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Although Microsoft offers online updates to its best-selling Encarta Reference library nearly every week, once a year it puts out a major upgrade. With the release of Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005, the company has made it easier for children as young as 7 to use the library and has delivered a few enhancements for older users as well, such as an integrated search bar and, of course, more-current information. At $70, Encarta 2005 is a valuable addition to a family's reference library.
The single DVD (a CD version is also available at the same price for those who don't have PCs with DVD drives) contains the encyclopedia, atlas, dictionary, thesaurus, chart maker, searchable index of quotations, and the new Encarta Kids. Installation and setup are a snap, and the latest version will look familiar to current users since Microsoft stayed with its Visual Browser interface, which offers previews of related text, video, and audio sources on thousands of topics.
The Visual Browser does a good job of presenting a lot of information onscreen, but it can be overwhelming for elementary-school-age children. To remedy this, the company has bundled a separate application, the aforementioned Encarta Kids, which offers a simpler, friendlier interface. For example, searching for the word pilgrim in Encarta Kids delivers just a few entries, as opposed to the hundreds found in Encarta Premium. Encarta Kids also includes a games section that allows kids to play educational games, such as naming dinosaur photos and placing state-shaped pieces into a United States-shaped jigsaw puzzle, plus 500 new articles.
For older kids, Encarta also added more Homework Help features. Microsoft included Cliff Notes-like literature guides, and this year it's helping students with math. Log on to the online Math Center through MSN Encarta Premium, and the service walks students through algebra or geometry problems that are similar, although not identical, to the ones they have been assigned for homework. Just beware, the company includes a free subscription to MSN Encarta Premium only till October 31, 2005; afterwards, you'll have to pay $5 per month or $30 per year.
In this release, the software can also put an Encarta Search bar in your Windows Taskbar. This tool lets you access Encarta encyclopedia information, dictionary definitions, and thesaurus tools from within Windows, eliminating the need to log on to the Web or open a new application to perform searches. If your Taskbar is already too crowded, you can also turn this tool off.
Microsoft offers three years of free, unlimited support for Encarta Premium 2005; however, phone support is via a toll number. Other options include e-mail queries (with a promised 24-hour turnaround time), an online knowledge base, and Microsoft-supported newsgroups where you post and search through user questions. Phone and e-mail support hours are Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. PT, with phone help extending to Saturday and Sunday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT.