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Test drive: 'Net encyclopedias as good as CD-ROMs
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.
The encyclopedia's text pages have an irritating fault: Long entries are divided into sections and can't be read or printed in one take. Also, the online version does not include the Classics articles found on CD-ROM.
If you are particularly interested in visual or multimedia enhancements, the search engine on this two-disc pack is quite useful. After you type in a topic, it lists how many pictures, sound clips, videos, maps and other features are available on the subject.
Otherwise, the features of this CD-ROM are unremarkable, and in one case particularly disappointing. It has a Web Link Directory that is quite limited. I put in one of our test topics, "trombone," and got nothing at all. Then I put in the word "war" and the only site it came up with was Kid's Domain Icon Mania because it mentions "Star Wars."
Bill Gates: Given that Encarta is owned by Microsoft, it's no surprise that its essay on the co-founder of the company is relatively lengthy and entirely laudatory. Even so, it has surprising gaps, including not one mention of the operating system DOS, the bedrock upon which Gates built Microsoft into software's major player.
The essay does, however, remind us that he gave $2.4 billion to charitable causes in one year alone.
The Britannica also gives the richest man in the United States his due, and it stresses his importance in the development of home and business computing, as well as his shrewd refocusing on the Internet in the mid-1990s. But it also mentions Gates' entanglements with the Justice Department's antitrust division. And in talking about Gates the businessman, the entry says rivals portray him as "driven, duplicitous, and determined to profit from virtually every electronic transaction in the world."
The Compton's entry on Gates is quite short -- basically a one-paragraph photo caption. But even it manages to mention DOS.
All the encyclopedia entries included a picture of Gates.
Victoria Woodhull: The saga of this fascinating and controversial woman -- the first to run for the U.S. presidency -- was best told by Britannica and Compton's. Woodhull (1838-1927), was born of a poor family that had a traveling patent medicine and fortune-telling show, but she eventually co-founded the first stock brokerage owned by women. She used its success to put out publications advocating equal rights for women and free love. She ran for president in 1872, 48 years before women even got the right to vote.
The Encarta entry on Woodhull was the shortest and dullest.
None of the digital encyclopedias included a picture of her.
Trombone: Articles about the musical instrument included a description (Britannica's was the most detailed) and its history (Encarta and Compton's got points for mentioning classical compositions that use trombones prominently).
All three included short sound clips.
On the Encarta disc is a 25-second clip of jazz musician J.J. Johnson playing with a Miles Davis sextet and a 30-second clip of the ragtime tune "Lassus Trombone." Encarta online included only the Johnson clip.
Britannica's disc and online versions both include a 20-second clip of a trombone playing scales. The Compton's disc has a 10-second unidentified piece that shows off the instrument's slide sounds.
Stonewall Riots: Only Compton's gives the landmark event of the gay and lesbian rights movement a separate entry. It describes the 1969 series of riots that occurred when hundreds of patrons of the Stonewall gay bar in New York fought back against police who regularly raided such establishments. Many historians of the movement mark the event as the major turning point in gay and lesbian activism.
Britannica gives the event a paragraph in its "Homosexual Rights Movement" entry. Encarta has only two sentences on Stonewall in its all-encompassing "Homosexuality" entry.