CD-ROM atlases take travelers into the kingdom of confusion

Personal Computers

January 15, 1996|By STEPHEN MANES

RESIDENTS OF Nepera Park, your Yonkers, N.Y., neighborhood is on the map. Citizens of Hartsdale, your community is not.

The Bronx? It appears intermittently, but no bigger than the neighborhoods of Morris Park and the singular "Forest Hill." Brooklyn is only a tiny dot on the map south of Buffalo.

That, at least, is New York state according to Microsoft Encarta 96 World Atlas (for Windows 95 only, about $50). As with two competing CD-ROM titles, it reveals just how much of cartography is in the realm of art.

The inherent limitations imposed by viewing maps viewed on computers' low-resolution screens have yet to be surmounted by the machines' promised benefits.

Microsoft's disc calls itself "the most extensive world atlas database ever compiled."It may also be the most ineptly edited. Among the howlers around Pittsburgh alone, Upper St. Clair township gets an unearned final "e" and the neighborhood of Stanton Heights appears where the borough of New Stanton should be.

At a magnification encompassing the mid-Atlantic states, for example, Shenandoah National Park appears to stretch from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.

And Microsoft's maps do not always display the same items each time you revisit them.

Microsoft adds a cornucopia of related material, including multimedia "family portraits" from the book "Material World."

There are also text, photos and statistics about various countries and their cultures, a smattering of satellite photos and a surprisingly broad sampling of world music. But editing remains inconsistent. City population figures are rarely available. The photo directory puts "Louisiana's Valuable Waterways" right below the White House.

Instead of help on demand, you get "Cosmo," a direct descendant of the cartoon figures in the hapless Microsoft Bob program. This anthropomorphized globe grunts and wheezes audibly while he and his help balloons waste precious screen space.

Although you can turn him off temporarily, he will return to haunt you the next time you run the program.

Cartopedia (from Dorling Kindersley Multimedia, for Windows or Mac, about $50) describes itself as "the ultimate world reference atlas," and its simpler interface lets you push maps around the screen.

Unfortunately, you soon realize that these are essentially pages of a book; when you get to the northern boundary of Minnesota, you do not continue on to Canada, except when using the very good "physical world" map, which shows no political features.

And the political maps are thin on content. Here as nowhere else, Altoona, Pa., is south of Pittsburgh.

3D Atlas (from Creative Wonders, for Windows or Mac, about $50), is by far the least detailed of the bunch, in part because its maps appear in a window significantly smaller than the screen.

But its true strengths lie elsewhere, in the kinds of things that make computerized maps interesting but that other programs leave out: animation, interactivity and the ability to include or remove certain types of information at will.

Here, for example, you can watch the polar ice caps grow and shrink with the seasons or turn the labels for cities or mountains on and off.

Here, too, however, the cartography, editing and interface leave much to be desired. Rivers can be represented only by tiny icons rather than by lines describing their course.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

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