War of the words, sound and video

Two US and two British CD-Rom encyclopaedias battle for supremacy below
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encyclopaedias: the british

The Hutchinson Multimedia Encyclopaedia 1996 edition, pounds 49.99. Helicon Publishing, 01865 204204. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia 1996, World Edition, pounds 49.99, 0345 002000.

The battle of the multimedia encyclopaedias has recently started up on new turf: non-America. World Book is still available only as a US effort, so is Comptons, but Encarta now has a "world" edition (see accompanying article, left).

That means Brits who do not want to be deluged with baseball scores now have a choice: the Microsoft newcomer and the established Hutchinson Multimedia Encyclopaedia.

Hutchinson's strength was, and is, that it is aimed squarely at the studious British teenager. It has a section of essays and is designed to fit in with the National Curriculum.

But it will have a tough time competing with the World Edition of the Encarta. The latest edition tries hard to compete on the gimmicks that make these CDs fun, and has some nice touches that Encarta lacks: for example, the "on this day" section gives you saints, anniversaries and events for every day of the year. But it is not as slick as the Microsoft version. The screens don't look as good, and there are fewer pictures and audio clips.

It also has half as many words, though about the same number of articles. This partly reflects a clearer view of its audience. It is British, and doesn't try to be anything else, while Encarta tries to be all things to all people - and, in general, succeeds. Hutchinson's section on newspapers tells you about British papers only, while the Encarta produces a great essay on papers all around the world. The British information is there, but you have to wade through masses on the United States to get there. Both have "timelines", but Hutchinson is firmly focused on the UK, while Encarta wanders all over the world.

But if you don't mind the extraneous data, Encarta wins on most counts. It is better even on purely British subjects, such as the English Civil War (though I spotted some howlers, such as a map with a river in south London called The Pool, which worried me rather).

And if you are either much younger or much older than a teenager, Microsoft also wins. At one end it has the sound of a pig going oink (which my two- year-old loves); at the other, it has a long essay on the pancreas, including two diagrams. Hutchinson's entry on the pancreas is just 70 words long. As a clincher, Encarta has a monthly "update" service via the Internet or the Microsoft Network. The good news is that this makes it very up to date; the bad news is you will have to buy Encarta 97 next autumn if you want to remain up to date - the integration works only with the current edition.

DAVID BOWEN

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