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A Contest of Brains and Beauty


It's time for another Cyburbia encyclopedia CD-ROM showdown!

Back in 1994, just as the CD-ROM market was poised to take off, we looked at the three digital encyclopedias to compare their content, ease of use and multimedia features.

Now that the CD-ROM market has peaked and undergone a tremendous down slide (or shakeout, depending how you look at it), it's time to examine the latest contenders in computer encyclopedias. Two of them are enhanced versions of titles we looked at previously--Grolier and Microsoft Encarta. In addition, we examine Collier's and World Book.

Just as in 1994, we tested them by looking up, in each, these topics: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech, military ranks, the Stonewall gay rights riot and Japanese woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai. This time around, we added late pianist Glenn Gould.

Here's how the CD-ROM encyclopedias fared.

* Collier's: I have no doubt a lot of work went into this three-disk set from Sierra software ($79.95), but it's hampered by a confusing interface, painfully slow action and an ugly design.

As for content, Collier's didn't do badly. It included a 1-minute, 20-second sound clip from King's 1963 speech, a highly informative section on military ranks, a short entry on Hokusai that included four pictures and an excellent piece on Gould by music writer Tim Page. The only Stonewall entry was on Stonewall Jackson.

* Grolier: This plain-looking product took the honors back in 1994 for ease of use and speed. It has lost little in those departments in its latest version ($49.95).

The CD-ROM had a short, 30-second audio clip of King, but Grolier's was the only product tested to include the speech's full text. There were: a history of military ranks, but no list of what the military now uses, a short but informative piece on Stonewall and features on Hokusai and Gould that included pictures.

* Encarta: This two-disk set runs away with the "most improved" award over its previous offering. It sports a beautiful, fast-moving interface that makes its many features readily accessible and a joy to use.

We tested the deluxe version (about $80 from Microsoft) and there is also an abridged version that has fewer multimedia features and fewer entries (about $55).

In content, Encarta had a 20-second sound clip of King's speech linked to a lengthy article that included other speech clips, numerous pictures and newspaper articles. I could find nothing much on modern military ranks, but the Stonewall event was included in the "Homosexuality" entry under "Activism and Current Issues." The piece on Hokusai included one picture and the entry on Gould actually had a short sound clip of him playing Bach.

* World Book: The digital version of the famous encyclopedia comes in a two-disk set ($59.95 from IBM). It looks fine, but it's a bit slow moving.

It included a 17-second video clip that enables the user to actually see King making his most famous speech.

The military rank article had no list of modern ranks and there was no mention at all of the Stonewall event. The entry on Hokusai had, surprisingly, no pictures of the artist's work. The piece on Gould did have a picture, but no sound clip.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.

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