Encarta 97 is the first fully localised incarnation of Microsoft's leading software product. For the last two years a team of up to 30 people has worked at making the original US product suitable for a British audience. Each of the 28,000 articles has been scrutinised and edited, even if only to remove American spellings. New articles have been written on topics such as Victorian England (by Asa Briggs) and environmentalism (by Sara Parkin).

It also incorporates nearly 100 "tours", each pulling together 20 or so articles on a theme. An atlas lets you explore the globe and link in to articles on places and natural features, and the dictionary has been made extremely simple to use - you just double click on any word you do not understand to call up its definition.

Longer articles of up to 3,000 words are accompanied by an outline so you can navigate through them easily, and the text is peppered with more than 300,000 "hotspots" which allow you to "jump" around and follow meandering trains of thought.

The presentation is little changed from the 1996 edition. A year is a long time in multimedia, and it is a testament to the quality of the interface that Microsoft has felt confident in leaving it alone. But there is one potentially huge innovation - Microsoft's great gamble for 1997 - the provision for, and positive encouragement to use, Internet connectivity. Encarta's contents are to be supplemented by monthly downloadable updates which are stored on your hard drive as a "yearbook", and whose contents will be incorporated seamlessly into Encarta's search engine.

In addition, Encarta acts as a gateway to the World Wide Web. It comes with a library of more than 2,000 Web sites, many of them originating in the UK, which are revealed along with related articles when you ask the search engine for "more information" on a chosen topic. When you select a Web site, it automatically invokes your Internet connection and takes you to it. You can surf the Web in the usual way, and return to Encarta when you come offline. Web sites may provide alternative views on a topic, more in-depth information than Encarta can supply or more up-to-date material. Microsoft does not maintain any of the Web sites it uses, nor does it specifically endorse them, but teams of staff, including one working specifically with the World English Edition, will ensure that yearbook downloads update Encarta's URL library to take account of moved, deleted and new Web sites.

Encarta and the rest of the new wave of reference titles from Microsoft are the embodiment of Bill Gates's desire to make an impact on the Internet, and his conviction that it is the information channel of the future. His view that using the Web in this way will expand the scope of multimedia titles almost infinitely is not lost on other publishers, and there will be a spate of such publishing over the coming year. But all is not lost if you lack the technology to take advantage of this Internet connectivity, at least where Encarta is concerned. As a stand-alone product its scope, breadth and depth of content, and ease of use, simply knock spots off the competitionn

`Encarta 97' (Microsoft, pounds 49.99, 0345 002000) is available for PCs running Windows 95, Windows 3.X and NT.