Multimedia encyclopaedias? I love 'em. In fact, I have always loved encyclopaedias. When I was young, I didn't want Scalectrix or Lego for Christmas; I wanted a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was fascinated by the thought of all that knowledge. Of course, at the time, I didn't understand the difference between information and knowledge, but no matter. Unfortunately, we weren't able to afford Britannica so the nearest I got was collecting a Marshall Cavendish partwork called "The Joy of Knowledge".
Needless to say, I was fascinated by the idea of multimedia encyclopaedias. All that information (I had learned by this time) on one small CD. So, when I got my first CD-ROM drive in 1994, the first disc I bought was Compton's Multimedia Encyclopaedia. While basic by today's standards, I loved it and I spent many happy hours with it.
Over the following years, I have acquired most of the encyclopaedias available on disc, including IBM's World Book, the British Hutchinson. Grolier's and, of course, Encarta. I have used Encarta constantly since first getting a copy in 1995, upgrading occasionally, and currently use the Encarta Reference Suite 1999. However, I have never used Britannica's offering. So, when the good people at DVD Reviewer offered me the chance to review the Britannica 2001 DVD, I jumped at it. Pity.
The installation starts badly from my point of view. Instead of a nice silent, efficient installation, you are shocked by a surreal noise that lingers on for about 10 seconds. If you have your speaker volume up quite high, as I had, it can be quite disconcerting. No need for it.
Then it happily downgraded my browser. It needs IE 5.01. I had 5.5. I can see no reason why Britannica would not have worked with 5.5 or could not have been intelligent to realise that a later version would have been fine. But it didn't.
I selected the compact installation. This came in around 105Mb. There are also the usual Typical and Custom options. I didn't try them but, presumably, they will be bigger and reduce DVD accesses.
The installer also installed Flash and Shockwave plug-ins. I can see no reason for this other than the wholly gratuitous Flash home page at britannica.co.uk.
The start page is deadly dull. No attempt has been made to liven things up by having a "idea of the day", for example. Irritatingly, you aren't allowed to resize the main window. It is fixed at 800x600.
The whole interface is dull and boring. Since it is browser based, I could understand this if it was trying to cater for the broadest selection of browsers. However, given that it has forced you to use IE 5.01, and only 5.01, it seems a shame that it didn't make better use of the browser facilities, like using DHTML to make the interface more functional.
As well as being dull and boring, the interface is unintuitive and inconsistent.
Navigation is frame-based and often illogical and confusing. On the left of the screen is a navigation frame and the content frame takes up most of the remainder of the screen. The navigation frame is presented in pseudo-Explorer style. However, it never behaves quite as you expect. For instance, sometimes the main point is actually a link and sometimes it's not. When it is a link (you know this because it's blue), clicking on it will open the article. However, in addition to opening the article, sometimes it opens up the navigation frame to display sub-sections. But sometimes it doesn't. Clicking on sub-points opens the article at that point, but sometimes it leaves the navigation as it is. Sometimes it takes you to a totally different article, replacing the contents of the navigation frame completely. You just never know. It is totally irritating.
This is certainly the high point of the DVD. Encyclopaedia Britannica is lauded for the quality of information and the DVD doesn't disappoint. Every article I read was interesting and, as far as I could tell, accurate. The writing is well judged, using an authoritative and learned tone which always stays on the right side of accessibility.
Articles on places, like Lisbon, give a useful summary of history and do a good job of capturing the feel of the place. Articles on people, like the Roman emperor Claudius, provide an insightful summary of the individual's life and give you a sense of the person, rather than just the historical figure. Articles on things, like paprika, tend to contain a wealth of information. They tell you everything you wanted to know and much more besides. Never too much though; the tone is always that of a learned friend and not that of the pub bore.
Inter-article links are always a tricky business. If you wanted to you could probably make every third word a link. Britannica errs on the side of caution, and provides very few links out to other articles. However, I'm not sure if this is a deliberate policy or simply another example of the lack of care and effort that is apparent throughout this DVD.
Anyway, textual content is very good.
