Top ten CD-ROM reference titles. (includes bonus review of the revised second edition of The Random House Unabridged Dictionary) (Multimedia PC) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Richard O. Mann
If there's one thing a CD-ROM-equipped PC was made for, it's harnessing massive collections of data--placing facts, figures, images, and even trivia at your fingertips. With the prodigious storage capacity of CD-ROMs, the whole world of reference books opens up to your computer screen.
Consider the benefits of computerizing a library of reference information. Compton's Encylopedia has 26 volumes; Grolier's has 21. I can't even guess how many filing cabinets it would take to hold street maps for the entire United States. The printed Oxford English Dictionary occupies 20 good-sized volumes. Library of the Future holds the contents of nearly 1000 individual books. Yet all that information takes the space of only five jewel boxes, which fit into only two inches of shelf space.
Of course, even if you did have all that information in hardcopy (and a large room to keep it in), how easy would it be to find specific items of information? Say you needed a street map of Sikeston, Missouri (as I did recently)--you'd have quite an adventure in your filing cabinets just trying to find it.
Another benefit isn't as obvious. What if you wanted to find the source of a quotation but could recall only a few key words? Or perhaps you wanted to find a word for which you knew only the definition. How about finding the name of a movie when you knew only two of the actors? The name of a city from a street name, ZIP code, or phone number? All this and more is possible using your computer's power to search a CD-ROM database. It's the equivalent of being able to quickly scan an entire dictionary, encyclopedia, map collection, or other reference, looking for every occurrence of a single word or phrase. Information is accessible like never before.
Finally, many of these titles have much more than you'd get in the printed versions. The encyclopedias, for instance, provide full-motion video of historic events, animated and narrated explanations of physical processes, and many sound recordings. Atlases have photo collections, searchable databases of statistical information, and even video travelogues to accompany the maps. Each new product or version seems to add new and innovative multimedia elements; it's exciting to watch the paper-based references come alive.
The only real problem here is that you probably don't have unlimited funds to buy every terrific CD-ROM reference title that appears. We've sorted through the hundreds of popular reference works to pick ten titles that provide the most useful content, the best delivery, and the most value. You'll forgive us, I hope, for selecting three encyclopedias. You'll probably need only one, but all three are excellent--certainly in the ten top reference titles available.
The order of presentation here Emplies no ranking; all of these are world-class titles.
Street Atlas USA 2.0. This latest version of Street Atlas USA (DeLorme Mapping, 800-452-5931 or 207-865-1234, $169) brings you street maps of the entire United States, down to a level where streets are shown one-eight inch wide and the onscreen map is just over one-half mile square. It's all there: street names, highway numbers, power lines, rivers, parks, and so forth.
The maps start with a full United States map at a magnitude of 1. You work up through the levels of detail to magnitude 16, described above. The maps are correct and useful at each level, so you can find one that'll meet your needs.
You can also search for place names (down to towns and some features, including shopping centers but not parks), ZIP codes, and even phone numbers (down to area code and exchange). At magnitudes 13 through 16, you can also search for street names on the displayed map (about ninemiles square at magnitude 13)--including specifying the block by street address.
Street Atlas USA requires Windows 3.1, puts 2.2MB of data on your hard drive, and is extremely easy to use. It's easy to see why it's been a steady bestseller since it was introduced. It's a handy, versatile tool for finding things all over the country.
Library of the Future, Second Edition. This second edition of Library of the Future (World Library, 714-748-7197, $299) includes over 2000 individual books, stories, plays, poems, religious works, historical documents, and scientific works that would appear in about 950 volumes if you had them in printed form. They're primarily classics or historical in nature; only a small handful are from the last 50 years.
But what a treasury of wisdom, entertainment, history, and information this is! Here you'll find Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Aristotle. You'll also find Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Louisa May Alcott. The range is incredible, from History of the Peloponnesian War to The Peloponnesian War to The Wizard of Oz.
For scholars, this is a dream come true. You can search for words of phrases, specifying proximity. You can perform custom-searches by categories, regions, countries, ages, eras, centuries, or years. To find a quotation or discussions of certain people, events, or ideas, you merely design a search as precisely as you wish.
You can also copy a book to a hard disk or floppy disk for later use and print excerpts or whole works. Though you probably won't be sitting up nights reading these books on your computer screen (I certainly won't), having them available to browse, research, and work with will broaden your horizons. And wait till someone in the household needs to write term papers--this is an unmatched archive of source material.
