Software Reviews

Multimedia Encyclopaedias

Reviewed by Laurence Fenn

Many computer companies are bringing out encyclopedias for computers, so this review takes a look at four of them, Microsoft's Encarta 96, Compton's Multimedia, GSP British Multimedia and Grolier's 1996.

Please note that I chose the subject of puppetry to search for with each of the products, but I haven't included the information I found within this review, or the pictures.

Microsoft's Encarta 96

Runs under Windows 95, NT and 3.1 with a minimum 386 DX microprocessor, 6Mb of RAM, CD-ROM drive, SVGA 256 colour monitor and a soundcard. You can run the program from the CD taking 2Mb of hard disc space (4.5Mb for Windows 3.1) which is slow, or go for a faster performance, taking 9Mb of space (11Mb for Windows 3.1). There are eight main sections: Find (Search for articles), Look & Listen (Create a media show), Experiment (Learn by doing), Take A Tour (Journey through Encarta), Explore Maps (Travel the globe), Explore History (Travel through time), Play A Game (Test your knowledge) or Keep Up To Date (Build an Encarta yearbook). This last option allows you to download updates from Microsoft's Web site (which should take an approximate 7.5Mb of extra disc space according to Microsoft) to make sure the information supplied is never out of date, an inherent problem of any CD-ROM product. Designed to run similarly to Music Central 96 and Cinemania 96, it is easy to navigate the encyclopedia. You can select one of nine areas of interest (Physical Science & Technology, Life Science, Geography, History, Social Science, Religion & Philosophy, Art Language & Literature , Performing Arts and Sports, Hobbies & Pets). These are divided into categories (up to 15), which lead to the articles themselves. It contains 31 video clips, 81 animations, 905 sound clips, 6025 pictures, 503 maps, 256 charts & tables, 8 interactivities and a MindMaze game which asks general knowledge questions based on the facts contained. Articles and pictures are easily printed or copied to the clipboard for insertion into a word processor document, but the images are converted to 256 colours badly, with the copyright information superimposed over the bottom of the image. The easiest way to get around this is to use a screen capture program (like PaintShop Pro) and copy the images straight from your screen.

Double clicking on a word which isn't a link opens it's definition in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, included on the disc. There are 68 guided tours if you wish to browse through articles, a timeline accessing specially written articles on wide periods of history and events and an atlas showing features and main cities of a continent, region or country with maps.

A good variety in the articles, with plenty of pictures. The actual detail given in the articles could be more, but if you want an in depth view of a subject, you should get a book on the subject or a specialist CD-ROM. As far as I know, there isn't one on puppetry, if you don't include the Muppet CD-ROM that is! The updates make sure that the information is not out of date, and are easy to download from the Encarta 96 web site. If you do not have a modem, CD-ROM magazine currently supply the updates on the cover CD.

Compton's Multimedia

Runs under Windows 3.1 and 95, and requires a 486SX processor, 4Mb RAM, SVGA, Single speed CD-ROM and a soundcard. The main screen has three windows, Multimedia viewer for clips, pictures and music, Table of Contents for selecting articles, and Article viewer. The selection on the left Menu is simliar to Encarta's Home Screen, with Contents, Idea Search, Info Pilot, Topic Tree, Atlas, Timeline, Explore (for Kids - six rooms with ideas: Newsroom, Grandma's Attic, Space Quest, Kaleidoscope, Madcap Music Store, Wild & Free), Editing Room (create multimedia presentation), On Line (Modem link to Web page for more information). Help is provided by a voice over (context sensitive) or a video explanation from Patrick Stewart. Each window has a set of buttons which control the media, and information can be copied and printed from here, but passages must be hightlighted first (no default setting of 'all').

There's more information here, but the emphasise is more on American subjects. Encarta's text was re-written to avoid this. Compton's comes with a free CD-ROM Small Blue Planet - The Real Picture World Atlas which has satellite photos of areas to zoom in on, which complments the Atlas on the encyclopedia itself. The extra rooms are good for younger users, as clicking on objects brings up noises and video clips.

