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CD-ROMs for the holiday season: recommended titles offer more than their online, Web-based versions.

Traditionally, I use this December column to pick the most appropriate CD-ROM titles that Information Today readers can buy as holiday gifts for loved ones and friends. Obviously, these have been educational, home reference, arts, and recreation titles, not academic and scholarly abstracting/ indexing or full-text databases. They have been hovering around the $50 mark, with a few titles costing a little more.

Usually, I have trouble picking the best for every category (general encyclopedias, special encyclopedias, ready reference collections, current events, dictionaries, maps and atlases, movie and music directories, art databases, health and science education, sport, travel, and hobby titles) for children, young adults, and not-so-young adults. It has always been difficult to choose because so many titles have qualified.

The choice is still great this year, but Internet resources have reached such a level that readers may, wonder why they should even bother with CD-ROMs. This is especially true for the CD-ROM categories that are appropriate for holiday lifts. In previous years I picked such titles as Music Central, Billboard Music Guide, Cinemania, Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Movies and Videos, Video-Hound, Road Trips. or StreetFinder -- to name a few of my earlier recommendations. Most of these CD-ROM titles have been published in current and even better versions in 1997, but many of them also have equally good competitors on the Web -- for free. Well, free if a family member works for a company or an organization, or is associated with a school, college, or university that provides free access to a server for employees, staff, students, or faculty.

Even those millions who are Internet users but don't belong to the above groups only pay about S20 per month for typically unlimited access to the Web, where they can find excellent sources of current events, dictionaries, movie and music directories. car buying guides, computer shopping guides, country and city maps, even special encyclopedias. Why would one bus a CD-ROM dictionary of quotations when there is an abundance of such works on the Web, from the highly specialized ones (Dan Quayle's quotes) to the venerable Bartlett's Familiar Quotations'? Why would one pay $50 for a music directory on CD-ROM when there are dozens of free music stores with bigger discographies and more audio clips than on the CD-ROM directories? The same applies to movie directories and car buyers' guides, and to most of the other categories mentioned above.

Am I arguing against CD-ROMs? No, I am not; I am just narrowing the choices to holiday-appropriate CD-ROM titles that provide significant extras for that $50 purchase price over the free Web resources. The extras may come in many shapes and forms, and I will point these out when discussing the selective recommendations. Some may seem to have equivalent versions on the Web, but there is more to some of the sources than meets the eye.

The Luxury CD-ROMs

There are two titles that don't make my $50 street-price limit, but both of them are justified for their unrivaled clout and name recognition in their respective categories. The most expensive is the brand new $200 Complete National Geographic. The price may seem steep, but not when you realize what you get. It is indeed a complete set of all the issues of National Geographic published over the past 108 years, including all editorial content and photographs, and even many advertisements characteristic of the era. The 30 discs will take up quite some space on your desk or shelf, but that space is nothing compared to the nearly 100 feet of shelf space that these issues require in print format. The name and word index is very comprehensive, and every disc carries the index for the entire collection. If you have plenty of space, you can load the nearly 100-MB index onto your hard drive to make searching even faster. The National Geographic Society does have an excellent Web site, but this collection is available only on CD-ROM. Although it has an irritating feature -- a long commercial every time you start the program and a long trailer when you quit, neither of which can be skipped-the splendid photos, page maps, and articles are worth this price.

The other luxury item is the 1998 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica on two CD-ROMS for only 130. I remember when the index disc alone cost more than this -- if you bought the entire print collection (which broke the bank, but a parent had to do what a parent had to do). I loved the 1997 CD-ROM edition (and I disliked the earlier ones). I like the 1998 edition even better. It has twice as many multimedia elements, including video and sound clips, and the depth of the textual information is just magnificent. In the 1998 edition there is also a browsable index. The ability to create statistical tables and charts of demographic and economic data for nearly 200 countries is also a powerful new feature. There is a new online version of Britannica sporting some of the new features, such as index browsing and multimedia elements, but there is a flat monthly or yearly usage charge for it. It is not a free Web resource, except for a 7-day trial period, and a few special compilations, like the directory of Nobel Prize Winners. Buying the CD-ROM gives you a significant rebate over the yearly fee. This past spring, Britannica offered a $50 yearly rate for the Web version for CD-ROM owners and I jumped at the opportunity. It was a savings of nearly $100 and provided the convenience of access from anywhere.

The Synergistic CD-ROMs

There are a number of CD-ROMs that are more than fit for gift-giving because they provide a synergy that you won't find on the Web. The Leonardo database from Corbis is a masterpiece that the genius of the Renaissance would be proud of. The core of this database is the 72-page Codex Leicester but it offers superb multimedia tours and exhibits of Leonardo's ideas and works about nature, science, engineering, and medicine (anatomy, to be precise) through narrated montages of paintings, drawings, photographs, maps, and blueprints. When it comes to the interface, I simply run out of complimentary adjectives. It is comparable only to my favorite from last year, Passion for Art, also published by Corbis.