Microsoft Cinemania '94. The new edition of Cinemia (Microsoft, 800-559-5577, $79.95) will delight anyone who's ever seen and loved a movie. It's basically a master movie reference, but the extras make it an evening's entertainment on its own.
It lists over 19,000 movies, giving basic information on each, including cast, length, director, rating, and any awards it has won. Each hasa brief review from Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide 1994. Additional reviews from Roger Ebert's Video Companion are available for 1300 titles, and Pauline Kael's reviews appear for 2500 movies.
cinemania also features biographies of 4000 movie personalities, each with a complete filmography listing every movie appearance. Fully half of the biographies have photo portraits.
That's a tremendous amount of material, but add nearly 1000 still photos, 160 sound recordings of famous dialogues, 100 recordings of movie themes and songs, and 20 video clips from the classic, and it's an irrestible package.
World Atlas 4.0. For basic world maps and an extensive database of statistical and demographic information, you can't beat World Atlas 4.0 (The Software Toolworks, 415-883-3000. $79.95 for Windows and $69.95 for DOS).
World Atlast is a well-balanced source of world facts. There are better sources of maps, as these are limited to high-level maps with little detail. The multimedia elements and extensive database, however, compensate for the lack of map detail. Audio includes pronunciations of place names, sample renditions of national anthems, and audio help screens. Video includes full-motion video clips of 47 cities presented in a tiny window. Surprisingly, it's a big enough to give you a satisfying glimpse of the cities involved.
The statistical database, although not perfect, is both useful and interesting. It covers over 300 data categories, from the expected (population and area) to the esoteric (buffalo milk production and counterfeiting offenses). You can create graphs and statistical maps on data from categories including agriculture, crime, people, economy, education, geography, and health.
The Oxford Englih Dictionary (Second Edition) on Compact Disc. The OED, or The Oxford English Dictionary, is an international linguistic treasure, the fruits of the labor of four generations of lexicographers. It's unique. The 20 printed volumes of 1989's second edition collect the history of the English language. They include not only current definitions but the history of the each word, shown in quotations from original writings going well back into the Middle Ages. All these illustrative quotes--over 2.4 million of them for the nearly half-million words in the dictionary--help fill out The OED's 20,000 pages.
Its arrival on CD-ROM (Oxford University Press Electronic Publishing, 800-334-4249 or 212-679-7500, $895) is a new triumph, albeit an expensive one. Not only can you read all the entries in decent-sized fonts (which you can select), but you can perform powerful searches for words and phrases, using proximity parameters and a variety of other limits. You can limit your search to certain parts of speech, variant forms, etymology, and date ranges, for example. Considerable effort has gone into the search engine in The OED, resulting in faster-than-expected performance.
If your search target is more complex, there's a separate query language that will daunt all but the most adventuresome--yet it delivers the goods for truly intricate searches.
The OED on CD-ROM requires Windows and puts just under 2MB of data on your hard disk.
The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release 6. Each year, Grolier Electronic Publishing (800-285-4535 or 203-797-3500) adds new multimedia elements to The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia ($395). This latest version includes all the usual elements (video clips, sound recordings, animations, and SVGA photos) along with two new items: multimedia maps and Knowledge Explorer essays.
Multimedia maps are narrated explanations of history and geography illustrated with animated maps. The story of the founding of America, for example, and the country's acquisition of territory over the years becomes crystal-clear as you watch the maps change to highlight events.
Knowledge Explorer essays are narrated slide shows explaining general topics such as music. South America, space exploration, architecture, and the human body.
Yes, the multimedia glitz abounds, but what about an encyclopedia's mission to deliver concise, factual knowledge on as many diverse topics as reasonably possible? Grolier's does well on this score, too. Its articles are appropriate for middle-school ages and above, they're signed by their authors, and they present bibliographies to lead students to further information sources.
Grolier's spends less effort on graphical presentation of its information and more effort on squeezing in information. Its time line, for instance, is merely a chronological listing of dates and events. The competition presents beautifully rendered scrolling time line charts, which necessarily include many fewer individual events.
Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia (Compton's New Media, 619-929-2500, $395) combines a flashy, easy-to-use Windows interface with its collection of information and multimedia elements. It includes the standard multimedia items, but it uses the graphic Windows interface much more extensive than Grolier to create a truly graphic experience right down to the instant you read the text.
Innovations in Compton's include the InfoPilot, which presents a matrix of articles. You select a topic and an article, which appears in a small center window. Four closely related articles appear in boxes at the corners of the screen. Around each of them are the titles of three related articles. the entire web of articles and titles can help you bone in on elusive facts.
