To run Encarta, you need a multimedia PC-compatible computer running Microsoft Windows 3.1 with at least a 386SX processor, two megabytes of main memory (4mb is better), a sound card, speakers and a CD-rom drive. This adds, typically, pounds 400 to the cost of a machine.
When you open the encyclopaedia, you have a variety of ways of exploring. As well as the conventional A-Z index, you can take a guided tour or explore any of 93 groups of topics under nine categories.
Hence, if you wanted to find out about the habits of Przhevalski's horse - as one does - you could go straight to the index and type the word in. A scrolling list keeps up with your typing, so if you understandably start to flounder after the first few letters you should be near enough to find your destination.
Alternatively, you could browse through the life-science category to the mammals group, choose horses from the list of topics and maybe stop off at the Eohippus, Mountain zebra, and Appaloosa on the way.
If the index fails you, there are ways of searching the entire text for certain words. Though this can be confusing, it can yield dividends. Though I could not find Django Reindhart in the index, searching the entire text found him under the entries for Stephan Grapelli and Jazz, and the latter yielded a sound-clip of him playing.
'Hot' words, highlighted in red, take you to cross-references when clicked on with the mouse pointer and there is an extensive bibliography, also but a click away.
The use of multimedia, in particular the sound clips, is imaginatively exploited - historians can hear Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream . . . ' speech or Neville Chamberlain's 1938 ' . . .never to go to war again'. Music lovers have a huge choice, including snatches of Monteverdi, Egyptian 'Ud playing, and Little Richard.
Animal enthusiasts can hear the song of the killer whale, or the cry of a grey wolf; bird fanciers the nightingale or the strange gulping boom of the bittern. Culture hounds can listen to e e cummings and Dylan Thomas recite their own work.
Each major language - and sadly this excepts all the Celtic variants - has, as well as a textual entry, a screen full of buttons that play sample words, phrases and a national proverb in the chosen tongue. A black, but glittering thread of irony surfaces at times - the Serbian proverb states that 'Where residents are modest, the house is big enough'.
Besides sounds and - by computer standards - excellent photographs and illustrations, there are also animations. These, though somewhat creaky even on a fast PC, illustrate topics as diverse as the workings of an electric motor and dancing the polka.
As well as the main body of work, there is also a fairly rudimentary atlas, a dictionary-cum-thesaurus and a rather dreadful quiz game, all of which have links to the main text and pictures. Best of the extras is the 'Timeline' - a scrolling view of history from 15 million years ago to the present day. Topics are presented as coloured threads, studded with small pictures representing events and clicking on either brings forth a window of text completely separate from the main corpus.
Although there is a substantial American presence, with US history and geography predominant, the bias is rarely overbearing. There are, however, some strange omissions.
Among the excluded are Origami, W G Grace, and John Logie Baird. Perhaps Americans regard television as a natural phenomenon. It is not good generally on media and sports figures outside the US. I could not find George Best, Bridget Bardot or Juan Fangio either, though Joe Dimaggio, Cher, and William Henry Gates III, founder and head honcho of Microsoft, are all present - the latter even has a speech as well as a toe-curling potted biography of brown-nosed obsequiousness.
Even by CD-rom standards it runs rather slowly - though much quicker than looking something up in a real book - and it has an annoying foible of not letting you scroll through text and hear sound at the same time. Nevertheless, browsing Encarta is a rewarding and compelling activity: you do not have to put up any new shelves and no book has ever ever sung 'Good golly, Miss Molly' to you.
Hardware: CD-rom drive, sound card Software: Windows 3.1
Availability: Dealers, mail order
Street Price: pounds 250
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