You may find Web sites about Leonardo, and his most famous drawings and paintings appear at sites such as the WebMuseum and the virtual da Vinci museum, but viewing them there is like simply looking at a picture of a feast instead of experiencing its glory as a guest diner. For the same reason I can recommend another Corbis title, FDR, about ... FDR (and also about his wife Eleanor). It is less interactive, but the contemporary audio clips, photos.. film footage, and manuscripts of- famous documents are presented in an engaging, fashion accompanied by the voiceover of" Doris Kearns Goodwin. She is not only, an objective biographer of FDR but also an excellent narrator, with an unpretentious and untheatrical tone that matches perfectly the brilliant black-and-white collection of multimedia documents. True, PBS could probably do a similarly engaging video documentary, on FDR, but for "screenagers" -- to borrow, a term from the young cyberpundit Douglas Rushkoff -- the CD-ROM version is likely to be far more attractive, and senior citizens would very much enjoy watching this CD-ROM by the fireside.

Somewhat similar synergy comes through in Picasso, a CD-ROM published by Grolier, via reproductions of his engravings, paintings, portraits, and self-portraits embedded in contemporary photographs and documents and contrasted with other artists' works in the same genre. The genuine works reproduced here will please Picasso buffs who were disappointed by the fakes in the movie featuring Sir Alan Hopkins as the maestro, and who could not find Picasso's works in the WebMuseum, either. They may also like the interface, although it was too cubist for me. The Picasso Web site of Dr. Enrique Mallen deserves credit for its organization and depth, but its reproductions cannot come close to those on the CD-ROM. Nor are the paintings about the bullfights as evocative as those on the CD, accompanied as they are by sounds and music that conjure up the corrida. All that was missing was a short sentence or two from Hemingway.

The Internet is full of medical sites, some even providing tomographs and X-rays, but there is not much on the Internet for children interested in medicine. In the new edition of Dorling Kindersley's The Ultimate Human Body (in a special MMX version for those who have bought computers recently), the 3-D scans of the human body, the 3-D pop-ups that can be rotated, and the animations about thermographic imaging or the eye's reaction to light make medical concepts understandable to anyone. The voiceovers, the pronunciation of medical terms, and the funky interface could keep even children with attention deficit disorder engaged.

The same can be said about another new Dorling Kindersley CD-ROM, the Children's Encyclopedia. Whatever this company produces is a sure child-pleaser. Even though I am appalled by the incredibly unintelligent pronunciation of many foreign city names, and by the typos and omissions in the atlas, I can recommend this product -- if you promise that you won't use its atlas, but will instead buy one of the atlas CD-ROMs discussed next.

The Functionally Superior CD-ROMs

Again. the question arises: Why would you buy an atlas when there are plenty of excellent and free maps on the Internet? Because two new CD-ROM databases will put you on a veritable magic carpet, allowing you to fly around the globe, ascending and descending, looking up towns and villages that don't appear even on the finest military maps, getting other geographic, demographic, economic, historical, and cultural information in multimedia format that no hyperlinked Internet map could provide. One is Microsoft's Virtual Globe 1998; the other is Rand McNally's New Millennium World Atlas. For the latter, go for the deluxe edition. Armchair travelers and real travelers alike will appreciate either of these as a Christmas gift.

If you cannot afford Britannica, go for one of the smaller general encyclopedias that cost less than $50 or, if you do a version update or a competitive upgrade, only about $30. All three of the bestknown CD-ROM encyclopedias have new features and are a steal. Compton's finally replaced its mediocre atlas with a good one, Grolier added a much-needed dictionary, and Microsoft Encarta now includes a third disc with a Research Organizer program and other related goodies. (You may need to download and install an update from Microsoft's site for the Research Organizer if you bought one of the copies in the first shipment.) A fourth general encyclopedia, World Book, which has not been sold or bundled until recently to the home market, has been bought by IBM, and its latest price slash lets it qualify in the league of the Big Three. Although I failed to get a review copy of the 1998 edition, I know its earlier edition, which was excellent but very pricey for home users.

Why would you buy a general CD-ROM encyclopedia when your America Online or Compuserve account includes access without extra charge to Compton's and Grolier? Because the online versions are poor implementations. What about Encarta? It has a free online version, the Condensed Enearta. It is an excellent information source, but as the name implies, it has significantly less information, and less multimedia than either the standard or the deluxe CD edition, and only the article titles can be searched. There are online versions of both the Grolier and the Compton's encyclopedias on their respective producers' Web sites, but there is an additional fee to access them. You are better off with their deluxe CD versions, which entitle you to free downloads of monthly updates.

If you want an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an atlas, a style manual, and some other ready reference tools on one disc, then the solution is Bookshelf 98. It has up-to-date content, an excellent interface, and a directory with links to hand-selected Internet sites for many of the articles.

If you cannot get away with giving CD-ROMs that educate and inform, and your kids nag you to be game for a game, then I recommend Riven, by Broderbund. It is a sequel to Myst, which sold 4 million copies. I don't do games, because I am terribly bad at them, but my close and competent sources rave about Riven, and are nagging me for a copy at Christmas. Enjoy yours.

Piter Jacso is associate professor of library, and information science at the department of information and computer science at the University of Hawaii. He writes for this and other professional magazines, speaks at professional conferences, and regularly offers his online/CDROM workshop series. His e-mail address isjacso@hawaii.edu.
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Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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