Encyclopaedias group test review

hugely detailed reference encyclopedia
Photo of Encyclopaedias group test
£59.99

The annual battle of the multimedia encyclopaedias has, over time, narrowed down to two suspects. While the likes of Compton, Grolier and Hutchinson are still going, you’re more likely to find them on budget labels than sitting proudly next to the two products we’ve got going head-to-head here.

The two left standing are Encarta and Britannica, both of which appear on time every year, and both of which continue to impress reviewers. In this shoot-out we’re putting them against each other, although as you’ll see, whichever you plump for it’s a bit of a no-lose scenario. However, there is a clear winner, whose identity will be revealed shortly.

We’ve compared the two premium versions of the suites here, and for the purposes of the test we took the option from both to install them complete to our system’s hard drive. This gave us a fairer idea of how they compared in terms of speed. Both are available in CD and DVD versions, and Encarta has a Standard version available, missing a healthy chunk of the content, for £29.99 inc. VAT.

We looked for quality of content, its localisation, how easy it was to get around the programs and any extra features that we could find. We also tried to get a measure of how things had progressed from the 2004 editions – Britannica and Encarta – reviewed last year.

Once Britannica has stopped trying to sell you things, it’s a grand piece of software. Yet the box comes with leaflets for extra products, the lengthy installation routine sells you them too, and you’re not even free of the advertising when you launch the program. A ‘Shop Now’ button on the opening screen is entirely unwelcome.

Now traditionally, the argument has always run that Britannica has the best content, yet Encarta has the best interface and is that bit more user-friendly. Yet, out of the 2005 versions of both, it’s Britannica that has made the bigger strides forward, with a simple, easy to follow system of navigation that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent half an hour on the Internet.

From the off, it’s happy to split its approach between its varying demographic audiences. So 6-10 year olds are invited to select the Elementary Library option, 10-14 year olds have the Student Library and everyone older has the Encyclopaedia Britannica 2005 Library to play with. To find out the differences, we searched for a couple of items under all three.

Searching for ‘football’ got things off to a bad start. This is a product primarily targeted at an American audience it seems, as 6-10 year olds are given an admittedly simple definition of American Football. 10-14 year olds get a more detailed description, although multimedia elements are common. Bizarrely, for adults, football is defined in the British sense, with not an Americanism in sight.

‘Bill Gates’ under the adult version brought up a detailed biography of the Microsoft co-founder, yet clicking onto the multimedia button, the first two results were Iron Gates and The Gates of Hell. It got better. Under the Student Library, a search for Bill Gates proved tricky, with the first result up being Apple-man Steve Jobs. Gates appeared further down the list as William H Gates III. Bill Clinton was the first name out in the Elementary Library, with Bill Gates nowhere to be found. It was easier, in the Elementary Library, to find out about Monica Lewinsky!

These examples aside, the search is actually quite a powerful, if slow, tool, and it does get you to your desired content the vast majority of the time. You can also choose to browse through the included atlas, through the generous multimedia library and across features such as timelines.

To their credit, the developers also have differing options depending on which Library you’re looking at. These, however, don’t always go to plan – clicking on the Games button which appears in the Elementary and Student Libraries doesn’t take you to games at all, rather to a Web page talking about learning activities relevant to the likes of Grades 6-12. From there you can get to the games if you want, but it’s a shame that the content for the under-14s is very Americanised, yet if you’re older then you can enjoy the localised material in the main library.

For make no mistake, the main Britannica Library is where this program hits top gear. The Brainstormer feature is the big new thing here, and it’s designed to simply help you get around the thousands of topics contained with the program. For instance, we started by clicking on The Arts, then chose Architecture, then from the next menu down we plucked Gothic revival and all of a sudden we were reading about William Butterfield. Whichever route you choose, consistently the content is of a very high standard, and with over 100,000 articles and 18,000 pieces of multimedia, there’s much to explore.

However, this is also the program’s Achilles heel, as even on a 3GHz Pentium 4 PC, it had a hard job navigating between content entries at a decent pace. If you can put up with that, though, there’s easily your money’s worth here.

Encarta, for a long time the multimedia encyclopaedia of choice, continues its reign at the top with the 2005 edition. It’s traditional at this point to note how Britannica is continually closing the gap on Microsoft’s giant. Only this year, that wouldn’t be true. While you’d be troubled to conclude that Encarta is pulling away from the field, it simply seems as far out in front as it was this time last year.

