Thinking of getting a CD-ROM encyclopedia for your computer?
Don't do it. Not if you already have an Internet connection.
The two most popular encyclopedia CD-ROMs--Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 2001, which sells for about $45, and the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica 2001, about $70--are both largely available online for free.
The only major differences between the CD-ROM and Internet versions is that the CD-ROMs include a few enhancements, including some additional multimedia materials.
Encarta executive Craig Bartholomew said the "cross media presentation" of the encyclopedia, which went online for free in late 1999, has not hurt the product. "Our sales of the CD-ROM are up, and so are the visits to the site," said Bartholomew. Encarta, founded in 1993, is owned by Microsoft.
Britannica officials did not respond to requests for comment on the similarities between their CD-ROM and free online services.
Although Bartholomew acknowledged that the online Encarta is extensive, he said it covered less than half the subjects of the CD-ROM version. However, the dozens of test topics we tried--both obscure and familiar--resulted in identical text entries and included most of the same sound and video clips.
Microsoft's press office provided a list of three examples of topics that could be found on the CD-ROM but not the online versions. But this only bolstered the case for the online Encarta.
Two of the three examples--an extensive entry on ancient Egypt and a brief article on horoscopes--were easily found on the Internet version by going at the topics indirectly. For example, instead of searching for "ancient Egypt," we simply went to Egypt and clicked on the convenient Ancient Egypt link.
After being told how these articles were found free online, a Microsoft spokesman said the company was working to close "backdoor" links to information the company wanted to make exclusive to the CD-ROM and paying MSN members. The company then blocked the ancient Egypt and horoscope links.
The one item on the list that was truly missing from the online Encarta was an article about the 1998 movie "Elizabeth." Available online, however, was an extensive entry on Queen Elizabeth I, the subject of the movie, plus a link to a Web site with information on the film.
Bartholomew said the main market for the CD-ROM version is households with children. "Parents might want their kids to be using it because they don't want them to be online all the time," he said. "It's a more controlled universe."
A third digital encyclopedia, Compton's Encyclopedia 2000 Deluxe, is available only in a CD-ROM version that costs about $35.
Here's how the three encyclopedias compare.
CD-ROM: The opening screen on this two-disc pack (also available on a one-disc DVD-ROM) is well organized and, if your computer is hooked up to the Internet, provides a periodically updated Encarta Today section on current events. For example, during the presidential vote counting turmoil, the updated opening screen offered a feature article by an Encarta staffer called "Bizarre Election Procedures of the Past."
On the left side of the screen is the Find tool for searching topics. After users get used to the little symbols that differentiate text, pictures and multimedia, it's quite user friendly.
Online: The home page at http://encarta.msn.com is cluttered with advertising but has the same basic features as the CD-ROM, including the "Bizarre Election Procedures" article. To initiate a search, click on the Encyclopedia link (there are also Dictionary and Atlas links), type in a topic and click Go.
You arrive at a page that takes you not only to the main text, pictures and multimedia but also to several links to other non-Encarta sites on the topic.
CD-ROM: As appropriate for a highly respected publication that has been around since 1768, the opening screen is elegant and refined. You can easily click into the Search mode or choose from several other features, including Compass (an atlas) or a timeline feature that is much less interactive than one included in Encarta.
A particularly nice feature is Britannica Classics, a selection of essays from past editions of the encyclopedia, including Albert Einstein on space-time, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) on guerrilla warfare, John Muir on Yosemite and Harry Houdini on conjuring.
Online: The site is not as elegant but is preferable to the CD-ROM version for numerous reasons. The busy home page at http://www.britannica.com seeks to be a portal, complete with news briefs, stock market updates, book excerpts and the inevitable banner ads. But at the top is a prominently displayed Search box, which is all you need to use the encyclopedia.
Filling in a topic and clicking on Search brings you to a useful page that links you not only to topic entry but also several Web sites and online magazines that could be of interest.