This latest 2003 edition of the well-respected Britannica Encyclopedia offers some significant new features. New to this edition is the inclusion of three reference libraries, each catering to a specific age group Encyclopedia Britannica (for high school, college, and beyond), Britannica Student Library (fifth grade to highschool), and Elementary (second through sixth grades). Each library features Merriam Webster's dictionary and thesaurus (the two children's libraries include the Student Edition of this dictionary, and the Collegiate version is featured in the highest level library). World Atlases and Interactive Timelines are also leveled.
Upon entering the Reference suite, the first thing to do is select from the three levels of libraries via clearly marked tabs. A general keyword search pulls up results organized into categories based on type of content encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, images, multimedia, or online content. Results of the search appear in the form of a list on the left-hand side of the window. Previews of the contents of each article in the list, featuring the first sentences of the article in question, appear in a pop-up window. This is a handy feature simply because there are often many search results to choose from.
The content in the Student and Elementary libraries is streamlined in an attempt to meet the needs of students. The reading level, which has always been rather sophisticated in Britannica, is slightly more suitable to younger children.
This encyclopedia is strong in the area of editor-selected web sites. Plenty of links to relevant web sites are available for further research. Owners of the encyclopedia are entitled to free quarterly updates to both content and web links for one year.
The Research Organizer allows users to create projects and outlines. Notes taken while browsing the encyclopedia can be dragged into projects. Users can also add bookmarks to pages and capture images.
Browsing the reference suite is possible either by selecting any letter of the alphabet or by using the interesting Knowledge Navigator tool. With this latter option, a ring of general, top-level topics is pictured. When users select a topic, it moves to the center of the workspace and a new set of topics, related to the selected topic, appear in a cluster around the now centered top-level topic. Knowledge Navigator is only available in the Britannica Library.
The Student version is also available as a standalone product. However, it makes more sense to purchase this "ultimate" title simply because it supplies more information. Our young testers often needed to refer to content in the upper level library after they came up short in the student libraries.
The content of the reference suite can be copied to the hard drive, space permitting. Otherwise, there is a lot of disk-swapping to do. A DVD-ROM edition is also available.
To sum up, the content is very strong in this reference library, and usability is satisfactory. The presentation, however, falls short in comparison to Encarta and World Book. Both Encarta and World Book mix multimedia content creatively and present inviting features that encourage children to explore above and beyond their school needs. While our testers found Britannica an excellent source of information for their project needs, they closed the program as soon as they found the information they needed.