The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia

Requires a multimedia PC or compatible with a 486DX/33MHz or higher microprocessor; 8 MB of memory for Windows 95, or 4 MB of memory for Windows 3.1; "double-speed" CD-ROM drive (300 KB/sec or higher transfer rate); sound card; and SVGA 256-color monitor, Hard-disk space: 8 MB for Windows 95, or 10 MB for Windows 3.1, Windows 95 operating system, or MS-DOS operating system version 5.0 or later with Microsoft Windows 3.1 or later, For Windows 3.1 only, Microsoft CD Extensions version 2.2 or later, Apple QuickTime for Windows version 2.1 or later (supplied with product), Microsoft Mouse or compatible pointing device, Wave-table sound card (optional, but recommended for best MIDI audio), Headphones or speakers, Printer (optional).

Installation starts with two options Minimal and Optimal, but does not say how much disc space each option takes (Optimal takes around 40Mb whereas Minimal takes ?Mb). It then asks to install QuickTime 2.1 (as the video clips are not AVI files). I thought I had the latest version on my PC, so I said no to this, but what it does not mention is that this is a 32-bit version, which is better than the 16-bit one I had. It then asks to install WinCIM 2.01, to access the Compuserve links (which you have to be a member of). This gave no option until the first page of the installation, which I then cancelled. Once installed it adds four items to a new folder under Grolier, namely Compuserve installation, Electronic registration, Readme file and the encyclopedia itself. When the program is run it reminds you to register, but this notice can be switched off. The front screen has three buttons, Quick Tour (a couple of screens showing the main functions), Navigation/help (a very comprehensive set of help screens), and Start.

The main screen has six blue tabs near the top of the screen for Articles, Gallery, Atlas, Timeline, Pathmakers and Yearbook with a Browse/Search/Markers index on the left of the screen. Under articles you can just type the word you want to search for and the relevant article titles appear, much like the index system in Encarta. You can select custom which divides the search into All, Geography, History, Language & Literature, Life Sciences, Performing Arts, Physical Sciences & Math, Society & Social Sciences, Sports Games & Recreation, Technology and Visual Arts. Each of these categories have a sub category of up to twelve subject matters.

Depending upon the article, you can have entries for text, picture, outline, related media, and related articles. On the pictures you have buttons for Print, Copy, Save (if copyright allows), Mark and Enlarge (to full window). The window cannot be maximized if you run in a resolution higher than 640x480. Under text, you have a knowledge tree button, which shows the subject path to the article (e.g. The Arts-Visual Arts-Painting and Drawing-Painters-John Constable). You can go to any section of the tree to find other people or articles.

One problem I noticed with the sound was that midi files and sound files pause during playback if you scroll through the list of available files. The sound clips are mainly of music and animal noises, and the midi files are mostly classical, including all three movements of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Timelines are divided into 10 eras, Origins (starting from 100 million B.C.), Ancient Civilisations (from 10,000 B.C.), World of Darkness & Light (from 500 A.D.), Awakenings (from 1400 A.D.), The Age of Wonder (from 1500 A.D.), The triumph of Science (from 1600 B.C.), Reason, Rights & Revolution (from 1700 A.D.), The Machine Age (from 1800 A.D.), The World At War (from 1900 A.D.) and Toward A New Global Outlook (from 1945 to 1995 A.D.). Each era leads to a detailed timeline, QuickTime movie, text and list of events in that time.

Pathmakers provides six topics of related articles, video introduction, and sound dialogue, on Artists and Modernism (with American painter Helen Frankenthaler), Explorers and Discovery (with astronaut Buzz Aldrin), Great Sports Achievements (with track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee), Great Thinkers (with paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould), Innovators and Inventors (with aerodynamicist Paul MacCready), and The American Novel (with novelist Kurt Vonnegut). Each pathmaker has a video clip, three dialogue clips and fifty related articles. This is a variation on Encarta's guided tours.

