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Exploring Some of the Best Bets in Today's Cyber Encyclopedias

October 19, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Several years ago when I first reviewed CD-ROM encyclopedias, I compared them with the "other" way of looking up information and concluded that those plastic discs were a lot better than the old-fashioned set of books that lined the shelves of my parents' den.

As I look at this year's crop of CD-ROM reference tools, it seems as if they, too, are getting to be a bit old-fashioned compared with online information resources.

It's not that there's anything shabby about Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 99, Encyclopaedia Britannica CD 99 and other CD-based encyclopedias. Each of these CD-ROM sets has a great deal of information, including articles, video clips, animation and sound. But as publishers cram more into these collections, they quickly bump up against the 600-megabyte limit of CDs.

One solution is to use digital versatile discs, or DVDs, instead of CD-ROMs. A DVD can hold up to 8.5 gigabytes of data per side, about the same as 15 CDs. Microsoft offers a DVD that has five CDs' worth of information, including the company's Encarta encyclopedia, its Virtual Globe product and Microsoft Bookshelf. Britannica plans a DVD release in January.

Unfortunately, there is still a relative paucity of DVD players in the world, so the market for these products will remain limited until the hardware catches up.

Another solution, which is available to anyone with Web access, is to forgo buying an encyclopedia and just use the Internet. Several companies, including the leading CD-ROM encyclopedia makers, offer online versions, which are not only as comprehensive as their CDs, but are more up-to-date. Best of all, some of these resources are free. Those that aren't offer free trial memberships.

Arguments for using a CD-ROM rather than going online include speed and the amount of accessible multimedia data.

While CD versions of the popular encyclopedias have more multimedia information, I was impressed at how much you can find online, especially if you access Encarta's new (and temporarily free) Online Deluxe Encyclopedia. The online editions of both Encarta (http://www.encarta.com) and Britannica (http://www.eb.com) have the same number of articles and words as the CD-ROM versions, but not as much multimedia material. Still, both have plenty of pictures as well as sound files and even some video.

As for speed, I did some tests. Using a 56k modem, I found it faster to view articles and even graphics online than to use a CD, counting the time it takes to insert the CD and run the software. If you have a cable modem or a LAN connection, there's no contest. Using a CD is even slower if you have to locate and swap discs. And I didn't even include the time it takes to install CD software and their storage requirements.

CD-ROMs have some advantages. A CD-ROM is faster if you plan to do a lot of searching and browsing in a single session. And you don't have to be connected to the Internet or tie up a phone line.

CD-ROMs have features you won't find online, including interactive modules, which enable users to try their hand at such tasks as building a strand of DNA. You typically get more photos, videos and animation, as well as extra features such as maps and teaching tools. A case could be made that CD encyclopedias are misnamed and could be better described as learning and exploration tools rather than strictly reference titles.

When it comes to both online and CD-ROM products, I'm more impressed by Encarta's performance and interface than I am by Britannica's. Britannica, of course, has a richer tradition and far more information--72,000 articles and about 50 million words, compared with Encarta's 40,000 articles and 20 million words. Britannica's articles, in many cases, are longer and more detailed. But in some searches, Encarta came up with more thorough articles.

Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia, which has 58,000 articles and thousands of images and sounds, offers a series of guided tours in science, history, economics and even some highly specialized areas such as clowns and leading ladies. It's nice but hardly exceptional.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by IBM's 1999 World Book Deluxe Edition CD-ROM. It's not as detailed as either Britannica or Encarta, but it's written in a kid-friendly style that might be more appealing to elementary and middle-school-aged children.

Before spending money, check the discs that came with your computer. Lots of PCs come with a single-disc CD that has most of the articles and a subset of the multimedia material. Aside from being free, they can be more convenient because there is no disc swapping.

Encarta is offering free access to its Deluxe Online Encyclopedia but will eventually start charging $59.95 a year. Microsoft is giving away a free year's subscription to the online version if you purchase the Encarta Deluxe CD-ROM for $69, less a $25 rebate. So if you remember to send in the rebate, the CD-ROM/online bundle costs $15 less than the online service alone.

The CD version of Britannica CD 99 Multimedia Edition costs $99, but you can access the online version for $5 a month or $50 for the year. You can also check it out with a seven-day free trial or get three months free if you buy the CD-ROM.

Grolier (http://www.grolier.com) also offers a one-week free trial on its $59-a-year 36,000-article online version.

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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