We were relieved that the installation took half as long as it did last year. You'll need a computer running either Windows 2000 or XP or Mac OS 10.4, with 512MB of RAM and at least 2GB of free hard drive space to install Britannica 2007. Microsoft's 2007 editions of Encarta and Student, on the other hand, work with only Windows XP SP2. Your computer needs a sound card, speakers, and QuickTime to use Britannica's multimedia features. Full installation took about 20 minutes in our tests on a Windows XP machine. You can also choose the Typical installation, but that will make you insert the DVD when you want to watch videos or listen to music. Custom installation, on the other hand, lets you handpick elements to store on your hard drive. And unlike Microsoft Encarta, Britannica didn't ask to monitor our usage. The 2007 Britannica also enables proxy support so that a corporate or school firewall won't interfere with operation, one thing that interfered with our testing in the last edition.
Once you open the program, Encyclopedia Britannica 2007 makes you choose content for either adults, tweens up to age 14, or elementary school kids. The Change Library button lets you switch at any time. Britannica 2007 opens to a browser-like page with back and forward arrows and an alphabetical list of topics on the left. We find Britannica's Explore button less effective at encouraging your mind to wander. By contrast, Encarta's opening screen forces you to choose a subject off the bat, which can feel more natural for browsing subjects.
Each age-appropriate version of Britannica 2007 organizes data similarly. Enter a query into the search field, and Britannica attempts to guess what you're typing. As you look up subjects, their related articles, images, and videos stack up along the left, and Britannica arranges results within central tabs so that you can interrupt lookups, then revisit them later. Keyboard shortcuts work, such as Ctrl-W (in Windows) to close a tab. We like that you can add bookmarks and jot and save notes within encyclopedia entries. Also helpful is the BrainStormer, which maps topics in spiderweb-like forms to display the subjects connected to your query.
Elementary users open the digital Britannica to a photograph of an "animal of the day" but also a lot of text. By contrast, Microsoft Encarta splits its encyclopedia between two distinct tools that you open separately, with the peppy Encarta Kids targeting ages up to 12. Kindergartners reared on a TV diet might be turned off by Britannica's more sober interface, but brainy kids from ages 6 to 10 can explore everything from aardvarks and Absaroka to Zapata and Zuni. Britannica also offers help for grade-school science fairs and interactive instruction in mathematics. However, Microsoft Student 2007 provides even more math help.
Encyclopedia Britannica 2007's Timelines provide a Flash-animated walkthrough of a chosen subject from ancient to recent history, but we found their cursory explanations to be shallow for adults and sometimes odd for kids. For instance, the main event for 2006 within the Elementary interface is a two-sentence blurb about the election of Liberia's first female president, with a photograph of a fist raised in a crowd and no image of her face.
The expertise of Encyclopedia Britannica, whose authors include Nobel laureates, is apparent in the depth of articles about history, mathematics, science, and the arts. The DVD packs in everything from the print volumes in addition to some 8,000 extra articles and another 8,000 Book of the Year articles. Unlike with Wikipedia, you shouldn't need to second-guess the truth of Britannica's words; however, given the 24/7 nature of the wired world of information, Britannica's resources for current events can be lacking. For instance, when we clicked Read More from the timeline write-up about Hurricane Katrina, it only linked to an article about Louisiana. A Wikipedia lookup of Katrina, by contrast, brings up more than 866,000 words packed with news and controversy. However, searching via text for Hurricane Katrina within Britannica retrieves a few decent pictures, a weather pattern video, and--most relevant for research--recent Book of the Year articles providing MLA, APA, and Britannica style citations. Britannica also displayed old information about Pluto, although the software links to some 166,000 articles online. Unfortunately, clicking the Updates button didn't feed us today's news that Pluto is now a "minor planet." Britannica.com's newsfeeds from the New York Times and the BBC may retrieve more-recent results. Plus, you can always mark up articles with your own notes.
Among other resources within Encyclopedia Britannica 2007 are its rebuilt pop-up dictionary and thesaurus from Merriam-Webster. Britannica's Atlas button connects to political and physical views of the world, but it was sometimes clumsy for us to navigate. For geographic and demographic details, the Atlas is most helpful when you select a location from drop-down menus. You can click the GeoAnalyzer link for a great Web page to create charts comparing countries' statistics, historical timelines, and more. It's too bad that the small maps shown within Britannica's installed articles aren't integrated with the Atlas or the GeoAnalyzer.
Searchable help for Encyclopedia Britannica 2007 is available within the program and online. To contact tech support, you can place a toll call to a Chicago phone number weekdays between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT. We wish weekend support were offered, especially since that's when schoolkids may be busiest with homework assignments. You can also contact Britannica via e-mail through a Web-based form, but we were annoyed that this requires the product's serial number.
Britannica puts text immediately at your fingertips, while Encarta emphasizes images and videos. Encyclopedia Britannica 2007 may be less flashy than Encarta, but it feels more scholarly, and you can trust that its articles are well vetted. Despite Britannica's monthly updates, however, you may need to search through online news or consult the Web-based open-source Wikipedia to explore today's events. Still, we find Britannica 2007 to be a great reference tool for curious readers, especially for mature school children who are serious about homework.