Now that the two standout multimedia encyclopedias, Microsoft Encarta and Encyclopedia Britannica, have started to put their contents on the Internet for free consumption, will their CD-ROM cousins wind up a footnote in the transition from leather-bound tomes to digital information?
Look up composer Sergey Rachmaninoff on either the online or disc-bound form of Encarta, and you'll find the same biography, picture and musical snippet. Search either form of Britannica for Bernoulli's theorem of fluid dynamics and you'll turn up the same description and inscrutable mathematical plot.
For basic research, the choice of media has become less about information quality and more about which you consider the bigger nuisance -- firing up a modem to log on, or swapping discs. (And if you've got a broadband DSL or cable-modem connection, there isn't even that wait to connect.)
This is especially true of Britannica, the last major encyclopedia to embrace CD-ROM, the one that changed the rules of the game last year by putting its entire database online without an access fee. (Britannica.com is a partner of The Post's Washingtonpost.com.)
As a look-up site in the bandwidth-conscious world of today's Web, Britannica reigns again. It could hold the crown for a while, too. The encyclopedia's strength comes from a long-standing tradition of scholarship. Britannica has grown to 45 million words since it was first published in 1768. Over the years, contributors have included Nobel laureates Albert Einstein, Milton Friedman, Marie Curie and George Bernard Shaw.
Encarta hasn't fully met Britannica's online challenge. Encarta.com gives free access only to a concise version, which has less than half the content of the deluxe CD-ROM. Access to more complete online content is free to those who buy that Encarta Deluxe CD-but if you want basic facts, you won't miss Encarta's for-pay extras anyway. In the Rachmaninoff search, for instance, the deluxe version adds a brief mention of the composer in an article on Russian-Americans and a listing of Grammy awards for best classical album.
Encarta gets its muscle from Microsoft's wealth and coding talents. Since 1993, Encarta has built up its database from a flimsy 9 million words to 50 million, in part by taking slender core articles and adding heaps of newspaper clips, lists, charts, videos, pictures and "fast fact" boxes and packaging them into hyperlinked, multimedia presentations. As a form of infotainment, Encarta remains better on CD-ROM. Look up Native Americans, and you'll spend less time reading than you will perusing maps of tribal lands taken away by settlers, touring Chaco Canyon with 3-D panoramic views, listening to Sioux and Ute music and comparing the courses of European and Aztec civilizations .
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