For more than two centuries, Encyclopedia Britannica has been a trusted reference source for scholars. The $49 Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2007 packs volumes of trustworthy information into one application that's friendly to use, especially for text articles. Since last year Britannica has fixed most of the aspects of the 2006 Britannica suite that irritated us.
We were relieved that the installation took half as long as it did last year. You'll need a computer running either Windows 2000 or XP or Mac OS 10.4, with 512MB of RAM and at least 2GB of free hard drive space to install Britannica 2007. Microsoft's 2007 editions of Encarta and Student, on the other hand, work with only Windows XP SP2. Your computer needs a sound card, speakers, and QuickTime to use Britannica's multimedia features. Full installation took about 20 minutes in our tests on a Windows XP machine. You can also choose the Typical installation, but that will make you insert the DVD when you want to watch videos or listen to music. Custom installation, on the other hand, lets you handpick elements to store on your hard drive. And unlike Microsoft Encarta, Britannica didn't ask to monitor our usage. The 2007 Britannica also enables proxy support so that a corporate or school firewall won't interfere with operation, one thing that interfered with our testing in the last edition.
Once you open the program, Encyclopedia Britannica 2007 makes you choose content for either adults, tweens up to age 14, or elementary school kids. The Change Library button lets you switch at any time. Britannica 2007 opens to a browser-like page with back and forward arrows and an alphabetical list of topics on the left. We find Britannica's Explore button less effective at encouraging your mind to wander. By contrast, Encarta's opening screen forces you to choose a subject off the bat, which can feel more natural for browsing subjects.
Each age-appropriate version of Britannica 2007 organizes data similarly. Enter a query into the search field, and Britannica attempts to guess what you're typing. As you look up subjects, their related articles, images, and videos stack up along the left, and Britannica arranges results within central tabs so that you can interrupt lookups, then revisit them later. Keyboard shortcuts work, such as Ctrl-W (in Windows) to close a tab. We like that you can add bookmarks and jot and save notes within encyclopedia entries. Also helpful is the BrainStormer, which maps topics in spiderweb-like forms to display the subjects connected to your query.
Elementary users open the digital Britannica to a photograph of an "animal of the day" but also a lot of text. By contrast, Microsoft Encarta splits its encyclopedia between two distinct tools that you open separately, with the peppy Encarta Kids targeting ages up to 12. Kindergartners reared on a TV diet might be turned off by Britannica's more sober interface, but brainy kids from ages 6 to 10 can explore everything from aardvarks and Absaroka to Zapata and Zuni. Britannica also offers help for grade-school science fairs and interactive instruction in mathematics. However, Microsoft Student 2007 provides even more math help.