Battle of the Titans - Encarta vs. the Britannica

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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January, 2005

The Encarta Encyclopedia - and even more so, the Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005 - is an impressive reference library. It caters effectively (and, at $70, cheaply) to the educational needs of everyone in the family, from children as young as 7 or 8 years old to adults who seek concise answers to their queries. It is fun-filled, interactive, colorful, replete with tens of thousands of images, video clips, and audio snippets.

The Encarta is extremely user-friendly, with its search bar and novel Visual Browser. It comes equipped with a dictionary, thesaurus, chart maker, searchable index of quotations, games, and an Encarta Kids interface. Installation is easy. The Encarta is augmented by weekly or bi-weekly updates and the feature-rich online MSN Encarta Premium with its Homework Help offerings.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (established in 1768) sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product - but it is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. Its 100,000 articles are long and deep, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields.

The Britannica, too, come bundled with an atlas (less detailed than the Encarta's), dictionary, thesaurus, classic articles from previous editions, an Interactive Timeline, a Research Organizer, and a Knowledge Navigator (a Brain Stormer). It is as user-friendly as the Encarta. The Britannica, though, is updated only 2-4 times a year, a serious drawback, only partially compensated for by 3 months of free access to the its unequalled powerhouse online Web site.

It seems that the Britannica and the Encarta cater to different market segments and that the Britannica provides more in-depth coverage of its topics while the Encarta is a more complete, PC-orientated reference experience. The market positioning of the Britannica's Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is, therefore, problematic. Encarta has an all-pervasive hold on and ubiquitous penetration of the child-to-young adult markets.

Both encyclopedias offer an embarrassment of riches. Users of both find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. Encarta introduced the Visual (Virtual) Browser and Britannica incorporated the Brain Stormer to cope with this predicament. But few know how to deploy them effectively.

Encarta actively encourages fun-filled browsing and Britannica fully supports serious research. These preferences are reflected in the design of the two products. The Encarta is a riot of colors, sidebars, videos, audio clips, photos, embedded links, literature, Web resources, and quizzes. It is a product of the age of mass communication, a desktop extension of television and the Internet.

The Britannica is a sober assemblage of first-rate texts, up to date bibliographies, and minimal multimedia. It is a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.

Indeed, the Encarta and the Britannica offer competing models for interacting with the Internet. Both provide content updates - the Encarta weekly or bi-weekly and the Britannica 2-4 times a year. Both offer additional and timely content and revisions on dedicated Web sites. But the Encarta conditions some of its functions - notably its research tools and updates - on registration with its Plus Club. The Britannica doesn't.

The Encarta incorporates numerous third-party texts and visuals (including dozens of Discovery Channel videos, hundreds of newspaper articles, and a plethora of Scientific American features). The Encarta's multimedia offerings are also impressive with thousands of video and audio clips, maps, tables, and animations. The Britannica provides considerably more text - though it has noticeably enhanced it non-textual content over the year (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but text).

Both reference products would do well to integrate with new desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over - their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web - using a single, intuitive interface.

The new Encarta Search Bar, which was integrated into the product this past year, enables users to search any part of the Encarta application (encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, etc) without having the application open. Definitely a step in the right direction.

Having used both products extensively in the last few months, I found myself entertaining some minor gripes:

The Encarta offers 3-D tours which gobble up computer resources and are essentially non-interactive a limited. Is it worth the investment and the risk to the stability and performance of the user's computer?

The editorial process is not transparent. It is not clear how both products cope with contemporary and recent developments, minority-sensitive issues, and controversial topics (such as abortion and gay rights).

The Encarta tries to cater to the needs of challenged users, such as the visually-impaired - but is still far from doing a good job of it. The Britannica doesn't even bother.

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in both products are surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current - and dynamically updated - offering? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)? The Encarta's New English Dictionary dropped a glossary of computer terms it used to include back in 2001. All's the pity.

Both encyclopedias consume (not to say) hog computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes them less suitable for installation on older PCs and on many laptops. Despite the hype, relatively few users possess DVD drives (but those who do find, in both products, the entire encyclopedia available on one DVD).

But that's it. Don't think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf the relevant Web sites) and purchase both products now. Combined, these reference suites offer the best value for money around and significantly enhance you access to knowledge and wisdom accumulated over centuries all over the world.

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