If you grew up before the Internet era, there’s a good chance that you or someone you knew owned a set of encyclopedias, complete with full-color illustrations and transparent overlays showing the human digestive system. Nowadays, the Web is the ultimate repository of information. Search hard enough and you can find just about anything. But encyclopedias still have their place, serving as a good way to quickly find consistent and reliable information.
Two of the most popular physical encyclopedias, World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica, have recently updated their virtual equivalents. However, it is Software MacKiev’s implementation of World Book that shines, by offering a user-friendly interface and more-advanced tools.
World Book’s winning features
Software MacKiev has redesigned World Book 2006 from the ground up as a Mac OS X application. The result is a visually stunning, fantastically intuitive interface. There are also powerful and versatile search tools that let you use as many as three words or phrases to search by topic and keyword. For example, you can search for just “jaguar” or add additional keywords to include or exclude entries with the words “natural habitat.” You can further refine your search by media type, such as text, pictures, video, or sound. Once you reach an article, an outline panel helps you quickly navigate different sections while another option shows you related articles and Web links. Other perks include QuickTime videos and 3-D panorama views of famous locations.
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The 2006 edition features several new and enhanced features, including an integrated dictionary that can use the Mac’s built-in voice software to pronounce any word in an article (excellent for kids learning to read) and a Dashboard widget that allows you to perform a quick search from the desktop.
One drawback to World Book 2006’s otherwise impeccable interface is the lack of a simple bookmark feature, like one you might find in a Web browser. But the company makes up for this by allowing you to copy and paste text into sticky notes that link back to the original article—you can even organize the notes into folders. Plus, the program automatically adds citation information to each note and allows you to share notes over a network using Apple’s Bonjour networking protocol. Now that’s useful.
Britannica: packed with content
Avanquest’s Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006 DVD offers an impressive amount of content—100,000 individual articles, according to the box. However, finding the exact information you want may not prove easy. The program includes a basic search field as well as the ability to browse by letter, subject, and media type. The advanced search gives you just three options with which to narrow down your keyword search: you can choose whether the article should include any of the words, all of the words, or the exact phrase.
The program’s interface is also puzzling: It opens each article in its own tab (much like Safari and Firefox’s tabbed browsing). However, Britannica splits articles by education level, so you might have different entries on the same subject for General, Student Library, and Elementary Library. Each of these levels gets its own tab at the top of the interface, while underneath is an additional set of tabs that contain all the actual articles regardless of the educational level you select. This makes the interface very cluttered and confusing. Plus, if you want to take notes while researching in Britannica, you have to copy and paste to another application.
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The one new feature in Britannica 2006 is the homework help desk. However, this appears to be little more than a collection of instructional articles on writing papers and links to content accessible elsewhere in the interface.
Britannica does have two standout features, though: the BrainStormer and Timeline. BrainStormer allows you to view an article topic in a flowchart style, making it easy to see connections between related subjects. Both World Book and Britannica include timelines (useful for getting historical overviews), but while Britannica links its timeline items to articles, World Book, inexplicably, does not.
Macworld’s buying advice
We were extremely impressed by World Book 2006’s easy-to-use interface, as well as its in-depth search functions. These features, along with its dictionary and superior note-taking capabilities, place World Book far above its competitor. Although Britannica 2006 wins hands-down for sheer bulk of articles, information means nothing if you can’t find and utilize it in a meaningful way.
[ Jason Cranford Teague and his daughter Jocelyn live near Washington, D.C., where Jason is a senior user interface designer at AOL, and Jocelyn is in second grade. Jocelyn wants to be a punk rocker when she grows up and Jason regularly rants about technology and culture on his blog, webbedENVIRONMENTS.]
Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia
Wikis are open-source Web sites that anyone can edit: Navigate to the page, click a button, and change or add whatever content you want. At first this might seem like a recipe for chaos. However, with a few simple rules and the ability to roll back to previous versions of a page, the communal approach to knowledge gathering is proving extremely effective. There are wiki dictionaries, wiki quote collections, wiki news, and even wiki books. But the most popular resource is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.
The free Wikipedia Dashboard widget by Sean Billig makes it even easier to look up information now. By pressing a function key, you gain immediate access to a wealth of communally gathered information. Just be careful: If you are doing research for school or a mission-critical project, double-check with another source before pronouncing anything you find on Wikipedia as absolute fact.
[ Jason Cranford Teague and his daughter Jocelyn live near Washington, D.C., where Jason is a senior user interface designer at AOL, and Jocelyn is in second grade. Jocelyn wants to be a punk rocker when she grows up and Jason regularly rants about technology and culture on his blog, webbedENVIRONMENTS.]This Dashboard widget gives you instant access to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia.