There’s no getting away from it; reference software is a necessary, yet uncomfortably broad term. Encompassing the likes of astronomy, encyclopaedias, route planning and various other multimedia works, it covers an area of software that’s been booming in recent years.
Let’s start with encyclopaedias, though, which are just beginning to take better advantage of the DVD format. The clear leader in this field is Microsoft’s Encarta, a piece of work that’s evolved substantially since the first edition around ten years back.
Any of the past few years’ versions are excellent, and while you could argue that the also strong Encyclopaedia Britannica has better content, Encarta works the multimedia angle a whole lot better. Incidentally, if you plump for Encarta, it comes in three flavours, and perhaps surprisingly the Premium Suite is the most popular, despite being the most expensive.
However, if that’s out of your pocket, then the budget market is vibrant with multimedia encyclopaedias. Arguably the best deal is an earlier version of Britannica selling for £9.99 on the Focus Multimedia label. In fact, for under £10, you can get a surprising amount of strong reference software. More on that shortly.
Microsoft is the leader again in the next field we’ll look at, route planning packages. As with Encarta, Autoroute has gradually evolved over a long period of time into the professional, easy to use and powerful package it is now. In our tests, it’s proven to be slightly more accurate than its rivals – and a lot more accurate than its online competitors – plus it has a lot to offer beyond simply tracking your way from A to B.
Others that are worth considering are AA Milemaster Plus if you want a package that’s purely UK-focused, or Map & Travel Route Planner. There are, as we alluded to above, a variety of web sites that can perform free route planning services, although we’d advise you treat some of their directions with caution and it’s often more convenient to have this capability on your desktop rather than in your browser, especially for laptop users.
We talked astronomy right at the start, and here we’ll do so again. You have a couple of strong choices in this field, both of which have been around quite a while (albeit benefiting from regular updates). Guildsoft sells a range of titles under the Starry Night banner, and which one you plump for depends really on how enthusiastic about the topic you are. None of them will see you far wrong. Mind you, neither will the excellent Redshift series, now published by Focus Multimedia. Last but not least, the Dorling Kindersley Atlas of the Solar System is also worth a peek.
We’ll stay with Dorling Kindersley, whose books are popular reference tomes in themselves. Their CD-ROM range is published by GSP and features a good 3D World Atlas, The Ultimate Human Body, History of the World and 20th Century Day By Day. GSP also sell some of the older titles for £9.99. None of these are exceptional pieces of software, but the strength of the content means they are good reference works.
Finally, as promised, we’ll have a closer look at the budget market. The Focus Multimedia range alone could keep you busy for some time. For £9.99 apiece, you can buy a range of titles under the Encyclopaedia Britannica banner (Almanac, Dinosaurs, Human Body, Nature, Space, World Religions), plus a few more under the Hutchinson brand (a full Encyclopaedia, along with individual reference suites for History, Music and Science).
There’s also a multimedia dictionary based on the Oxford English and – offering terrific value for money – the Penguin Hutchinson Reference Suite. This includes a thesaurus, encyclopaedia, world history chronology, a book of days, and dictionaries of the English language, of the Internet and of computing in general. All for a tenner.
Clearly, we’ve barely scratched the proverbial surface here, and the breadth of the reference software market means our hands are tied. However, what we have tried to show you is that not only is there a huge range of choice, there’s also some excellent value for money to be had. Happy shopping!