Encyclopaedia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite review

Price when reviewed

The hardcover 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica is still revered as the one of the most comprehensive reference libraries available, so it’s a source of occasional head-scratching in the PC Pro office as to why the offline version has always been so lacklustre. The last version we reviewed, Britannica 2005, suffered from an unwieldy interface and poor usability. But the content was, and for the most part still is, first rate.

Encyclopaedia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite review

With a few interface improvements, the 2007 version shows it off to better effect. The most obvious change is a shift away from a window-based browsing interface. Click on a new link and the article loads in a fresh tab; images and other multimedia appear in a strip on the left-hand side, providing at-a-glance information about the kind of supplementary resources associated with an article.

With usability quibbles more or less solved, the remaining big worry for Britannica is Wikipedia. While Britannica has an impressive 75,000 articles, Wikipedia currently claims to have around 1.4 million and, although assuring the reliability of Wikipedia’s content is notoriously difficult, the open-source, online encyclopedia has a far better search engine. Search for “train” and you’re rewarded with a 1,667-word article with 11 pictures. Finding the equivalent article in Britannica requires you to think like an American – you’ll need to enter “railroad” instead. The US-centric approach continues throughout.

Britannica does enjoy the advantage of not having to stream its multimedia, but the minimal videos on offer are low resolution and many are poor pieces of stock footage. Many of the images are hangovers from previous versions: while Tony Blair’s portrait shot on Wikipedia is a high-resolution (2,337 x 2,931) image from 2005, Britannica’s image is a 165 x 250 image from the late 1990s.

The lacklustre Atlas function has also been left unchanged. Compared to Encarta’s 3D globe, it’s unimpressive and it’s graphically blown out of the water by even the free version of Google Earth. The timeline feature, which gives you a list of events by theme, such as society or technology, remains and, although it’s a nice idea, there are some major flaws. Each notch on the timeline is about 40 years from the ones before and after it, and that’s the highest resolution you get. If you want to visit 1996, you have to click on 2006 first, before shuffling back towards the mid-90s via a series of fiddly, slow-moving cue cards. The Brainstorming tool offers you a graphical representation of the article you’re looking at, as well as its associated links. It isn’t pretty, but it’s nonetheless a more intuitive way of seeing related articles than Wikipedia’s simple list of hypertext links.

Britannica also manages to claw back some ground with its three content options: the full-blown Encyclopaedia Britannica Library, the Britannica Student Library or the Britannica Elementary Library. While the full “adult” version ultimately fails to impress, the other two have targeted content for different age ranges: the Student Library aimed at 10-14-year-olds, and the Elementary Library for ages 6-10. The core system is the same, including the frustrating search engine, but the content is adapted for younger minds, making it ideal for homework research.

All in all, it isn’t as disappointing as the 2005 release. The interface is much better thanks to its tabbed system and, as a source, Britannica can be still be cited with a lot more credibility in scholarly papers and reports – Wikipedia is naturally regarded with suspicion by academia. For the majority of uses, though, the latter remains more powerful, particularly when used as a starting point for further online research: for citation, you can often rely on its extensive links to original source material. Britannica’s added features, such as the timeline and Brainstorm functions, look poorly thought out, and its biggest potential strength – the fact that it can deliver multimedia without bandwidth worries – is woefully misused. If you can make use of the two versions for teenagers and children, it’s worth considering, but for adults it’s badly in need of an update.

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