft has done away with some of the first version's cute but ultimately useless gimmicks.

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