This is the fourth year in a row that I have reviewed the Encarta reference suite for ActiveWin. Each year I have been surprised by the new additions that Microsoft adds to the suite that even in 1999 was already an excellent encyclopedia. So what has been added and tweaked this time round? Well for a start we have Discovery Channel video content and a new visual browser which should improve how users explore Encarta thanks to more animations and better navigation.
The comprehensive, award-winning Microsoft Encarta Reference Library is the ultimate reference source for the entire family. You get more up-to-date content, more learning tools, and more leading-edge multimedia than ever before!
So what about the main new additions:
Installation and Settings
Once again the Encarta Reference Library 2004 ships on the single DVD-ROM, or if you pick it up on CD, it comes on 5 CD's. The difference between the two versions is obvious, if you use the DVD-ROM version you just need to use the one DVD, no swapping or whatever, if you use the CD version, unless you choose to copy the whole thing to your hard drive, you will be in for a lot of disk swapping when using the program. Also the DVD-ROM version contains more music and video footage, so if you have a DVD-ROM drive go for it.
There is very little to improve installation wise over the previous versions, yet again there are no problems with the installation what so ever and that is after installing it on 3 different PC's here at ActiveWin. One thing I have noticed over the last version seems to be an improvement in loading times, the 2004 edition loads far faster.
I have decided to break the review down into separate components just like Encarta itself is. I will begin with the Encarta Reference Library 2004. Encarta Reference Library is filled full of documents, topics, accounts, illustrations, sounds, videos and 360 Degree views, everything you would want from a computer encyclopedia. This latest release of Encarta yet again increases the amount of information you can gain access to, both via the DVD and via the internet.
Yet again there has been a colour change to the Encarta Reference Library 2004, gone has the darker navigation and in comes a much brighter look than before, and it is very welcome. The icons have changed from their previous shades of gray to primary colours and to a look which feels more cartoon like, but it fits in far better now with the rest of Encarta's look.
At the top of the Encarta layout are the main menus, they include the following:
The main area from which you search from is called "Find" once you click on this option via the menu (the first time you load Encarta it is already on the side for you), a bar appears on the left hand side of the layout, from here you can enter letters/words to find items you are looking for. You can also search by type of information, this way you can filter out items and only choose a certain type such as an image or some video footage, something that is very useful and can be accessed via the "Advanced Search" feature at the bottom of the panel. With the new DVD version you can also search through various categories of the Library such as Africana, Religion etc or the dictionary from just one place.
The main homepage in Encarta Reference Library 2004 has once again been improved over last years release. For a start we have the new visual browser in full effect spinning around the screen, we also have the remnants of the "Encarta Today" section which has gradually been improved with each release. All of these bits and pieces are updated via the internet when you load up Encarta each time. I don't know what it is about the new look main page, but something about it just feels better, certainly the addition of the Visual Browser does make it look more animated, but the colours seem to be very easy on the eye all round.
As previous users of Encarta will know, the reference library contains bucket loads of well written articles from entertainment to business details, each item that you click on is streamed directly off of the DVD, the 2003 edition seemed a little slow in this respect, but I can thankfully say that the 2004 Reference Library really flies off of the DVD just like the old CD-ROM versions used to. Every article contains various additional bits and pieces such as photos, sounds, video footage, 360-Degree views, charts, and tours.
So what improvements over the last release do we have, well for a start the visual browser is all over the place in Encarta 2004. What this does is add a scrolling 3-D animation to navigate through, so say you do a search for the Alphabet, you will get the chance to click on "Visual Browser" and this will then show you a 3-D scrolling menu of all the different alphabet types that available to you in Encarta 2004. It works quite well, but I do notice that it scrolls far too fast sometimes when clicking from one place to another simply because the scrolling speed is decided by where you mouse is on the screen.
We also have the new Discovery Channel videos which have been integrated into Encarta 2004, now these are quite long and are very detailed to watch when compared to all of the other videos that Encarta has to offer, the only problem I have here is that the quality of the actual video playback is not as good as I had hoped from a DVD version of the program, but I am likely to be one of the few to make this complaint as most users of Encarta 2004 will not care too much about the visual quality and only go with quality of the documentary, which is superb. The videos themselves contain information about animals, forests and much, much more.
Updating Encarta & Web Stuff
Next we have the "Update Encarta" option. This means you can keep your version of Encarta up to date with the latest articles and web links regularly. There are about 3/4 updates per week, these update articles and add new ones, while also adding a number of new "Web Center" links for you to go through. The Encarta web center has links from all over the world, these are all checked first by people in the know to make sure that all the information is valid and correct (well almost).
Research & Homework Tools
Once again Microsoft has made some steady improvements to the already excellent homework and researcher side of Encarta. As usual there are some excellent pieces of information on how to write essays, poems, do research and more. With the dictionary and thesaurus still at hand, you can't go wrong with letting your child or yourself use Encarta for studying.
Encarta Researcher helps you to quickly find, collect, and organize information so you can write first-rate reports. With Encarta Researcher, you can:
They are very useful tools for those who have children still at school or anyone studying at college. Or those who want to write articles for websites! What you do is if you find an article you like in Encarta you can either drag over the specific text you want to put into your work or add the whole page by clicking on "Add to Researcher". It adds all of the text you want and informs you what the source of the writing is. You can then later save your work as a document or a web page.
With so many interactive parts to Encarta I won't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the world around us.
The Encarta 2004 Reference Suite Dictionary hasn't gone through any changes, it still has the translation tool which works works very well, and is a great tool for those wanting to know the most basic of terms, words and sayings for difference languages. The dictionary contains over 31,000 synonyms and antonyms. Why change what is already excellent anyway.
It is hard to go into all of the details that Encarta has to offer to you, it has excellent chart makers for students to use, live media, news and weather reports (which is spot on every time I check it here in the UK), it has the brilliant world Atlas which I never seem to go into detail with. The web center as I have mentioned in previous reviews contains lots of links to sites that have been reviewed by the Encarta editors. You also have the great 3-D and 2-D tours that have been with us for the last few versions, I hope that Microsoft do a major update of these in the next version as I love to go through these but I have got tired of seeing the same old stuff here, and the 3-D version could probably do with a graphical make over in the next release too.
Another year, another Encarta update, but once again I can't find fault with it. There are a lot of new images here that were not in the previous releases, which was one of my previous complaints, as was the lack of new videos - but with the addition of the Discovery Channel videos things are getting better and better. For studying I can't recommend this highly enough, if you have a DVD-ROM player then make sure you get it.