This beautifully integrated suite of reference software is appealing, user-friendly, and thoroughly handy. Included in the Encarta Reference Library 2003 is the Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe, Interactive World Atlas, World English Dictionary, Thesaurus, Book of Quotations, Encarta Africana, and a set of excellent research and learning tools and games.
Some of the new features for this 2003 edition are noteworthy. The translation dictionaries are very accessible for any time users want to key in foreign language words for a quick translation. Also, the new Chart Maker (users can build good-looking pie and graph charts), literature guides, and homework starters improve the already excellent learning tools portion of the program.
Electronic encyclopedias and reference suites have an edge over online sources because of their more relevant search results and, in many cases, their speed. Fiddling with too many CD-ROMs, however, can be a deterrent. This CD-ROM reference library is also offered on one DVD-ROM, but for those who don't own a DVD-ROM drive (and who can spare the sizable space it takes on the hard drive) can opt to copy all of its content to their hard drive. This means the reference library is readily availableno CD needs to be placed in the drive, and no swapping of disks is necessary. Those who cannot spare the extra space (it takes up over 2 GB) will need to change the disks from time to time.
Besides its very friendly sense of congruity and integration, this program's strength lies in its excellent use of multimedia. In fact, both factors make this suite stand out amongst the reference titles because they invite browsing just for the sake of knowledge. It is a joy to see children begin their searches for information they need for their school work, and then stay in the program to find more than they need!
The World Atlas is a treat. Users can select a flat map or globe view, zoom in on any part of the globe, measure distances from point to point, add "pushpins" (with attached notes) to places on the map, and discover latitudes, longitudes, time of day, and population statistics. Historical maps are available, and "map treks" involve choosing a map style (such as climate, languages, ecoregions, etc.) and exploring. There are both 2D and 3D virtual tours of natural wonders, cities, and landmarks.
Browsers can go straight to the multimedia center to find pictures, sounds, videos, and animations. Live media (such as worldwide radio, weather, and news feeds) is integrated into the program smoothly. Gorgeous panoramas of various landmarks (such as San Francisco in 1877 or Prague's Old Town Square) are available.
Especially handy for students is the program's Homework Center. "Researcher" facilitates the collection and organization of information and even helps with creating outlines for projects and papers. Kids can easily copy pictures and text (from both Encarta and the web) into their notes and Encarta automatically creates footnotes and bibliographies. A nice selection of homework starters include ideas for essays, papers, book reports, creative writing, science projects, and more. New to this latest edition is Literature Guides. For many popular works (such as The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and even Harry Potter titles), information about the author, overviews, settings, characters, themes, literary qualities, morals, and ideas for reports are offered. The new Chart Maker is very easy to use. Students can easily create customized pie, bar, or line charts with this tool.
The Curriculum Guide is likely to be of interest to parents. They can select a grade level and area of study and a list appears of curriculum topics typically studied in either the US or Canada for the chosen grade. Links to Encarta content and hand-picked web sites are here.
The included dictionary, thesaurus, and book of quotations are contemporary and user-friendly. As children read Encarta's articles, they can double-click on any word and its dictionary entry will pop up. Children can also hear dictionary entries pronounced.
Finally, games are available for testing and honing geography, memory, and general knowledge skills. "Geography Quiz", for example, is a multiple-choice style questionnaire, while MindMaze involves navigating through a maze of rooms, and passing through each door requires answering general knowledge questions.
After comparing Encarta Reference Library 2003 to other similar products, we found this package considerably more inviting and user-friendly. It is a very contemporary and thriving encyclopedia with its frequent updates and seamless editors' web links picks. Users can jump back and forth from the encyclopedia content to quality web sites without opening up new windows. Additionally, any time the program is booted up, the current date is displayed along with a link to an article, often related to the date. The reading level in Encarta is appropriate for children ages 9-10 and up, while World Book is better for kids just beginning research it contains less overall content than Encarta, but the articles are generally more to-the-point and easier for elementary-age children to read.
While other encyclopedias, such as Britannica and Grolier, contain valuable content, Encarta has a distinct edge: its rich use of multimedia and games keep kids (and adults) in the program above and beyond their basic school needs.