Without leaving your personal computer, you can brush up on your Spanish, explore the world, listen to famous speeches and sample new music recordings.
To take advantage of this new generation of "multimedia" software, your PC or Macintosh must be equipped with a compact disc (CD) drive and meet certain minimum hardware requirements.
While some of these new multimedia programs are expensive, others are quite reasonable. For $120 a year, for example, you can subscribe to Nautilus and get a new CD each month that includes sample programs, color photography and a lot of music files. It's available for both Macintosh and IBM-compatible PCs. The August issue of Nautilus takes you along on this summer's flight of the space shuttle Columbia, complete with color photos, interviews with the crew and excerpts from radio transmissions.
Each Nautilus disc also contains a sampling of recent music by the Windham Hill recording label. There is an updated catalogue of available CD-ROMs and news about multimedia computing. You can even listen to recorded speeches, if you're so inclined. Nautilus is a service of Metatec Corp. (800 637-3472).
Microsoft Corp. has just released the 1992 edition of Bookshelf, an appropriately named compendium of reference works. The single CD comes with the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, the American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's II Electronic Thesaurus, the World Almanac and Book of Facts 1992, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations and the Hammond World Atlas. The disc has a suggested retail price of $499. Microsoft also offers a ($599) version that combines Bookshelf with its popular Word for Windows word-processing program. Current Word users can buy that disc for $99.
Bookshelf makes ample use of sound, illustrations and animation. Look up "eye" in the encyclopedia and you're treated to a narrated animation that demonstrates how the organ functions. For those who want more detail, the full text is there too. The dictionary not only defines words, but also lets you hear their correct pronunciation as no printed edition possibly could.
The Hammond Atlas, which has been updated to reflect the break-up of the Soviet Union, can pronounce the names of countries and major cities. You can listen to each country's national anthem and see its flag displayed on your computer screen along with maps. The Atlas is linked to Bookshelf's encyclopedia, making it easy to get in-depth information about a country.
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations has all the usual text along with recordings excerpted from famous speeches such as President John F. Kennedy's Inauguration Speech. You can also find portraits of famous people.
Bookshelf is available for IBM-compatible PCs only. However, there are a number of works for the Apple Macintosh, including Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia, which contain everything that you'd find in the full 26-volume printed version plus 60 minutes of audio and 45 animation sequences.
Want to brush up on a foreign language? Berlitz Think & Talk ($199) from HyperGlot Software of Knoxville, Tenn., (800 726-5087) takes you through about a year's worth of lessons. There are versions for Spanish, French, Italian and German. The Spanish edition, which I'm using, comes on six discs. With each lesson, you listen to a little play (complete with illustrations and animation) where native speakers show you how the language should sound.
Any of the current crop of Apple Macintosh computers can be equipped with an optional CD player. All Macs come with the ability to play music, although you may have to add memory to play some titles.
IBM-compatible PCs can also be used for multimedia; however you may have to add a sound card along with a CD drive. A consortium of companies, lead by Microsoft, have agreed upon a minimum hardware and software "platform" called the Multimedia PC or MPC. Any computer bearing the MPC logo can work with any software bearing the same logo. The machines can also run non-MPC CD titles. For an IBM compatible to qualify for the MPC logo, it must have at least a 386SX central processing unit, a CD drive, a 30-megabyte hard disc, 2 megabytes of memory and a sound board that can play and record. It must also have a copy of Microsoft Windows version 3.1.
AST Research, CompuAdd, NEC, Packard Bell, Tandy and several other companies make MPC-compatible machines.
IBM and other manufacturers offer similarly equipped machines that don't necessarily carry the MPC logo. You can upgrade most 386 or 486 machines by adding a CD-ROM drive and a sound board. MPC compatible CD-ROM drives start at less than $500 and MPC sound boards at less than $200. Creative Labs (408 428-6600) and Media Vision (800 845-5870) are leading markers of multimedia upgrade kits. Apple offers an optional external Macintosh CD drive and is expected to soon announce low-cost Macs with built-in CD drives.