Is there a place for an electronic, DVD-based version of Encyclopaedia Britannica in the post-Wikipedia world? We tested Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 Ultimate Edition to find out.

‘Knowledge is power' is a popular aphorism, attributed to Roger Bacon over 400 years ago. The Encyclopaedia Britannica isn't quite that old - it's generally reckoned to have been first published in 1768 - but it's still respected as a great font of knowledge, even in this online age.

The latest electronic edition, available on one DVD, is billed as Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 Ultimate Edition. While it may be the biggest version yet, claiming over 74,000 article entries, it will still have trouble keeping up with that popular internet oracle Wikipedia. In its English language repository alone, Wikipedia can boast 2.7 million article entries.

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To counter this kind of competition, the Encyclopaedia Britannica promotes features that will appeal to certain users, namely its safety for children (no need to send your kids out on the net), and its accuracy and credibility. Unlike Wikipedia's sometimes partisan entries, susceptible to vandalism by jokers and people with axes to grind, the Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 has articles written by professional historians and experts, with facts checked by Brittanica editorial staff.

New features in Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 include Britannica Biographies with over 2000 entries, plus another 2000 Great Minds entries; Historical Timelines which shows a linear flow of history; a new interactive A-Z QuickSearch; and Britannica Book of the Year articles.

When you start up Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 - a cross-platform package for Windows or Mac - it asks what type of content you'd like to see - Elementary for children 6-10, Intermediate for 10-14 year olds, or adult. The main interface resembles a web browser coded for frames, with a left-hand sidebar listing entries alphabetically, and Home and forward/backward arrows above. Also at top are buttons to start separate functions such as Dictionaries, Atlas, Timelines, BrainStormer.

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The latter function is a practical realisation of a mind-mapping app, with entries already coded in place. Start with Britannica KnowledgeBase, and you can follow spidered lines to, for example, science and mathematics, quantum electrodynamics, before landing at Nobel prize winner Aleksandr Prokhorov, where you can read his entry.

The core search function requires some care and second-guessing. We looked up writer Philip K Dick, and were shown only an entry on Philip I of Spain. As we started to type in Dick, though, the entry was then listed. And the US-centric nature of the formerly British encyclopedia is also all-too obvious. Look up ‘colour' in the built-in dictionary, and you're simply informed that this is the Brit spelling for ‘color'.

Multimedia clips, typically low-res film and audio clips, are included for some entries, but their quality is disappointing. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 is also somewhat buggy, with messy text entries in places and we were unable to complete fields in the built-in registration page, necessary to download updates.

Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 Ultimate Edition: Specs

  • Windows XP SP2/Vista/Mac OS X 10.4 or later
  • Pentium III/G5 or Intel Core processor
  • 512MB RAM
  • 4.2GB disk space for full installation
  • Windows XP SP2/Vista/Mac OS X 10.4 or later
  • Pentium III/G5 or Intel Core processor
  • 512MB RAM
  • 4.2GB disk space for full installation

OUR VERDICT

The 2009 Ultimate DVD Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is relatively comprehensive but it faces an unequal struggle against the free monolith of Wikipedia, which ultimately has more depth to most of its entries. But the 4GB installation of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 beats the 180GB of English Wikipedia (if you should download the latest archive), so for reasons of size and safety, the Britannica still has its place.

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