No pictures found at all on puppetry! As with the rest of the articles (32,731 in total) it is very American in contents and style. It also gives details on all 27 amendments to their constitution, and legal cases that brought particular precedents. The help guide mentions a BBS board for technical support, which is a telephone number in America. No effort has been made to adapt the product to a European market, which means a lot of the information will be of little use (unless you are a fan of the American culture).

British Multimedia Encyclopedia by GSP

Requires a 486 processor, 4Mb of RAM (8Mb recommended), 4Mb Hard disc space, Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, SVGA, soundcard, CD-ROM and MSCDEX 2.22 or later. Installation asks to copy bitmaps (additional 9Mb) and/or atlas files (8mb) to make running faster. Also copies Indeo video drivers version 3.22 the first time the program is run. The home screen is a rendered desk with items for Home Screen (a desklamp), Timeline (an hourglass), Topics (cubes), Altas (a globe), Quiz (a red question mark), Browse (an open book), Search (a magnifying glass), Index (a card index) ad display (another book).

There is an audio tour of the icons and on the main display you can get an audio help as well as the standard help file.

The index is divided into video (56 clips), audio (82 clips), pictures (3,500), multimedia (all three), word, and other, which divides into biographies, book titles, poems, quotes, tables and other items. The box quotes higher numbers for these items, but looking in the index, the same clip is sometimes listed three times! References to the same clip must be from different articles, and the index just lists all of the references.

Browse is either random or alphabetical, with a slow to fast slider and a pause button. Articles titles are displayed in a circle showing the last ten, and you click on the article you want to see. Text can be copied by selecting cope from the edit menu, which copies the complete article on view into the clipboard, but images cannot. According to the help file, when you click on a picture to display it full screen (which it does) you get three buttons, Copy (to clipboard), Print, or Cancel (return to article). These did not appear when I used the program, and there is no preferences or options to change this. Subsequently the only way I could copy images was to use a screen capture program. On this day displays items of interest according to the current date (or another set by yourself), but there are no links to articles that may be covered by the subjects. The search function works with the word or phrase you type. You are then told how many articles they occur in, and a list of all those articles can then be shown to find the item your looking for. However, it seems to remember this selection even when you go to a different section. After searching for items on puppetry, I then went to the timeline, which shows subjects from 4 Million BC, 27 BC, 477 AD, 1482, 1776, 1914 and 1945. Clicking on the picture of Henry VIII in the 1482 section, I expected to get some information on the man himself. Instead I had the previous display items on puppetry. I had to go to the search function, clear the selection, then go back to the timeline and start again.

The only picture I found on puppetry was one with the Walt Disney article, which was of the front cover of a mickey mouse short story book, and not of Walt Disney. Overall, I found this title very disappointing. The different functions are separate, so if you are looking at an article, you have to go to search, wait for it to load, clear the word, enter the new word, then go to the new list of articles. There are no pull down menus, and items are not all linked together. The quiz was quite good, with a level of difficulty, time limits, and based on a multiple choice style with sound and graphics (and even a high score table!). There is no update facility, and some information is not strictly accurate (it states that CD-ROMs hold about 550Mb of data, when it's more like 650Mb).


HD Space : Smallest - Fastest2 - 9Mb29k - 22Mb4Mb - 21Mb8Mb - 38.5Mb
Video Clips31315661
Sound Clips90515582617
Tour GuidesYES (68)YESNONO

The difference in space taken could be a deciding factor depending on your set up. With a quad speed CD-ROM I didn't notice much difference. Encarta wins points for it's ease of use (although it can get cluttered). Compton's help was very thorough, and the extra rooms of activities is a bonus for children. GSP inaccuracies and inability to copy pictures means it loses points, and Grolier's assumption than every user is American and on CompuServe also loses points. Overall I would rate 1st - Encarta 96, close 2nd - Compton's, 3rd - Grolier's and 4th - GSP. I didn't have a chance to try out Hutchinson's Encyclopedia or Collier's, which are the only other encyclopedias on the market.

Review first appeared in ROM Newsletter of the Guildford PC User Group in September 1996 (Vol.6,No.9)