The following review appears in the December 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents. The scores, system requirements and screenshot to the right are for Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite; to see details of Encarta Reference Library 2007, kindly click here.
The nights are drawing in, the clocks are going back, students have long since returned to school and university. It's the time of year when encyclopedia makers release updates of their reference DVDs.
In this age of the internet you might wonder if it's worth shelling out for a DVD-based encyclopedia, so we've taken a look at the main free online alternative, Wikipedia (see below). But it's not just about money – and there are reasons why Encarta and Britannica are worth a look.
For starters, they make finding information simple, which will appeal to those who aren't confident searching the internet. They're better at zeroing in on research, so you'll waste less time trawling through irrelevant information. And they are quick in use. If you are still using a dialup connection, they'll beat the internet hands down. Finally, they provide age-appropriate, fact-checked information, which isn't something that can be said for the internet.
Encarta incorporates a version of the program aimed at children, and designed to feature content suitable for younger users. Britannica covers even more ground: besides the standard reference product, it features two separate versions for primary- and secondary-school children respectively.
But Britannica's products are biased too much towards the US market. When you click on the atlas you can see only the US and Canada in detail – and when you explore the articles they focus on American history and famous figures.
In contrast, Encarta has been fully rewritten for the UK market and provides links to quintessentially British topics, such as cricket, rugby and football. The student version teaches about British history and political systems. And Encarta provides links to articles from The Times, rather than US publications.
Another problem we encountered with Britannica was that it was time-consuming to install. Unlike Encarta, there is no option to run the software from the disc. The installation process took us well over half an hour. And it takes up 2GB of space, as opposed to the 850MB Encarta requires. It's quite slow in displaying search results – and unless you do a full install, you still have to put in the disc to view multimedia content.
You might expect Britannica to run slower than Encarta, since it holds 75,000 articles as opposed to 42,000. However, this doesn't translate into more comprehensive or up-to-date results. When we entered 'London', Britannica returned bags of very old information, while Encarta included images of the 7 July bombings – wholly unmentioned by Britannica.
The interfaces of both products are easy to use, with clear links to find features and information. But we found Encarta's interface clearer, with the results pages proving simpler to navigate.
There are some features in Britannica that make research more interesting. These include the Brainstormer – which provides links to relevant topics relating to your search – and Timelines, which allows you to view events relating to specific areas, such as art, daily life and childhood, all in chronological order. Unsurprisingly, this feature suffers from a US bias.
Encarta offers an interactive game called Mindmaze, which encourages you to explore all the content with quizzes and links to articles. It includes a timeline feature, though this isn't as detailed as Britannica's, consisting of a straightforward historical timeline with links to more information about all the main events. But we did like the quotations search and the Map Treks feature found in Encarta, which shows you different views of regions of the world: for example, a map of city lights across the globe.
Although the internet constitutes the main rival to products such as this, both encyclopedias turn the tables and use the web to their advantage, adding to the content on offer. Both include one year's online updates to ensure that the information provided is up to date. Encarta adds a toolbar to Explorer, so that every time you request a search you can automatically access any relevant information held in Encarta. And it provides useful web links with each search. Britannica allows you to link to an online search from within a topic to find extra information.
Each product includes extra language-related reference products. Encarta has a UK English dictionary and thesaurus, plus dictionaries from French, Italian, Spanish and German to English (and vice versa). Britannica includes Merriam-Webster's Dictionary and Thesaurus but – you guessed it – it's written in US English.
Wikipedia: a rapidly growing internet rival to DVD-based encyclopedias
While disc-based encyclopedias still have their place, that place is rapidly being eroded by online reference sites. The most famous of these is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is free, but it has several other advantages, too.
The site is constantly updated, which means it's particularly strong on current affairs and popular culture. Wikipedia can give you an entire episode guide to Lost, while the DVDs don't even mention it.
Because Wikipedia is created and updated by its users, it's a great resource for esoteric information, such as profiles of local celebrities or information on regional delicacies. With more than five million entries, there isn't much that you can't find out about on Wikipedia.
However, because content comes from the community, it may not be entirely accurate. And since anyone with an internet connection can update entries, some pages are prone to vandalism. However, US magazine Nature recently compared Wikipedia's scientific content with that of Britannica and found the accuracy and depth of information to be comparable.
Another benefit of Wikipedia over disc-based products is that it won't eat up your system resources, while containing much more information. Most entries have a list of websites to provide more information. Overall, Wikipedia wins – mainly because it's free and provides an enormous amount of content. But for children or those less confident on the internet, a disc-based product is easier to use and promises accuracy.