Jewish World Review March 8, 2005 / 27 Adar I 5765

Encyclopedias Better On-Line or On Disc?

By Mark Kellner | "Just what are the 'ides of March,'" Jean, my wife, asked me. I didn't have a ready answer.

Apart from the line in "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare — "Beware the ides of March," the Soothsayer says in Act 1, Scene 2 — I knew nothing of ides, per se, and thereby hangs a tale.

The answer, I said, would lie in an encyclopedia, and at my desk I had two: the 2005 edition of the Encyclopedia (stet) Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD, and the Microsoft Encarta 2005 Reference Library Premium CD set (a DVD version is also available). Britannica is, of course, one of the oldest encyclopedia names going, dating back to 1798. A.J. Jacobs, an editor of Esquire magazine, made it his goal to become "The Know-It-All," as his 2004 book boasted, by reading every page of the print version.

On disc, however, the Britannica isn't as exciting as Mr. Jacobs found in print. There are illustrations, but not as many as I would expect. Encarta, by contrast, offers a whole range of Kennedy pictures, even at the "contents" section of its rather extensive listing for the 35th President.

Both Encarta and Britannica use a search interface box to find articles. Opening them in Encarta (which is a Windows-only program) brings the article to a full screen; if a given section of an article relates to your inquiry, it opens there and is highlighted for easy viewing. On the Britannica side the opening window is smaller (but can be enlarged) and key words are in boldface type. (Britannica, it should be noted, runs on both Windows and Macintosh systems.)

Britannica's "search" for Kennedy information yielded more links, 205, than Encarta's, but a lot of these are peripheral to Mr. Kennedy's life (such as links to authors Brendan Gill and Don DeLillo, or to Janio da Silva Quadros, a seven-month president of Brazil in 1961). The links in Encarta were more direct and relevant overall and there were more multimedia items in the Encarta section.

I found the Encarta interface easier to use, because, frankly, it's more Web-like than the Britannica one. There are "live" links in articles in both products that lead to other articles. But the Encarta links seemed more natural to follow, in that they led to truly relevant items.

Both products feature dictionaries (Britannica has the Merriam-Webster) and atlases, to round out your reference capabilities. Register each product and you can get access to online articles and other content, although the online version of Britannica, a $70-per-year subscription, is free for only 90 days.

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Pricing for the two items is lower than their list prices: Britannica's Ultimate DVD, $70 list, sells for $39.99 after a $20 rebate; Encarta, which lists for $60, either as a DVD or five CD-ROMs, is $24.99 after rebates and discounts.

Given these factors, I'm inclined to endorse Encarta for Windows users. It's less expensive, has very good information, and is easier to use and deal with. On the Mac side, Britannica is probably the best choice because it is somewhat more up-to-date than the only other commercial application, MacKiev's World Book 2004.

However, there's an open question as to whether or not we really need a commercial encyclopedia on a disc, anyway. Britannica offers a subscription service, as noted; there's Wikipedia (stet) a free Web site that can be edited by users (, but which also contains some useful information. And, if you need a dictionary, there's or the Merriam-Webster itself at In short, there's plenty of online reference material available, much of it for free.

Even with these free tools, though, I'm glad I have Encarta 2005 at hand. It's a good reference tool that's worth your examination.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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