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When purchasing an interactive encyclopedia, buyers must know if the product they are considering will provide their family with the information they need. Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 2000 succeeded in answering two of our kid's three research trial questions. It eventually led us to an acceptable answer for the remaining question, but it was only through a web link to a third party website that the answer was actually provided.
In searching for an answer to our first question, "How does a battery work?", we began a natural language search by typing the question into the search field. The results were extensive and disparate; in fact the second listed match was for a Masters and Johnson article on homosexuality. Disillusioned, we searched simply for the word "battery" and were rewarded with a more fitting outcome, including an article entitled "Dry Cell Batteries". This article, however, failed to answer our question in an easily understandable manner. The most useful information was included in a short sidebar, but we found that there was no way to print the sidebar; in fact, we couldn't even copy and paste it into an independent word processing document. Finally, we clicked on the web links button, and eventually found the best answer to our question on an independent website (How Batteries Work) listed on Encarta's online site as a "selected web link".
We had better luck with our second question, "What is the Dow Jones Industrial Average?" Again, the natural language search capability found us the answer, but not in a top position. A simple word search for "Dow Jones Average" gave us the same article, containing a general description, a brief history, and an explanation of why stocks are chosen to be listed on the averages and when and why they are changed. The CD mentioned a change in listed companies in 1997, but failed to note a more recent change. At this point, we chose to download the program's monthly updates, in hopes of finding this information among the newly added material. Downloading the updates was simple and quick on a fast DSL modem, but would have been a lengthy process with a 56K modem. We then waited while the information was integrated into the program files. Unfortunately, however, the new information we sought had still not been updated. Again, we hit the web links button, and again we found our answer on the Web, at Dow Jones' own site. Out of curiosity, we did a whole web search on Yahoo, and the same page, with all the information we sought, was a top-level query result.
Our final question, "What is the deepest spot in the ocean, and who were the first explorers to reach it?", garnered the best results. "Ocean Bottom Exploration" led us to "Deep-Sea Exploration", where we were rewarded with an entry entitled, "Mariana Trench, deepest seafloor depression in world". This article described the deepest point, its exact location, estimated depth, how it got its name, and who made the descent to its depths - Jacques Piccard and Donald Walsh. We were even rewarded with a first person account of their descent into the depths, recounted by Piccard in a reprint from National Geographic.
In addition to content concerns, users must know if the answers are easy to find. There is no greater frustration than being unable to access information that clearly exists.
Encarta articles are displayed full-screen, with dark text on an off-white background. Navigation is intuitive, with "back and "forward" arrow buttons at the top of the screen. Sidebars are situated to the left of the main text, and offer additional information pertaining to the given article. Three on-screen text-size options exist, the medium (default) is fairly large and quite readable. Printing the text is another matter, however. Here the 'medium' setting prints in a thin, gray, sans-serif font at about a 9 pt. Footnotes are even smaller, making them difficult to read, even for those with perfect near-vision.
As mentioned above, Encarta 2000 not only allows for the standard search options, it also includes a Natural Language option. We were not overly impressed by this feature and found that it was often no more successful than simple, single word searches. In fact it frequently threw the search off-track. The search function itself appears as a left-oriented sidebar, and can be left open or closed to allow articles to display full-screen.
Additional program features include the 'Research Organizer' which allows users to export text and jot notes, and even tracks necessary citations -- an extra that impressed our school-aged testers. Text-to-Speech, Speech Recognition, sound clips, videos and animations, virtual tours and a new Curriculum Guide are among the other features that help make Encarta 2000 an excellent overall program.
PC: Windows 95 or Windows 98 or later, or Windows NT Workstation operating system version 4.0 or later, Multimedia PC with a Pentium or higher processor, 48 MB hard drive space, 16 MB RAM for Windows 95 or 98, and 24 MB RAM for Windows NT Workstation, Super VGA, 256-color or higher monitor supporting 640x480 or higher resolution; 800x600 screen resolution recommended, Local bus video with 1 MB or more of video memory, Quad-speed or faster CD-ROM 16-bit sound card. To use Encarta Research Organizer: 6 MB of additional hard-disk space. To use Encarta Yearbook, Web Links, and monthly online updates you need: 14.4 or higher baud modem, access to the Internet, 2 MB of additional hard disk space for each monthly installment, Web Browser. To use Microsoft Natural Language enhanced search capabilities: 60 MB of additional hard-disk space. To use Encarta Speech Recognition: 15 MB of additional available hard-disk space and microphone. To use Encarta Text-to-Speech: 9 MB of additional hard-disk space.return to top of page
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