The search facilities, while basic and unfriendly at first, are actually pretty good. Once you realise that Boolean expressions are accepted it becomes quite easy to get to the articles that meet your needs. Searching is done in a small window distinct from the main browser window. Again, this window can't be resized, although you can determine whether it always stays on top of the main window (this is the only piece of customisation you are allowed in the whole application). Search results are returned in the Search windows. You have the option of whether you wish to display a summary of the article or just the title. You can also view a query report detailing exactly how the query was performed and how many articles were returned for each part of the Boolean expression. Useless for most people, but I found it interesting.
There are, apparently, over 15,000 photos and illustrations. These are generally fit for purpose although many of them look dated. However, you always get the impression that some more would be useful and those that are there could be better used. For example, the article on Lisbon contains no images. For a city with Lisbon's character and historic and cultural significance, this is a travesty. Likewise, there are no photos associated with the Amazon Basin article. Again, this is an article begging for an illustration. In this case, however, an appropriate illustration actually exists and you can find it by searching the media list.
On the other hand, treatments of discrete items that are perhaps more easily captured in a single photograph, like flowers, are better handled. The article on Orchids is well served with numerous photographs. These are generally of a reasonable size, clear and appropriate.
Tables are presented as simple ASCII text, so big and unwieldy as to be totally useless even on a 17" monitor with the resolution pushed as high as it will go. You can maximise these, which is good. However, they require so much scrolling (both vertically and horizontally) that they are pointless. I can't help but think that Microsoft would have done it much better. Actually, Britannica could have presented this information better as well. You just get the sense that they couldn't be bothered. They have all this good content (and, despite my criticisms, it is very good) and you feel their only goal was to stick it on the DVD as quickly and with as little effort as possible. Shame.
Sound and Video
Despite claiming that you will "experience all the stunning sights and sounds that DVD technology has to offer", you get ... small avi and QuickTime videos with barely adequate sound. The files that use Windows Media Player are especially poorly handled. For video, the standard Media Player component is embedded in the main view with all the standard controls. It looks clumsy.
The sound files (such as those for the various musical instruments) are of better quality. Most are mp3 files saved at 64Kbps and 22KHz, which is adequate for the purpose. However, they are sent to Windows media Player which instantiates itself outside the Britannica interface. This is clumsy for the novice user and could be handled much better.
Britannica also claims to feature IPIX 360-degree images. As it happens there are 10 according to a find on the contents on the DVD. I had to resort to this because, for the life of me, I couldn't find them through the interface.
The Compass section is the Britannica atlas. And it is pretty much crap. It is simply a series of flat images with country/city names occasionally acting as hyper links. The hyper linking is unpredictable and inconsistent and this serves to confuse the user.
For example, the opening screen is a map of the world. Initially it is muted. As you move your pointer over the continents, the whole continent brightens in colour. I would take that as a cue for the user to click and get more information. But, no. While the colour may have changed, you still not on the hyperlink. That will be the continent name text. At this point, your pointer will turn into the standard pointing hand. Not a major problem, but it is all a bit irritating and serves to reinforce the impression that the product was thrown together with minimum thought or care.
The general naffness continues as you zoom in to a more detailed view of an area. (Actually, you can't zoom or pan. The maps are, as I say, simple images with the occasional hyperlink.) Click on North America from the continent map and you get an image of North America. There are some hyperlinks but you have no idea which they are until you move your pointer around waiting for the pointing hand to appear. Is "Tropic of Cancer" a link to an article? No. The capital of the US, Washington D.C. is on the map, is it a link? No. Is the text naming Canada a link? Yes, it is and it takes you a more detailed map of Canada. Likewise US, Mexico etc. Also, there is a small legend at the bottom of the map naming various small Caribbean islands. (You have to scroll the browser window to get to it.) Clicking any of these gives you a more detailed map of the island. OK, so you've got it. The only things worth clicking on are things that you could reasonably expect to produce another map. But, no, hang on a minute. Clicking on the word Greenland (remember, it has to be the actual word; that's the only area that is a link), gives you an ARTICLE on Greenland.
Gahh. Why couldn't "Tropic of Cancer" have taken you to the article of the same name? And, yes, there is one, of course. And, as you might have guessed, there is no way to get from the article to a map showing you where it is. This kind of thing actively discourages the sort of interactive learning that these multimedia encyclopaedias are supposed to facilitate.
