Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006
Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006 jettisoned last year's Homework Help to make a cheaper product for users who don't need features such as online math help and who don't want to spring for Microsoft Office. Encarta's intuitive interface makes it easy enough to click your way through the software to find what you're after, but Microsoft should have included a user guide to explain the gamut of features for those who want to make the most of the product. Microsoft also mars the experience by aggressively trying to collect data from users during setup. But with features such as a translation dictionary, an interactive atlas, a video library, and a Web Companion, you can easily search both Encarta and the Internet for the information you need. For families, the included Encarta Kids provides a lighter, peppier take on topics that kids are most interested in, such as animals and history.
Although Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006's new features include a clean, easy-to-use interface and a handy Web Companion that lets you do research through a search engine and Encarta at the same time, these redesigns aren't the biggest change. At $49.99 (before a $10 mail-in rebate), Encarta Premium 2006 offers most of the same features as Student. The Homework Help, the articles, and the dictionary tools from last year'sessentially make up this year's new $99 . But Encarta Premium 2006 doesn't require Office to run and costs half the price of Student 2006.
Unfortunately, when you use Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006, you'll have to log in with a Passport account and put up with Microsoft's intrusive data-collection practices. At the beginning of installation, you're asked to join its Customer Experience Improvement Program, which collects information on how you use your hardware and software. Microsoft says that this is not spyware because the data collection process protects your anonymity. You can opt out of this program, but you must provide personal contact information to register with Club Encarta for weekly content updates. These are free until October 31, 2006, when you'll have to pay $4.95 per month or $29.95 per year to continue the service.
The thoughtful Encarta interface groups data logically so that you can find the type of information you want on a given topic, such as articles, maps, or videos. For a search on San Francisco, for example, you can choose from articles, dictionary entries, Web links, Photos And More, and maps.
You get two installation choices for your Windows 98-or-higher PC: either six CD-ROMs or a single DVD-ROM. Installation took us a quick-and-easy 10 to 15 minutes, which is fortunate, because Encarta arrives without a printed user guide, and Microsoft does not provide one online. The Help and Explore pull-down menus let you learn more about some features and basic troubleshooting, but otherwise, you're on your own.