Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, November 1995

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia -- 1996 edition
Compton's NewMedia
2320 Camino Vida Roble
Carlsbad, CA
92009 USA
about $90

Before parents were made to feel guilty if they didn't have a computer in the home for their kids, they were made to feel guilty if they didn't have an encyclopedia. Like a computer, the encyclopedia was often sold as a needed tool for raising a child who would be successful in school-- even the price point was similar (adjusting for inflation).

(And of course, while both computers and encyclopedias are nice things to have, many students raised in homes with neither do perfectly well, thank you).

Combine computers and encyclopedias, and it would seem like you'd have the perfect object to make parents feel guilty... shouldn't you buy a multimedia, CD-ROM encyclopedia, today?

Encyclopedias and CD-ROMs make a natural partnership-- CDs provide the storage needed for the large amount of text included in an encyclopedia, while providing some additional space for graphics. Computer database technology makes it easy to search the encyclopedia for information-- both in traditional ways, such as article title and by indexed phrases, but also in news ways-- by topic for example, or even to find all articles containing a particular word. It's easy to copy and paste from the encyclopedia right into a word processed document (but teachers will still know when you're plagiarizing!) And the recent advances in multimedia let publishers add flash unobtainable in traditional print versions-- sounds, animations, and video.

And while the costs of printing a finely-bound, profusely illustrated, multi-volume print encyclopedia inevitably makes it an expensive purchase, CDs are cheap to manufacture, especially if the publisher already owns the text and graphics content of the print version.

At first, CD-encyclopedias cost $300-500, as publishers tried to keep them from competing with their text versions. Recently, however, prices have taken a tumble... it is now possible to buy a reputable CD for under $100, or in many cases, get one bundled with a CD-ROM upgrade kit, or with a multimedia computer.

For the past few years, the big three names in the CD market have been Compton's and Grolier's (both traditional marketers of print encyclopedias) and Microsoft Encarta (based on the text of the Funk and Wagnalls). All have achieved quite respectable sales-- with their ease of use and affordability knocking big holes in the traditional print encyclopedia sales. Recently, encyclopedia industry leaders Britannica and World Book have come out with CD-ROM versions, though they are currently pricing themselves out of the bulk of the market (Britannica's CD version costs over $1000).

Compton's has a new version out-- their 1996 edition for Mac and Windows Multimedia PC coming out seemingly on the same time-frame as the 1996 crop of cars. Besides updating the content, it continues to be attractive and easy to use. As well, it offers tie ins to CompuServe and America-On-Line, offering users of these services access to continually updated information.

Like its competitors, it packs a lot of information onto a disk-- the complete text of the print encyclopedia, with 35,000 articles. 8,000 pictures... 100 videos, animations, and presentations, and 15 hours of sampled and MIDI sounds. Dictionary, thesaurus, and atlas. Educational games.

Compton's adds a bonus-- a second CD disk, with Now What Software's Small Blue Planet-- a very attractive atlas, built on satellite photos of the earth. It's fun and easy to use, while running right from the CD-- requiring no hard drive space whatsoever (a very nice feature). Compton's offers a choice: you have the option of choosing between better performance by using more of your hard drive, or conserving disk real estate, while getting slower performance, taking 10k, 7 megs, or 23 megs. (I chose the medium performance option, but on my 486-66,  with an older double-speed CD-ROM, it was still quite usable).

It starts up with an attractive opening screen complete with background music, but there seems to be no way to jump quickly to the main screen; one of my few irritations with an otherwise well-designed product. The basic interface gives you a toolbar down the side, with a main screen split into three parts-- top left, a multi-media window, for graphics, charts, tables, or videos. Below that, there's a search window-- allowing for searches of all content, or just among articles, pictures, movies, sounds, or tables. The right-hand half of the screen shows the actual text, along with icons for other media objects. Unlike some other encyclopedias, you can scroll quickly through the text, because it doesn't stop to show the pictures (etc.) unless you actually click on them. Each of these windows can be enlarged, and the user can print an article or graphic, or copy them to the clipboard. You can also set bookmarks, enabling you to quickly find that spot again.

Users of print encyclopedias will be used to searching for information by article title, and maybe by using an index. Compton's adds new ways to find information-- articles often include hypertext links to other, related articles. Articles can point to a spot on one of two timelines -- one for world history, another just for the US, and the timeline is linked back to articles. Teachers often encourage students to make idea-webs or bubble-charts, to see what how ideas are linked-- Compton's uses a similar idea in its InfoPilot view. A Topic Tree can take you from a general topic, to increasingly specific sub-topics, again showing how knowledge is related. Double-clicking on an item on an atlas map takes you directly to the article describing that place.

Another nice feature is the Editing Room-- allowing a user to build a multimedia presentation combining graphics, sounds, and video from the encyclopedia with other computer-based sources. It's easy to build a script adding encyclopedia bookmarks, links to other sources, and user generated title screens. With a sound card and microphone, you can even record your own narration.

A new fun feature is Explore... this kid-oriented add-in takes you your choice of half a dozen 'rooms'-- Grandma's Attic, a Music Store, Newsroom, nature adventure, Patterns Playroom, or space ship. In each case, there's lots to explore and learn.

The encyclopedia also offers hooks to on-line services-- you can connect directly from the encyclopedia to connect into Compton's Living Encyclopedia for continually updated information, games, and other frills. Software and a trial offer for America Online are on the CD, but it can also be configured to use with other on-line services.

The articles in Compton's are not as detailed as their equivalents in Encarta or Grolier's-- my daughter has a grade 9 science project on the planet Venus. When she printed out the article on Venus (planet) in Encarta, she got four pages plus pictures. Looking up Venus in Compton's, she was told to check Solar System (I don't know why it couldn't have done the cross-referencing automatically). That article included briefer articles than Encarta's on each planet-- about two pages when she printed it out. Not only is the information less detailed, the vocabulary is also simpler.

This is not necessarily a bad thing... if you have a child in the older elementary years or junior high, you're far better off with something like this, that can be read and understood than a product with a higher intellectual level that's more likely to stay on the shelf. And with the low price of these products, if your child outgrows it, you can afford to replace it.

Compton's suggests (PC version), that users have a 486SX25 or better, with at least 4 megs of ram. The 1996 edition runs under either Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, supporting Win95's CD-Autoplay capability-- letting it start up as soon as it's placed in the CD player.

I'd highly recommend it for parents and students, grades 6-9.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan