ROM FOR IMPROVEMENT

TRIED & TESTED: CD-ROMs, the latest thing in home infotainment, are making old-style encyclopedias obsolete. But do they deliver?
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU only ever use your computer to type a few letters, you'll be amazed by the world of CD-ROMs. Here you will find not just games and moving pictures, but complete reference works at the click of a mouse. But if you're already familiar with them, you may be frustrated that the CD-ROMs available aren't as fast, bright, imaginative and in-depth as they promise on the box.

THE PANEL

Our testers comprised both old hands and dabblers, and included adults and children. They were: science writer Tony Newton and his children Michael (12) and Emma (eight); illustrator Steve Caplin; Julie Jones and her children Beth (eight) and David (seven); systems analyst Nick Raffin; and myself.

THE TEST

We were looking for good use of multi-media facilities, depth of information (to the right level, as some CDs are designed for children), speedy searches and clear, attractive presentation.

*****MICROSOFT ENCARTA 98

Deluxe pounds 80, Standard pounds 49.99; Win

This product blows all the competition away with its spectacular use of the medium. Even the adults found themselves using teenage superlatives in response to the 360-degree views of Notre Dame cathedral and the virtual tour of a Space Shuttle. And everyone was impressed by the interactive sites. In "Anatomy", for example, there are peel-back pictures of a hand illustrating its nerves and blood vessels; plus the challenge of building an insect which flies away at the end of the task. "It's brill! Better than a video game," said Michael Newton - high praise indeed. And he even found "loads of stuff" for his First World War history project. Steve Caplin was impressed by the side-bars which allow you to hear historic speeches from politicians as diverse as Churchill and Blair. The sound facility also gives samples of world languages.

"The maps have been done better elsewhere," was the sole caveat from Nick Raffin, with which the other seasoned CD-ROM users agreed.

*ENCYCLOPDIA BRITANNICA

Standard Edition pounds 99; Win/Mac

"Let's face it," said Tony Newton cynically, "people who didn't have any books used to buy the Encyclopdia Britannica so they could line a shelf. The CD-ROM box won't impress anybody." Nor did the box's contents. Once installed, Britannica looks like page after page of the Encyclopdia - which is mostly what it is. "It's boring," said Beth Jones after a couple of sessions. "There aren't enough pictures." All the other children agreed with her, though the adults were more persevering. Steve Caplin liked the fact that Britannica runs on the Netscape browser: "it's a good snub to Bill Gates." But he tested the claim that you can type in searches using "plain English", and couldn't get an answer for "What is the largest city in the world?" The largest cities in Russia/Quebec/Portugal and so on came up, but no amount of search refining threw up the answer he wanted. Nick Raffin complained that looking for a topic, like BBC, brings up a list of related articles such as "the contribution of Attenborough" and "development of electric technology", but no indication of where you might get a history of the corporation. The American orthography dismayed me: type in "favourite" and it gives you the correct spelling, "favorite". In the end, we had to agree with the children: an entry on Fauvism provided lots of text, but not a single picture!

***THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

pounds 293.75; Win/Mac

Despite the fact that the OED is simply the full text on CD, Nick Raffin found this product the most useful reference tool, "if ugly to look at. It has every word you could possibly need," he said - not to mention a vast number of quotations and Latin/French expressions. The OED may hold no interest for young children, but Tony Newton and Steve Caplin were sold on the dictionary in this format ("it beats struggling with 14 massive tomes on a bookshelf"). Steve explained, "You can even look up words you don't know. I found the name of that green stuff you find inside lobsters - tomally - by entering `lobster' and `green'. You can find out how many phrases were coined by Shakespeare, or cross-reference things by clicking on any word in an entry that looks useful. I found it fascinating." It even gave the extended meaning of "Renaissance", if you can be bothered to look for it when you could be building an insect ...

**1998 GROLIER MULTIMEDIA ENCYCLOPEDIA DELUXE

pounds 49.99; Win/Mac

This was more soothing to look at than others, maybe as it's mainly text. "It's information-heavy," said Steve Caplin, "much more adult than the other discs." Some entries are out of date: Tony Blair is mentioned as Leader of the Opposition, and not PM (though, oddly, he is pictured as such). It is also more pedestrian in terms of imagery - you can see parts of London, say, but there are no exciting peel-away diagrams. Comparisons between the two were revealing: where Grolier offers a grating version of, say, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Encarta has a recording of acoustic instruments. Michael's First World War research led only to an animated map and a voice-over telling the story. And the only movies are of American presidents. Nick Raffin was equally unimpressed, but did admit that it "has improved a lot on the previous version."

***DORLING KINDERSLEY CHILDREN'S ENCYCLOPEDIA

pounds 39.99; Win/Mac

The generation gap yawned over views of this product. The adults were irritated by the digitised voice, and confused by the hectic screen. Parents were worried that this CD would tempt the user off in a thousand directions. Meanwhile, "Grab a Gag" on a side-bar pastes jokes over the window you're consulting. "It's all click, click - you don't actually take in any information," said Julie Jones. Even Michael Newton was baffled by the interface. He wanted "First World War" but was bombarded with facts about tennis and dolphins. He finally found just one paragraph on the War, which says something about DK's perception of kids' interests. "The maps are better than Encarta's, the rest is rubbish," he summarised. Yet the younger children found it compelling: Emma Newton browsed placidly, showing that by taking the time to read before clicking you do eventually find the answers to questions. This CD-ROM is graded for seven to 11 year-olds, which seems accurate.

***MY FIRST AMAZING WORLD EXPLORER 98

pounds 24.99; Win/Mac

Another DK product, this is for ages four to nine (although Nick Raffin did find it "cute"). Steve Caplin complained that "flashy animation conceals a simple point-and-click interface: you click on a map and you're shown information about it, but it's very sketchy." "There are lots of maps and drawings of buildings," said Tony Newton, "and very few photos or videos." But Emma Newton spoke up for the younger browsers, approving of the game device which leads children round the information: "It's great! You have to find a lost boy by following the clues. It helps you learn geography. I really like it."

STOCKISTS

Products available at electronics shops, or by calling: Microsoft 0345 002 000; Encyclopdia Britannica 0800 282 433; OUP 01865 267 979; Grolier 01865 264 800; Dorling Kindersley 0171 753 3488. !

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