Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006 review: Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006

Encyclopedia Britannica has published reference books for more than 230 years, so the 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite draws from a wealth of trusted information that other reference programs can't match. The Classics button in the Browse sidebar, for example, provides entries written by (rather than about) famous people throughout history. The fascinating media collection includes 502 video clips, 127 sound clips, and 43 animations and special comps. You can view video clips of Hawaiian lava flows, hear audio clips of musical performances and presidential speeches, and browse through each Year In Review back to 1993. The Timelines button details Architecture, Exploration, Technology, and other subjects from ancient Egypt to the 21st century. The fun BrainStormer feature draws webs of information that let you narrow a subject down while learning visually how it relates to other branches of knowledge.

The BrainStormer dynamic index links related topics together.

Handy for researchers who demand a reliable source, the Ultimate Reference Suite provides a Dictionary, a Thesaurus, and an Atlas with a Mercator projection of the continents, which lets you zoom in for data on each country. The online GeoAnalyzer is especially useful. It provides Country Snapshots with basic data per nation, allowing you to compare current and historical statistics for any two countries. You can also view continent-wide statistics on foreign trade, diet, economy, and demographics. The search bar on each main page scours nearly 100,000 articles and 166,000 Web links to turn up images and multimedia. Looking up Aristotle, for example, we found 16 articles and three images.

The bundled Languages of the World program can provide feedback on your pronunciation skills.

For students, the How To section of the new Homework Helpdesk provides guidance on useful topics such as writing a book review and preparing an oral report. Encarta 2006, on the other hand, cut out its homework resources and rolled them into the "new" Microsoft Student program. Britannica's homework Reference Center links to the grammar school-level Dictionary, BrainStormer, GeoAnalyzer, and other tools. The Explore section lets students browse topics such as Earth Science; it also offers educational games and activities. Unlike Microsoft Student, Britannica's Homework Helpdesk does not need Microsoft Office to be useful.

Transparent Languages' Languages of the World and Before You Know It flash cards cover Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Latin, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. Both programs emphasize language acquisition for business travelers, with topics that include Meeting And Greeting, Restaurants, and Emergencies. Highlights of these self-paced programs include pronunciation guides with audio samples from native speakers.

Unfortunately, technical support for Encyclopedia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite falls far below what a software product should offer. Like Encarta, Encyclopedia Britannica 2006 offers no user guide, so you'll need to rely on the easy-to-navigate help menu or the Web site for questions. But without a Web user guide, only a brief online troubleshooting section addresses a handful of common installation and program problems. Telephone support is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT, but we waited 10 minutes on a toll call to Chicago; fearing for our phone bill, we had to hang up before a customer-service representative even answered. Also frustrating, a question that we submitted to technical support via the Online Contact Form bounced back unanswered to our e-mail address.