Multimedia Review


Impact of Networks and New Media, BA 296.7, Fall '96

Prof. Howard Besser, U.C. Berkeley


Allen Gates

15 Oct 1996


I reviewed Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia, Deluxe Edition. Past editions of Encarta have been delivered on a single CD-ROM disc, but the Deluxe Edition is now a two CD set, packaged in a double-carrier jewel case. Even so, Microsoft has shown its proclivity to repackage and produce derivative works from existing content. In classic Microsoft style, the full-featured atlas content has been re-packaged as a separate product-- Encarta 97 World Atlas-which Microsoft advertises as "a more detailed companion CD-ROM product". Despite its Deluxe billing, Encarta 97 provides by default a less capable "lite" version of Encarta 97 World Atlas. However, never shy about Trojan Horse marketing, Encarta 97 came with a Multimedia Catalog, which allows the Encarta 97 user to sample other titles in Microsoft's multimedia stable.

Microsoft has done an admirable job of segmenting the market and extracting consumer surplus based on willingness to pay for advanced features. Two of the more innovative features--collages and 360 views-- are only included in the Deluxe Edition. The monthly Yearbook and Web links updates are available free to Deluxe Edition owners, but not to purchasers of the vanilla Encarta 97.

Metadata and Content Structuring

Under the hood, Encarta 97 obviously contains a robust metadata structuring scheme, because the product allows so many orthogonal views on its content. Among its many content structuring schemes are the following:

While the Timelines and Collages were generally very well thought-out and easy to use, some of the offerings in the Guided Tour category were rather weak, and stretched the bounds of metadata propriety. A case in point was found under the sub-heading "They've Got Personality", under the sub-subhead "Famous Rivals". The navigation panel sequenced through a series of "rivalries," which content consisted largely of the existing biographical articles about one of the rivals, with a minuscule amount of rivalry-related text. One such rivalry involved tennis greats Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, but the Encarta treatment said only "For years, the greatest rivalry in men's professional tennis was between the serene Borg and the fiery McEnroe." Featured prominently was Borg's biography, which contained nary a mention of his lifetime record vs. McEnroe, key matches played against him, or any other information about the "greatest rivalry in men's professional tennis." This particular panel didn't provide a way to navigate to information about John McEnroe. In a silly example of meta-data abuse, this same feature provided the following "rivalry" text for Karl Marx: "Communism and capitalism have been rival political theories for most of the 20th century."


Encarta 97 Deluxe contains an enormously rich variety of hypermedia navigation features, including a wide variety of point-and-click mouse driven styles, as well as textual entry search. The main window Find menu presents the user with the PinPointer a deceptively power control which by default presents a simple, alphabetical scrollable list of all major articles. This in itself was very easy to use, as the control supported "unique prefix recognition," whereby typing in the first few characters of a desired topic would auto-scroll the list to the first entry containing that prefix. The PinPointer contains much more powerful features, however, including an exceptionally well-done Word Search feature. This feature allows the user to quickly cull all articles containing a keyword, or group of keywords. To use it, one simply types in the desired keyword, then clicks the Search button, following which the scrollable list is culled to include only those articles containing the desired keyword. Better yet, when any of the found articles is selected, the requested keyword is highlighted everywhere it appears in the article! This was an extremely useful feature, and adds a great deal of value over a print encylopaedia.

Help Wanted: Dept. of Geography

I looked up Ajaccio, which is on the island of Corsica. The atlas entry showed me a perfectly good map of France, with the island of Corsica shown as a small inset near the lower-right corner of the map. Unfortunately, this presentation gave me a weak concept of the geographical relationship of Corsica to France, either in terms of area or in distance from the French mainland. However, by pressing Zoom Out, I could see the proper relationship.

Local Color: As long as it's Gray

The Local Color feature summary invites us to follow the lives of 31 families from around the world through an "award winning collection of video and photo essays". Interestingly, the image in one micro-view depicts a cherubic little girl with a lamb peeking meekly over her shoulder. In the background, one sees a map of Albania. I couldn't help but marvel at this idyllic thumbnail, given Albania's past half-century of tyrannical dictatorship. To be fair, the Encarta article on Albania was extremely detailed, and left little doubt about the nature of Albania's political situation.

An Orthogonal View of Content: The Media PinPointer

The Media Gallery used a tool called Media Pinpointer, which exposed one of the glaring weaknesses of the two CD-ROM format on a single CD-ROM drive machine. The Media Gallery is a very good idea in principle and presents all the non-text media--including images, video and audio clips--in a single list, organized alphabetically by subject matter. This provides access of Encarta content orthogonal to its primary organization by subject or topic. The Media Pinpointer presented a smaller, matchbook sized image in response to a single mouse click, and presented a larger, 3"x5" index-card-sized image in response to a double-click. All the matchbook sized images appeared to be available on Disc 1; however, the index-card-sized images were distributed over both CD-ROM's, which I found irritating. I understand that due to space limitations, (about 1.32Gb of storage space in the 2 CD set), access cannot be optimized for all possible orthogonal views. Some views are well-supported. For example, all matchbook images are physically co-located on Disc 1 to avoid disc swapping. The index-card-sized images, appear to require about 4x the storage of the accompanying thumbnail images.

