The Internet may be the biggest reference tool on the planet, but it's so big that it can be daunting, if not chaotic, to explore. Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2004 is a lot smaller, of course, but with a new interface, ample multimedia clips, and a deep, diverse collection of articles, it manages to make a vast amount of information accessible and discoverable. A new Virtual Browser suggests linked material so that you can find related topics easily. The product's audio and visual library now features several hundred videos, including 32 from the Discovery Channel. Best of all, Encarta's weekly online updates help students and lifetime learners stay current--no moldering on a shelf like its printed predecessors for Encarta. It's an essential and very usable tool for the whole family. Microsoft offers the Encarta Reference Library 2004 in two formats: a single DVD-ROM, or a five-disc CD-ROM set. Each requires 300MB of disk space for a disc-based installation that installs everything except the multimedia files. The setup process took us about five minutes and didn't require a reboot. However, because the multimedia files are not copied to your hard drive, you'll need to have the DVD-ROM or CD-ROM stack handy to pop into your optical drive. For the CD version, this will require a lot of disc-swapping. On the other hand, you can copy the entire Encarta contents to your hard drive, but you'll need a whopping 2.5GB of space for the DVD version.
Changes to the Encarta Reference Library 2004 interface include the use of an animated set of 3D icons called a Virtual Browser. Although you can still type search terms in the upper-left corner of the screen, the browser suggests related files and information and makes nonlinear, serendipitous discoveries a lot more likely--and fun. For example, click the Cuban Missile Crisis, and you'll find links to additional John F. Kennedy files regarding affirmative action.
The new Visual Browser helps researchers see the relationships among topics and make serendipitous discoveries.
Encarta Reference Library 2004 also adds a Researcher icon on your Internet Explorer toolbar. This helps track current research projects, connect directly to the Encarta Web site, and search the Internet using MSN.com's search engine.
What separates Encarta Reference Library 2004 from traditional reference sources is its ability to update the library constantly with new facts and information. In fact, the first thing you should do when you finish installing the software (after checking out a few videos, of course) is to launch the automatic update feature. This requires a .Net Passport account and filling out some forms to join Club Encarta, but both are free. Once completed, we were able to download new articles on the Iliad, Mike Piazza, and recent Supreme Court decisions.
The 3D virtual tours in Encarta Reference Library 2004 will disappoint anyone familiar with the richly textured and fast-moving environments of the game Unreal Tournament, but the tours of Pompeii and the Colosseum in Rome do an acceptable job of putting ancient places in perspective. It would be better if there were more interactivity--perhaps a character to talk to or an activity to perform. As it is, the tours take too much time to navigate with too little payoff. As with previous versions, Encarta Reference Library 2004 includes an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and homework guides. The flashy new addition is a group of 32 videos from the Discovery Channel. (The CD version has 20.) The videos are generally two to four minutes long and well produced, and they make an appealing supplement to Encarta's existing multimedia files. The Discovery Channel content covers a range of subjects, including "Sharks" and "Life on Mars," as well as more specialized subjects such as "Bacteria Use in Industry."
The Curriculum Guides helps teachers find relevant material to support classroom lessons.
Encarta Reference Library 2004 also beefed up its homework aids for students. The report builders and charting tools are unchanged from last year; but the Literature Guides, which serve as a sort of virtual Cliff Notes, have been expanded from 28 titles to a respectable 123, comprising classics such as Catch-22, Dune, and the little-known Robert Cormier thriller, I Am the Cheese.
Microsoft also includes help for teachers and parents. The Curriculum Guide lets teachers and parents find age-appropriate material for fourth to twelfth graders to supplement their class work. The guide includes categories for English/Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies, though it would be great to see a similar Math curriculum included someday.
By using the automatic update feature, students can use Encarta Reference Library 2004 to keep up with current events.
Overall, Encarta Reference Library 2004's performance was excellent. Videos played quickly and smoothly, even when run from the DVD disc. Reference files loaded instantly. There's even a handy copyright notice that's added to any text that is inserted into Microsoft Word as insurance against accidental plagiarism. Although Microsoft offers free support with Encarta, it is a toll phone call. Phones are open weekdays from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT on weekends. We were able to get through to tech support on a weekday in less than 10 minutes.
Encarta includes a number of accessibility features, including closed-captioning of video files and the capacity to have articles read aloud.
Nonphone support includes Microsoft help and troubleshooting pages from within the application itself. However, to access these online-assisted support pages, you must first sign up for a free Microsoft .Net Passport account.
Microsoft also includes a number of accessibility features. For example, to make video soundtracks easier to understand, users can enable closed-captioning. Print articles can also be read aloud for the visually impaired.