State-of-the-Art Multimedia in 1996: The "Big Four" General Encyclopedias on CD-ROM

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: This month, for the Multimedia/CD-ROM issue of Computers in Libraries, we asked our CIL CD-ROM Currents columnist Peter Jacso to do a full-fledged feature in place of his usual bimonthly column. Peter has taken an exhaustive look at the good-and the not-so-good-in Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, 1996 Edition; Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia; The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia; and World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia 1996.

Given the hot competition in their market, one thing you can count on every year now is that the four major general CD-ROM encyclopedia publishers will update their products. Way back in July last summer, Compton's was the first to appear in an updated version with 1996 on its label. World Book 1996 Edition will be out by the time you read this (I reviewed a beta version), some time after Microsoft Encarta 96 and The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

The differences in the release dates do not really matter that much anymore. The important thing is how current the articles are in general, especially those covering rapidly changing topics such as geopolitics or telecommunications. For subjects like these, it would be an excellent idea for the encyclopedia articles to carry the dates of both the original entry and any update. This would be a nice overall touch and quite simple to implement.

The issue of when the actual CD-ROMs are released is also less important because of the trend toward online updating. Compton's, Encarta, and Grolier--but not World Book--now have access to online sources for updates. But there are significant differences in how the updates are integrated into the CD-ROM products, both in terms of content and search software.

As the theme of this issue of Computers in Libraries is multimedia, I'11 focus particularly on the multimedia features of these encyclopedias--their quantity, quality, accessibility, and playability, while also discussing each product's novel features and most important software strengths and weaknesses.

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, 1996 Edition

There are some significant changes in the 1996 edition of Compton's, mostly for the better. But many shortcomings have not been fixed. The publisher claims that there are nearly 1,700 revised and more than 500 new articles, three new full-motion videos, and two new slide shows. Regarding pictures--which I have always considered a weak point in Compton's--there is no mention of new or revised ones. Two yes ago, the number of pictures was drastically reduced, with picture editors removing thousands. But there are still far too many inadequate, low-quality graphics and photos (such as the black and-white photos of a beach scene in Sydney, Australia, and of a bird of paradise, both crying out for color). In addition, the number of pictures is diluted by redundant graphics. The mediocre drawing of a koala carrying its baby (Figure 1a) is hardly necessary when there is a very good photo of--guess what?--a koala carrying its baby (Figure 1b). (Figure 1 omitted) Many of the pictures and all of the drawings get unacceptably pixilated when you use the Size button. Less would have been more.

The same can be said about the audio components of Compton's. It brags of having 14 hours of sound, but the majority of sound bites are in MIDI, not WAV, format. The difference between Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor in WAV and in MIDI is tantamount to the difference between a genuine Cartier stone and a paste knockoff.

The Editing Room

These weak spots in Compton's are somewhat compensated for by its excellent multimedia Editing Room section, which earned a well-deserved prominent spot on the main path bar in the 1996 edition. The Editing Room allows a user to create multimedia presentations combining any articles, pictures, and animations in the encyclopedia, enhanced with the user's own text and even narration.

Completely new is the Explore feature, which presents six learning environments (Grandma's Attic, Compton's Newsroom, Madcap Music, etc. …