Compton's also provides extra value. Until June 1994, buyers of the CD-ROM version can purchase the printed encyclopedia for a mere $99--an outstanding buy. Also, the CD-ROM comes with a full working version of Lotus's Ami Pro 3.0 a $495 Windows word processor, which links to the encyclopedia for automatic footnotes.
The Windows version of Compton's takes a full 4MB of hard disk space and runs a little more slowly than its competition. Generally, the articles are not as extensive as those in Groiler's.
Microsoft Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1994 Edition. While based on another print encyclopedia (the 29 volumes of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia). Encarta 1994 (Microsoft, 800-559-5577, $395) feels more like something created just for multimedia. Microsoft expanded greatly upon the print version, seeking out different photo sources, for instance, for images that would translate better for computer screen viewing--with noticeably excellent results. You get more sound, more photos, and more information than from the competing products.
All of the standard multimedia elements are there. Encarta spares no effort to present video, sound, animation, and photo illustrations whenever possible. It includes, for example, spoken samples of 160 languages, 181 national anthems, 117 pieces of classical music, 179 clips of world and fok music, and 106 video clips.
Most articles have a series of illustrations--usually photos--in the left margin that change as you scroll through the article's text. The small pictures are thumbnails; you can expand most of them up to full-screen size for a better view. Virtually every screen, box, window, and article has a printer button to allow easy printing of the material for later reference.
Encarta's basic information content is extensive, accurate, and factual. Add extensive multimedia content and inspired presentation, and you get something more than a traditional encyclopedia translated into CD-ROM. You get a new kind of colorful, vibrant, almost-live reference source.
Microsoft Dinosaurs. If you're getting the impression from these reviews that nobody does multimedia like Microsoft, you're not wrong. Microsoft Dinosaurs (Microsoft, 800-559-5577, $79.95) is another example of taking a good concept to the limit. I've seen a dozen other dinosaur-related titles on CD-ROM this year; none is even in the same league with Microsoft Dinosaurs.
Breathtakingly beautiful 256-color paintings in virtually every window in the program set the standard for all that follows. There are five animated informational movies licensed from PBS, as well as striking footage of a dinosaur hunting in a forest with an appropriate sound track.
The heart of Microsoft Dinosaurs is its 200 information panels, each with a painting, text, and hot-spot captions leading to the 800 supporting panels. There's a lot of content here, but it's presented with engaging illustrations and in small enough bites that even kids with short attention spans won't lose interest. As you explore by following the related articles, you'll never cover the same path twice, which gives you the feeling that there's unlimited content.
The stars of the show, in my opinion, are the Guided Tours, presented by a personable and funny animated version of "Dinosaur Don" Lessem, the founder of the Dinosaur Society. He walks you through the informational screens with humorous yet informative narration.
Microsoft Bookshelf, 1993 Edition. Microsoft Bookshelf (Microsoft, 800-559-5577, $195) was one of the first CD-ROM reference titles to appear--and it's still one of the best, It's not as sexy as Dinosaurs or Encarta, but it packs a lot of highly valuable information into a single easy-to-access package. Over the years, I've fund myself going back to it again and again.
Bookshelf contains seven basic reference books. The American Heritage Dictionary is a competent desktop dictionary in CD-ROM form. It includes hundreds of illustrations, and the words are pronounced for you. You can't search by definition as you can with the other dictionary CD-ROMs, but you can use the find program for the entire Bookshelf to search for routine strings in any or all of the books. Roget's ll Electronic Thesaurus accompanies the dictionary.
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is the standard quotation book. Its entries, however, tend to be older, leading to the need for The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, which contains more up-to-date quotes, most of which are from living people. In Bookshelf, both of these include the original recordings of many of the quotations. The John F. Kennedy sound clips are particularly impressive.
The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia is a single volume that tries to impart basic information on thousands of important subjects. Its coverage is necessarily abbreviated, but there's a surprising amount of useful information in it, including animations explaining how things work.
The Hammond Atlas is a collection of maps with pronunciations, flags, anthems, and links to more complete data in the encyclopedia and almanac. The World Almanac contains that wonderful eclectic collection of odd and useful facts that almanacs have.
Microsoft Bookshelf is an unexciting set of routine reference books that just happens to be almost indispensable. It doesn't need a heavy load of multimeadia elements; they'd just get in the way of the raw information that you need so often.