Encarta was bundled with my first PC, running Win 3.1. It was a useful and dynamic tool, and I got used to it in my later school years. I was rather excited to think about the possibilities that will have developed over the past decade. If it was that good then, then how good will it be now? We put the UK and Ireland Premium Suite on DVD through vigorous testing.
The Premium Suite includes the main Encarta, the cut down, content-appropriate Children’s Encarta and research tools. There has been work on tying in the Internet fairly well here, so once you have registered the product, you can update Encarta. Of course, if you have a MSN Passport, it makes the whole lot smoother. On registering, the updates included the 2004 Olympics results and other time sensitive content. We tried out the Researcher function, and this makes it easy to find out information through Encarta online, and add information to Researcher, which you can then view later - a great idea for homework projects.
Encarta is great if you don’t really know anything - if you’re a history student, for example, then it is easy to get a basic foundation in that period of time, including some of the key events, characters, literature and so on, but if you want to know anything detailed, then you’ll be left wanting. For example, the entry on Winston Churchill contains two media speeches you can listen to - the Iron Curtain speech, and the “Finest Hour”. It seems that many of the key ‘soundbites’ of this great man are lacking. This seems to continue through the whole package - there’s a touch of everything, but little real detail - you’ll always have to go further and deeper into other resources.
With that in mind, I think that the main audience for Encarta will be those looking to scrape the surface. There is something of a giveaway in the features listed on the back of the box - ‘Get useful homework help’. Looking more and more at the package, it seems perfect for introducing research skills to school age children and teenagers. The Children’s Encarta presents a more simplistic user interface breaking things down into basic school subject areas.
There are lots of useful tools tied in with Encarta - the dictionary, thesaurus, basic translation content. The real gem, however, is the Read Aloud function. This allows you to have Encarta read the entire article to you. It’s the funniest thing I have ever heard - it’s a female synthesized voice, with some expression and a little respect for basic phonetics, but not much. The result is a rambling drone, including the titles, the copyright line and so on.
So what you’re getting here is a basic and interactive guide to everything under the sun. If you’re looking for something to help guide your child through the early, or even the later years of their curriculum, then Encarta will certainly help, and seems to be safe from too much corrupting information - except in the dictionary, that usefully lists a number of common vulgarities, and the audio of them being said. The Researcher tools are useful, if the user is geared towards that degree of forward planning. Overall, the updateability (which stays active for a year before wanting more cash) is good, the web tie-ins are useful, but this is still very much a basic information resource. I got the feeling that not much has changed from the earlier versions, but it’s still a complete package if you haven’t bought it the last few times.