A Good Feature in the Making: Interactivities

Another feature was called Interactivities, and consisted of eight discovery and learning activities, incorporating multimedia in novel ways. One Interactivity was called Population Chart, and while simple and limited, it hints at more advanced interactive learning tools to come. The essence of the activity was a set of predefined data selectors and filters which allow users to view different data sets in a variety of formats. The underlying aggregate data set was US state and Canadian province population data from 1820 to present. The interface allowed selection of up to four states or provinces (but curiously, not a combination of the two), and displayed line, bar, or fill charts representing the target population.

One set of Buttons on the left side of the window allowed display by total, gender, and region (urban or rural). Another set of buttons allowed selection of fill, line, bar, or stacked-bar style graphs. Overall, this Interactivity was quite instructive. For example, I was able to quickly glean a great deal of information about California population growth. For example, one can easily see from the chart below that the rural population (green) has remained fairly constant since 1900, while the urban population has exploded, particularly since 1940.

The Population Chart Interactivity appears to be the first generation of a multimedia model which will become increasingly important in future Encarta releasesvalue-added interactive data. I found Population Chart to be rather simplistic, but found the concept intriguing and useful. What I hope to see in future releases is an almanac augmented with interactive data browsing tools.


The PinPointer is the main search and navigation tool in Encarta Encyclopedia, and contains extremely power features, especially for filtering by keyword. In the Article screen, click the Find button to see a list of articles. Type in a title to see a specific article. To narrow the article list, use filters or the Find Wizard to search for specific words, categories, media, time frames, and geographic locations.

Links to the World Wide Web

Encarta Encyclopedia includes links to informative Web sites. Just click a link, and your Web browser opens the site. Open the Web Links feature to see a directory of all of the available links. Click the More Information button while viewing any article to see the links related to that article. And each month, use the download screen to copy new links from the Web.

Monthly Updates

Each month, Encarta Encyclopedia editors use the latest information to create encyclopedia updates, which you can install from the World Wide Web. Each update installment includes article updates and new Web links. The first month's installment is included on the CD-ROM. Owners of the Deluxe Edition, can download future monthly installments for free.

Using Articles

At the top of the Article screen, you can display menus by clicking them or passing your mouse cursor over them. You can print selected text, an entire article, images, or captions. You can also copy text, images, and audio into your own documents. Click the Dictionary button to open the Dictionary toolor simply double-click a word in an article to display its definition. For easier reading, you can even change the size of article text.

User-Specific Settings: A Nice Touch

Users can adjust the look and feel of Encarta 97 based on personal preferences. Click the Options menu button, then click Settings. In the Settings dialog box, you can change your sound options, your default word processor and printer, your startup and exiting preferences, the color of jump text, etc.

An Interesting Copyright Feature

An interesting copyright protection mechanism is embodied in Encarta's built-in Copy-to-Clipboard feature. When the image is copied to the clipboard, an author credit is automatically inserted on top the raw image, so it appears when the image is subsequently pasted. Microsoft takes this seriously, to the extent that Bill's own image is overlaid with photographer Kal Muller's tagline when pasted into Word. This effect is illustrated below. The first image was captured using the Encarta feature; the tagline is subtly, but clearly visible in the lower-left of the image. The second image was captured directly from the Encarta content window using a popular "screen-grabber" program, and appears as it did in the windowsans tagline.

Microsoft does this to indemnify themselves against copyright violations. There is a clear distinction between the image heisted from Encarta using Encarta features, vs. external tools.

Some Dislikes…

My primary complaint was too frequently having to switch CD-ROMs. This might be a non-issue soon. For example, Compaq's newest slim-profile Presarios come standard with a 4-CD changer.

One reviewer reported a "sickening" feeling looking at the slowly developing pulldowns. I didn't get that feeling, but found the stylized behavior to be annoying and a time-waster.

…But Overall, an Outstanding Multimedia Product

Despite the occasional excursions into metadata depravity, Encarta 97 was a thoroughly enjoyable and immensely useful product. I found it far more useful than a print encyclopedia, and a much richer experience, based on the well-designed integration of images, text, video, audio, and navigation features. The Interactivities are a highly promising new avenue for interactive teaching content-I hope Microsoft incorporates more of this type of content in future versions of Encarta.