Why? Well there are things it does exceptionally well. It, like Britannica, is keen to cater for users of all ages, so once installed, you get two executables on your desktop: Encarta Premium Suite 2005 and Children’s Encarta. The latter has an interface far friendlier to the younger user, with a garish colour scheme to match. It’s also not afraid to cross reference to its bigger brother when it needs to.

For instance, a search for Bill Gates produces no result, amusingly, in Children’s Encarta, but you’re instantly offered a link to try the same search in the Premium Suite. What’s more, Children’s Encarta’s content is localised, meaning Association Football is the top result when the beautiful game is search for. Furthermore, it comes with a healthy selection of educational mini-games available from within the main Encarta interface.

The Premium Suite doesn’t seem to have moved on much from last year, with the boasts on the box still referring to the likes of Discovery Channel content that was included in the 2004 edition. The content is relatively fresh though, and can be kept so for twelve months with Encarta’s updates. More on this shortly.

Where Encarta always scores is the feeling that the developers have thought of everything. You can literally lose hours in this stuff, be it the comprehensive research and project tools, the interactive maps, the wealth of content or an interface that leaves you with no dead ends. As for the quality of the content, you could still probably argue that Britannica shades it, but the truth is that the majority of us won’t notice.

What sours things slightly, though, is the online update procedure. The program encourages you to sign up, but then wants to know where you live, how many kids you have, who uses Encarta, and various other bits of marketing information that, frankly, we didn’t want to give. A shame, as the online service is strong, and you get a years’ access as part of your initial outlay.

Encarta seems, more than ever, to have adopted an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach. Upon loading the program for the first time, we were prompted that updates were available for download. Smashing, we thought, and we clicked the relevant buttons, to be told that we had to join Club Encarta to be able to receive them.

To be fair, this allows you to keep content up to date until October 2006, but why should we be asked about our address, whether we teach kids, whether we’re parents and suchlike? Okay, this isn’t compulsory, but that’s not clear at all from the sign up page; it’s only when you click Submit and the form accepts your answers that you find that out.

But then that’s all part of the Encarta package. For your purchase price, Microsoft will keep it up to date for a year with regular new content (broadband clearly helps here), and the developers do allow you to access Encarta Premium online for a short while. Yet that’s the point at which you naturally ask questions about whether it’s best simply to subscribe to a constantly-updated Web resource rather than stump up for a DVD-ROM. You do get the impression that Microsoft would prefer a regular monthly payment over a one-off fee for selling the software in the first place.

Still, once you’re into the guts of the Encarta disc, it’s as easy as ever to get engrossed. Microsoft continues its policy of sourcing third-party content from partners who have more expertise than itself (The Times and the Discovery Channel, for instance), and it pays off. You get the impression that much of it has been carefully selected too, which is a further bonus.

It’s also prominently badged as the UK and Ireland edition, which is backed up with fully localised content in both the main and Children’s Encarta that you get with the pack. It passes the football test with ease. What’s more, the Children’s Encarta is directly tied into Key Stages 2 and 3, something that will reassure parents.

The slick interface has had a bit of work done to it since last year, and it’s still as straightforward as ever to find what you’re looking for. Interestingly, Microsoft has also pushed the Web angle further: there are umpteen Web content recommendations that sit alongside the articles themselves. Online safety is something that both Encarta and Britannica use as selling points.

Yet that all hints at what Encarta is increasingly becoming. Instead of it being the ultimate resource that it was once regarded as, it’s now coming across as a reference work that’s chosen its content. It’s as if the developers appreciate that it can’t compete with the Web head-for-head, so instead choose the battles carefully and win them with ease. The achievement, therefore, is that in a market where the multimedia encyclopaedia threatens to become less relevant than ever before, Encarta has never been more so.

Once again Encarta emerges victorious, thanks to its balance of content and accessibility. What’s surprising is that this is in spite of Britannica’s much-heralded new interface and the boasts of a program that’s supposedly easier to use than ever.

Why did Encarta Premium Suite 2005 win? It scored in several key areas. First, it hangs together better as a computer program, with a more intuitive interface and the ability to get around its content with few notable pauses. Second, its localisation is far better, and you’re never left with the feeling that this is an American product repackaged for the British market. And third, the breadth of content and innovations that support it just edge Britannica out.