Scathing criticism aside, the maps are accurate and reasonably clear. You also get a good selection of map types such as Political, Physical, Vegetation, Land Use and Peoples. But, they are obviously just scans straight from paper copies; the insets make that clear.
Some of these are the most visually interesting and inventive parts of the disc. They almost feel as if they came from somewhere else and were grafted on as an afterthought.
Ecosystems is a guided tour of the various ecosystems of the world, such as mountains, savannahs, deserts, etc. These are actually very well done. The presentation is much more interesting and refined than the rest of the disk. Page layout is good, images are well chosen and of a good quality, audio is appropriately used and the text is informative without being too detailed. I suspect that this is the section that children would enjoy the most and I also suspect that this was a separate educational CD-Rom before being integrated into the DVD. Good
The Human anatomy section is simply a page that provides links to all the anatomy-related articles in the encyclopaedia. It is not particularly elegant in that once you access one of the articles there is no way back to the Human Anatomy section other than repeated use of the Back button or traversing the various menus again.
The title "Topic Tours" is an overly grand name for what you get. Essentially, for each of 20 topics, such as Gold, Masks, Glass etc, you get a series of images and very brief text. Clicking on an image takes you to an associated article in the encyclopaedia. The interface is, as you might expect, totally different to that used elsewhere and pretty much crap.
Now this is genuinely fascinating. Over the years, many articles by famous authors have appeared in Britannica. For example, Harry Houdini wrote about "Conjuring" and Sigmund Freud wrote about "Psychoanalysis". 25 of these articles are presented in the Classics section. Presentation is basic and, once more totally inconsistent (navigation and content frames switch places) but it doesn't matter. All the articles make for interesting reading. Especially fine are "Americanism" by H.L. Mencken (always an opinionated writer) and "Space-Time" by Albert Einstein (my head hurts). Great stuff. although, surely, they could find more than 25 worth including on the DVD.
The Timelines feature tries to encapsulate historical events from various areas of human experience (e.g., Art, Religion, Sports, etc.) in two views, a linear Text View and a Graphical Overview. The interface is again inconsistent (the link cue has changed from a pointing hand to a page icon). It's all a bit pointless. The Text View is badly laid out. You only get one or two years on screen at a time and it looks too sparse. The Graphical Overview, on the other hand, is ridiculous. Most of the historical moments don't have a unique graphic - you get a generic Britannica graphic and a year - and for those that do, the graphic is so small and pixellated, that it is unrecognisable.
Oh, and to highlight the lack of Quality Control, the buttons that toggle between Text View and Graphical Overview are mislabelled. Text View displays the graphics and vice-versa. Tut tut.
Britannica Analyst mines facts about the nations and regions of the world. At least, that's what the documentation says. I wouldn't know. It constantly failed to start for me, giving me a run-time error. To be honest, I didn't attempt to track the problem down. Based on my experience with the rest of the package, I didn't feel that it would be worth the effort.
The on-line help is adequate. No more, no less.
As far as I can tell (based on selected searches), the britannica.com web site contains exactly the same content (both text and images) as the DVD. In actual fact, I feel that the content is presented in a more intuitive and useful way on the web site. For one thing, your scroll-mouse will work.
As well as the DVD content, searches also refer you to other sites and on-line resources like The Economist and New Statesman (and try to sell you stuff, at the same time, of course) and you generally get a richer, more satisfying experience.
If you must access Britannica content, I suggest that you forsake the DVD and use the britannica.com site.
There is no question that Britannica has superb content but, as a package, the DVD doesn't work. The interface is downright unfriendly. Various inconsistencies, bugs and poor design decisions prevent the user from making best use of the information available. Yes, if you want to view an article, you can find it easily enough, but getting from an article to any related article or media item is unwieldy. Many people won't be prepared to persevere, especially if they are used to slick user-friendly packages like the Encarta series from Microsoft. And, in some ways, that would be a shame, because the textual content IS very good.
Throughout the DVD, you get the impression that Britannica couldn't be bothered about the quality. They just wanted to get the content out on DVD with as little effort and cost as possible, presumably, in an attempt to recapture some of the market lost to upstarts like Encarta. They probably felt that people would buy the Britannica name no matter what. I think they'll find that they are wrong.
One final thing: after completing my review, I reinstalled IE 5.5. As I expected, Britannica continued to work fine.