Microsoft Encarta Premium 2007 is a well-designed reference tool that's especially friendly for young learners. Encarta offers some 68,000 articles, only two-thirds the amount within Encyclopedia Britannica 2007, but to support interactive learning, Encarta's pictures, videos, and audio files are more easily accessible.
Installing Encarta Premium 2007 via DVD took about 15 minutes in our tests. This program also includes five CDs, in case you lack a DVD drive. You'll need a Windows XP SP2 computer with at least 1.2GB of hard drive space free; and 512MB of RAM is recommended. Microsoft was polite to not force us into installing a desktop shortcut. When the setup process asked whether we wanted our usage of Encarta to be monitored, we declined.
Once installed, Encarta's bright interface offers more blank space and pictures than Britannica's. The Home page lists subjects, such as Arts & Literature, and a search field. The function icons are sparse, preventing clutter. As with a Web browser, back and forward arrow buttons and the keyboard let you navigate. You can trace recently viewed pages by clicking a tiny drop-down arrow underneath the back arrow, but Britannica's tabbed organization of pages was more obvious to us. However, we liked being able to jump to various tools from any page via Encarta's Features drop-down menu. And along the right edge, the program stacks up best matches, articles, photos, Web links, dictionaries and maps related to your query. Encarta also serves up a Visual Browser that rotates subjects so that you don't have to scroll up and down to find them.
The Explore features encourage you to check out hundreds of videos, including some from the Discovery Channel, along with timelines, and virtual tours of landmarks, natural wonders, and the like. Videos include encyclopedic staples, such as the first moon landing, to quirky stuff such as "machine-shaped kaiser rolls." Encarta's 2,500 audio files let you hear music from around the world, such as that of Grandmaster Flash, classical sitar melodies, and excerpts from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. And we prefer Encarta's rich Timeline to Britannica's, although it's almost too visually overwhelming to digest at first.
Other goodies include World Atlas's political, physical, and statistical views, as well as satellite imagery of the planet by night and day. But Encarta doesn't offer the equivalent of Britannica's GeoAnalyzer for comparing countries' statistics, although you can use Encarta's Customizer to fine-tune views of places. A dictionary and thesaurus are embedded within Encarta, but make sure to install the free Macromedia Shockwave to check out World Languages.