Encyclopaedia Britannica 2005 scores by being cheaper and not having the Encarta Online sign-up procedure, but throws it away with its insistence on selling you things. It also, arguably, has the slightly better content, but the difference isn’t great.

Which leaves things pretty much wrapped up for another year. It’s becoming clear that on the program side, neither has many great innovations left in it, and more and more this annual scrap is going to come down to the quality and breadth of the content. For now, Encarta maintains its lead, but we’ll see you back here again in a years’ time…

This year’s face-off between the big multimedia encyclopaedias has seen them both facing a brand new threat. In much the same way that Microsoft’s Cinemania package was rendered obsolete by the Internet Movie Database, both Encarta and Britannica in their 2006 guises are fighting the growth of online resource WikiPedia, as well as the Internet as a whole.

The result is that both products are now more Web-reliant than last year, and you can also pick them up a little cheaper than was possible a few years back. But are they still relevant in a world where Google is becoming the starting point to finding things out? Let’s take a look.

Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

The Britannica approach to fighting off the prevalence of Web resources is quickly apparent. It involves finding as much content as possible and throwing it in the direction of the DVD-ROM.

Thus, as the packaging proudly boasts, there are three encyclopaedias for your money – an Elementary (for kids up to ten years old), a Student (which works out as anyone above ten involved in studies) and the traditional main encyclopaedia.

Also a new Homework Helper has been introduced, plus there’s a comprehensive dictionary and thesaurus, over 20,000 pieces of multimedia and 150,000+ articles and Web-links. We weren’t inclined to check that count, but can assure you that it all feels suitably comprehensive. It’s wrapped up in a new interface too, which we’ll come to shortly.

The three-encyclopaedia approach was one that Britannica pushed last year as well, the problem being that only the main one was properly localised for UK audiences. Americanisms were rife in the others. Sadly, it’s a problem that’s not been fully rectified. In the student library, for instance, searching and selecting ‘football’ does concede that the American version of football is different from the rest of the world, but the associated table of contents then talks about High School and College Football.

The Elementary library, meanwhile, doesn’t even bother: football is American and ‘yah boo sucks’ to the rest. So once again it’s the excellent main Britannica library that’s been tailored for the UK, and we’re expected to let our kids loose on the areas that are very US-centric.

Fortunately, that main library – which has the bulk of the package’s content – is outright brilliant. There’s a huge amount of content there that’s relevant, well chosen and strongly written. And, pretty much for the first time, Britannica has come up with an interface that holds everything together extremely well.

All three libraries are accessible from tabs at the top of the screen, and the main body features traditional and non-traditional ways to get at the content. We liked the Brainstormer feature, for instance, which allows you to follow the whims of your mind through a few mouse clicks, although the Homework Helper was at times a little too clinical and dry in its approach.

Britannica 2006 is a phenomenally comprehensive resource. We wouldn’t be inclined to allow youngsters near the so-called dedicated encyclopaedias in a hurry, but the main body of content is so strong that it presents genuine justification for attracting the attention of your credit card.

Neither Britannica nor Encarta can offer anywhere near the comprehensiveness you’ll get from a good session with Google, and both of them know it. Microsoft’s Encarta seems to have dealt with the threat slightly better, taking a direction that some will, and some won’t, warm to. It’s more Web-centric than ever, and the constant referrals to online materials may defeat the object for some people. But they’re well chosen materials, and that’s going to be a weight off a parent’s mind if they’re trying to keep their offspring looking at relevant and safe material.

The gap in quality of content is now smaller than ever, though, with Britannica’s traditional lead in this area offset by its continued failure to localise everything, and Microsoft’s continued deal-making with third parties. Both have done Britannica damage, although ironically – given that this is the area in which it has suffered in the past – its user interface is far improved and pretty much the match of Encarta.

It’s Encarta that wins again, yet it’s a sign of the times that it has won for slightly different reasons. Britannica is still probably the pack we’d plump for if we were after a disc bustling with content and no kids in the house, especially if we didn’t have a decent Web connection. But Encarta’s broader approach seems to fit the bill better. It may, long term, lead to the days of Encarta as a piece of published software being numbered, but for the time being it wins the annual face-off between these two packages. Not by much, though.

Company: Britannica

Contact: 01889 570156