The Encyclopedia Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite is available on a single DVD-ROM or a set of six CD-ROMs. A full installation that includes application, articles, images, and multimedia files requires 4GB of space, comparable to Encarta. Within 15 minutes, we installed everything but the multimedia and video clips, consuming a modest 2.6GB on our hard drive. The software works with both Macs and PCs and requires 256MB of memory.
Britannica divides its content into three sections: an Elementary library for kids ages 6 to 10, a Student library for 10- to 14-year-olds, and the full Encyclopedia for adult users. Tabs across the top of the main menu access each section instantly.
As you would expect, the Elementary and Student sections offer shorter, more rudimentary explanations, in simple language. Although the simplified content will be easier for kids to understand, Encarta's colorful, kid-friendly interface is the same for both the Elementary and Student sections--perhaps a little off-putting for 18-year-olds. What's worse, this single interface doesn't organize its information well. The search bar is easy to find in the upper left-hand corner, and results are listed in a scrollable bar along the left. However, after conducting a search, the right-hand three-quarters of your screen is left gray and blank until you click one of the results. Then, that space is populated with a small text box displaying the citation. This seems like a lot of wasted screen space.
As its name implies, the Encyclopedia Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite offers more than just text-based encyclopedia entries. It also includes a searchable dictionary, atlas, and thesaurus. However, when compared to Encarta, which also includes a chart maker, a searchable index of quotations, literature guides, and homework helpers, Britannica falls short. We were especially disappointed with the quantity of multimedia offerings. Although the software includes video, audio, and images, they aren't always evident. For a subject as shopworn as sharks, for example, the software offered 267 text-based encyclopedia references but only 6 images and no video clips. Encarta has 12 images and no videos.
Encyclopedia Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite does offer one unusual brainstorming feature, the Brain, which graphically illustrates relationships between various subjects. For example, choose the word government, and you will be faced with dozens of related, but wildly divergent, subjects, such as links to 'Abd al-Rahman, neofacism, and cabildo. Although some people may find this type serendipity useful, most will find it disorienting.
Because any reference is bound to become outdated quickly, Britannica offers quarterly updates to its software. This is a great feature, but Microsoft updates Encarta several times per month.
Britannica offers several types of tech support. Its built-in help file offers a few rudimentary FAQs, such as how to access Britannica's map content, but doesn't address many technical issues, except to say that some antivirus scanners may impede the app's performance. For specific technical issues, you'll need to make a toll call Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT. You can also send e-mail queries to the company for free.