Critical Comparisons, by Ellen Wolock, Ed.D.

This article is also available PDF format, with illustrations.

Comparing the 2002 Encyclopedias

From pet care to world events, there's no better place to quickly find information than a CD-ROM Encyclopedia. Thousands of articles, along with photos, video, sounds, maps and timelines instantly bring topics to life. For 2002, you've got the "big four" to choose from: Britannica, Encarta, Grolier and World Book, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Which one is best for you? Read on to see how they stack up.

Which encyclopedia has the most information?
All four players are packed with facts, figures, timelines, maps and special features. Britannica, for instance, touts an amazing 85,000 articles, although getting to the information isn't always easy. Encarta is next in line in terms of sheer number, with a whopping 60,965 easily-accessed articles. Grolier provides 38,700 articles on the CDs, also with adequate search features that consistently pull up related content. World Book offers the fewest number of articles (approximately 21,000), but its searchability, ease of use and understandable articles make up for the more limited breadth of content.

Which encyclopedia is easiest to use?
Each package is made up of two or three CDs. Some of this year's encyclopedia models offer maximum install options, helping to minimize disk swapping. Encarta is the only encyclopedia that offers a complete install, eliminating the need for the three CDs altogether. Britannica lets you run the brains of the package without the program disks, while World Book and Grolier both need a CD in the drive. Note that we struggled to get World Book connected to the Internet using a dial up modem and AOL, but eventually succeeded. The other three encyclopedias hooked up without a hitch.

Britannica, Grolier, World Book and Encarta have easy-to-use search features, although each has both strengths and weaknesses. World Book's searches are generally relevant, yet it's easy to miss info if you use a keyword search. We couldn't find "Small Pox," for example, until we tried a topic search. This year's version of Grolier is much better than last year's, taking you right into the search features without potentially confusing options. We also appreciated the rolodex-like menu that lets children easily switch between Text, Media Gallery and Related Articles. Searches bring up the closest matches in a list, but do not automatically show the article (another click is necessary)-- a minor weakness (Britannica also has this problem). Encarta has excellent searchability and also lets children easily access related media and articles. Searches bring up vast quantities of matches, however, which is both a plus and a minus when kids are doing the searching. A search of "Native American Art," for example, yields 120 relevant results. Britannica's searches, in contrast, come up with too many unrelated options. A search by "miniature horse" for example, brings up 2,858 articles, although the bulk of these are unrelated. We never did find specific info about the little horses.

Which encyclopedia uses the most multimedia?
All of these references claim to have thousands of photographs and illustrations, and hundreds of sounds and videos. Some use these features more creatively than others. When kids search by the word "horse" in World Book, for example, they immediately hear the hypnotic galloping of horse hooves. Of the four encyclopedias, however, Encarta is king of the hill in terms of number and use of photos, videos and sounds, with Grolier at a close second. A search in Encarta for "piano" comes up with over 60 clear music samples, while a search in Grolier brings up 53. World Book has 14 piano audio clips and Britannica just two.

Which encyclopedia works best with kids?
To help determine the age orientation of each encyclopedia, we did several searches of the same topics and compared reading levels. The first lines found when searching by the word "gerbil" nicely illustrate the differences (as shown below).

While reading levels vary within each encyclopedia, in general, Grolier and Britannica are more technically written than the others, making them best for teens and adults. World Book offers the easiest to understand, kid-friendly text (perfect for the elementary crowd) while Encarta is somewhere in between (appropriate at any age level).

How do the encyclopedias use the Internet?
All of the packages have thousands of links to the web and free monthly updates for one year. These are very easy to use. After registering, usually just one or two clicks get you linked or updated. Encarta also provides one year of free access to Encarta Deluxe Online, a regularly updated site with Encarta's contents plus additional articles. Britannica and World Book charge for their subscriber-based online component, while Grolier offers free web access to Encyclopedia Americana and Book of Knowledge.

Which encyclopedia is the best buy?
The store prices we've found for each encyclopedia are as follows: (Keep in mind that these vary depending on the retailer.)

  • World Book 2002 Deluxe --$19.99
  • Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia -- $29.95
  • Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 2002 -- $44.95
  • Encyclopedia Britannica 2002 -- $59.95

Logical Conclusions
Because of its reading level, child-friendly features and price, World Book is our first choice for elementary-aged students. If you don't mind spending nearly $50, the well-designed, combination Encarta CD and Encarta online are definitely worth the money. If you want to spend a little less for your older student, we'd go with the reasonably priced and comprehensive Grolier. To impress your date with big words and complex sentences, there's always Britannica. Something for everyone!


WHAT IS A GERBIL? -- (A Comparison of how the same topic is described in each title)
Britannica-- "Gerbil, any of the numerous burrowing rodents forming the subfamily Gerbillinae of the family Cucetidae."

Encarta-- "Gerbil, common name for any of several small, burrowing rodents that have soft, sand colored fur, a mouselike face, and long hind legs that enable them to leap about like rodents such as jerboas and kangaroo rats."

Grolier-- "Gerbils, family Cricetadae are soft-furred, burrowing rodents inhabiting arid regions in Africa and Asia."

World Book-- "Gerbil, pronounced JUR buhl, is any of a group of furry, rat like rodents, most of which have long hind legs and a long, hairy tail."


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