Whether you’re struggling with a last-minute term paper or casually researching the life cycle of the fruit bat, the Internet offers a wealth of free information. Alas, you can’t always trust what you read online. For one-stop fact-finding, you just can’t beat the authority and convenience of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Britannica 2003 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD includes three versions of the popular reference work (it also comes in a three-disc CD set), along with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an atlas, all in one OS X-only application.
Take Your Pick
Tabs at the top of Britannica’s main window let you select which reference suite to access. For adults, there’s the complete 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica, while kids can choose between an elementary (kindergarten through fifth grade) and a student (middle- and high-school) edition. Type a word in the search box, and Britannica displays a scrolling list of matching encyclopedia entries. Single-word searches can produce hundreds of hits, so Britannica lets you narrow your search by entering a phrase or even a question. The search engine also supports Boolean operators, so you can craft complex queries (for example, space AND Glenn OR Shepard).
Clicking on a search result opens the corresponding article in a pane to the right of the main window; articles often include links to related articles, images, or movies. Because each new window appears below and to the right of the previous one, they eventually run off the edge of the screen—which can be a problem if you have a small monitor.
If you’re just browsing, you can view article listings alphabetically by clicking on a virtual keyboard or typing the first few characters of a subject. The handy Knowledge Navigator also lets you explore the encyclopedia by clicking on existing topic headings such as technology, science and nature, and the arts, but this feature is accessible only from the adult edition.
The elementary edition is more appropriate for fourth and fifth graders than for kindergarteners; and in general, the adult encyclopedia is more comprehensive than the student editions. However, some student articles contain valuable information the adult version lacks. For example, the student entry on Steve Jobs provides additional details about his early career experience. But you can change encyclopedias on-the-fly without losing your search results.
If you’re collecting data, the Research Organizer lets you quickly gather article clippings by highlighting text and clicking on a button. (There’s a similar tool for images.) You can save clippings in hierarchical folders, and create personal sets of folders to keep your projects separate from those of other users.
In addition to the encyclopedia, Britannica 2003 includes the Collegiate and Student editions of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and thesaurus, along with a world atlas. (Like the encyclopedia, the atlas comes in three age-appropriate versions, with links to encyclopedia articles.) Also included are interactive timelines that let you review events in world history through 2002.
Under the Hood
Surprisingly, Britannica feels more like a Windows port than a Mac application. The windows have PC-style menus below their title bars; keyboard shortcuts use the control key instead of the 1 key; and the window controls would make the Dell dude smile.
Don’t expect to run Britannica on that ten-year-old Mac gathering dust in the attic: even on our dual-1GHz Power Mac, some display functions, such as enlarging the article pane, were relatively slow. A minimum installation requires 400MB of hard-disk space and requires you to keep the DVD mounted. (You can run Britannica without the DVD by doing a full installation, but you’ll need 2.4GB to do so.)
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Britannica 2003 delivers on its promise of providing a complete home-reference library on your desktop. That it does so for every age and reading level makes it even more valuable. It may not be an exemplary Mac application, but it’s an exemplary reference application—and compared with a whopping $1,395 for the print edition, it’s a steal.