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Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2004 DVD Plus

by Chris Taylor

I got tired just reading the title!  But this handy DVD is packed with reference tools including an encyclopaedia, atlas, dictionary, thesaurus, translation dictionary, quotations, statistics, virtual tours, photos, videos, and much more.

The encyclopaedia has over 68,000 articles.  There are over 26,000 photos and illustrations, over 400 videos and animations, over 3,300 sound and music clips, links to over 29,000 web sites, and 32 Discovery Channel videos.  The atlas includes over 1.8 million locations world-wide.

At first, I found the user interface a little quirky.  When Encarta loads, the main screen is dominated by the Visual Browser, which is a spinning wheel of 120-odd cards of various subjects from Aboriginal Australians to World War I.  As you move the mouse away from the centre of the screen, the wheel spins faster.  Clicking a card returns a new spinning wheel with related subtopics.  Another click will jump you to the actual material on that topic.



But it is not very likely the topic you are interested in is one of these initial 120 cards.  I found the Visual Browser somewhat more useful as I dug down into articles.  When accessing the Visual Browser from within a topic, it brings up cards related to just that topic.  Me thinks Microsoft is experimenting with a new user interface for locating information.  In my opinion, the jury is still out.

The search function is quite powerful, allowing you to search across all content or just within selected sections.  Each line in the search results window has an icon indicating the type of content, such as map, chart, picture, 3D virtual tour, quotation, etc. 

There are a couple of things that annoy me about the search function.

The search results window cannot be resized, which is a bit awkward.  It does provide a tooltip with the full text if you hover the mouse over a truncated line.  See the example search result of Frank Lloyd Wright in the search on Architecture.  It would be nice to be able to adjust the width to avoid having to move the mouse around to see complete lines.



Worse, I think some of the search functions are broken.  I was looking for quotations by Yogi Berra, who had a wonderful flair for unclear language.  From the main screen, I clicked on Quotations under Cool Tools.  Then, in the Find box, I typed Yogi Berra.  Encarta returned zero hits.  I tried Berra, Yogi with the same results.

When I instead did a search of all of Encarta for Yogi Berra and jumped to the main entry, the Contents window had various categories of information about the baseball player.  One section, labelled quotations, contained 5 items, including "Baseball is ninety percent mental.  The other half is physical." and "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."  It did not include one of my favourites, "If the people  don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them".

The Encarta Dictionary Tools are really nice. The dictionary and thesaurus seem to be quite comprehensive.  If you are unsure of the pronunciation, Encarta can speak out words for you.  Strangely, the Dictionary Tools window is not resizable.

There is a translation dictionary which can handle bi-directional, single word translations between English and French, Spanish, German, or Italian.  It does a good job of handling words with multiple meanings and therefore multiple translations.

Unfortunately, the translation dictionary does not have the ability to speak foreign words to help you with pronunciation.  Also, it cannot handle phrases or blocks of text, so it will not replace my use of Google Translate.



Encarta Dictionary Tools are available from within Encarta as well as from an icon in the system tray.  I really like the tray icon.  This allows you to access these tools quickly and easily while doing other work, such as editing your magnum opus in Word.  It would be nice if Microsoft added an option to automatically start the system tray icon for the Dictionary Tools when Windows loads rather than when Encarta loads.

The section on country statistics is really cool.  There are many categories available and you can view things in a variety of ways.  For example, if you choose population density, you can have a simple text chart of all countries.  You can sort the list alphabetically or by population density.  You can also call up a globe with each country colour coded to show relative population density.  Hover the mouse over a country and a graph at the bottom of the screen shows the ranking for that particular country along with its specific value.




I am a map junkie, so I was particularly interested in the atlas section of Encarta.  It is really fun and easy to use. You can spin the globe around simply by clicking and dragging.  You can zoom in or out.  You can pan around.  You can add pushpins and attach personal notes to them.  You can measure distances by pointing and clicking.  Encarta can display the current latitude and longitude of the mouse pointer.  Maps can be displayed in a number of styles, such as physical features, climate, languages, tectonic, political, the world at night, etc.  There are even a whole bunch of historical maps.

The atlas has a surprising amount of detail.  I zoomed in on Ottawa and the map identified major streets such as Bronson, Baseline, Carling, St. Laurent, and the Queensway.  Many points of interest were labelled including universities, museums, major parks, Rideau Hall and more.  Considering there is this level of detail world-wide, it is not too shabby.

"If the people don't want to come out to the
ballpark, nobody's going to stop them".

Almost every week, Encarta comes out with updated content that can be downloaded over the Internet.  When I first ran the update process, within a few minutes I had an additional 1,770 new and updated articles that had been released over the past year.

While an electronic encyclopaedia is generally going to be more up-to-date than a paper one, Encarta does have some content that is out-of-date.  For example, while browsing the photos of Ottawa, I came across an image of the American embassy.  It was a shot of the old embassy on Wellington.

Also, there is an image of the prime minister's residence at 24 Sussex.  It appears to be a very old image, but the information included with the image does not indicate the age.  In fact, few of the images have date information.  Most of those that do seem to be of specific activities such as protests, celebrations and the like.

When I clicked the option for web links about Ottawa, Encarta jumped to the Web Center with the Encarta Editors' Picks selected.  While the entire section contains just under 30,000 links, for Ottawa there were only 17 links, some of which were only marginally related to Ottawa, such as the HyperGrammar site from the writing centre at the University of Ottawa and a site on The Cambrian Explosion at the Virtual Natural History Museum maintained by Carleton University.  From the Web Center, you can also search, current events (which uses MSNBC), periodicals (which uses HighBeam Research), or do a general web search (which of course uses MSN Search)

Encarta Researcher is a very nifty tool that integrates into Internet Explorer.  It can be used to collect information from anywhere within Encarta or on the Web into a project.  Source URLs are automatically collected for Web information.  Sections and notes within sections may be easily re-arranged by dragging and dropping.  Information that has been collected can be edited.  Researcher can then build a report, complete with source and bibliographic information, in HTML, RTF, or Word format. Very slick.

There are many more aspects to Encarta.  There is the homework center, with tools such as advice on structuring reports and literature guides.  There are timelines that lay out major milestones through the ages in a linear fashion.  There is the games center with various quizzes and puzzles.  3D virtual tours allow you to walk through locations such as Beamaris Castle in Wales.  Virtual flights allow you to fly 
across continents. 360-degree views allow you to look around the Taj Mahal or the inside of the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal.

Encarta is a powerful reference tool.  It allows you to quickly find information on almost any topic.  The different media types allow you to really explore topics.  There are lots of cross-references that can help you find information related to the topic of interest.  I highly recommend Encarta Reference Library 2004 DVD Plus.

There are other versions of Encarta that have less content and come on CD-ROM rather than DVD.  For a comparison of the content, see

Encarta Reference Library 2004 DVD Plus is available around town for about $80.  As of this writing, Future Shop had a $30 mail-in rebate, dropping the price to $50.

System requirements:
Windows 98/ME with 64MB RAM or
Windows 2000/XP with 128MB RAM
333MHz CPU (500Mhz recommended)
385MB disk space
2.5GB disk space to copy all content to disk
DVD drive
800x600 video with 4MB video RAM

Bottom Line:

Encarta Reference Library 2004 DVD Plus
$80 from around town (Future Shop has a mail-in ebate of $30)

Originally published: June, 2004

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