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Gift Review - Encyclopaedia Britannica 2010 Ultimate Edition

 

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When I was young my parents bought a copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica which I used quite often, though I'm not sure it ever justified the significant expense for all those big, beautifully bound books. Now you can buy in on a DVD, there's much more in there and it's a fraction of the cost. The latest version of the world's most famous encyclopaedia packs the main Britannica library, a Students' library, a Children's library, Book of the Year articles, Britannica biographies, Dictionary, Atlas and more all into the price of a midrange gift, which is pretty stunning.

The product we have to thank for the existence of an affordable Britannica is Microsoft's Encarta, which really transformed the encyclopaedia market, providing an affordable product that had the depth of a 20 volume reference, and the powerful search facilities of a CD (now DVD). To begin with Britannica priced itself out of the market, but now it is very affordable, still carries a certain cachet, and beats Encarta hands down on the number of articles. The user interface still isn't as sexy as Encarta, which has always been leading edge, but Britannica is easy to use and has a sensible screen layout. There's also plenty of multimedia for the low concentration generation (and to be fair, it does help explain quite a lot of topics, plus brings greater to richness to, for instance, articles on music).

The new features and updated articles in the 2010 edition don't honestly warrant replacing the 2009 version, but if you don't already have a copy of Britannica, it's even better value now. The main addition is the 'Britannica Biographies' section (replacing 'World Leaders'), which includes over 600 biographies of key figures, both heroes and villains. As always, there are always a percentage of articles that have been updated, an essential part of keeping the encyclopaedia timely in a fast-changing world. There's also one of my favourite features of the old paper version, Book of the Year articles - around 11,200 in all.

Of course, some would argue that there's really no point in getting Britannica when you can use Wikipedia for free on the internet. This is a difficult one. If you argue on number of articles, there's no contest. Britannica has around 120,000 if you include the supplementary books, where Wikipedia has over 2 million. What's more, on many subjects Wikipedia has much more detail. However, the problem with Wikipedia is that, because of its unique structure, there aren't consistent editorial checks that content is correct. The important word here is consistency. When the respected science journal Nature compared a number of science articles in Britannica and Wikipedia, there were a similar number of mistakes in Wikipedia and in the formally edited product - and almost all the Wikipedia articles had a lot more detail. However, some topics like science do get more editorial care on Wikipedia than the average article, which could be written by anyone and may never be checked. I would say that Britannica makes a better starting point, and is safer for younger and inexperienced researchers, but you should also check the same article in Wikipedia for depth if it's the kind of subject it covers well. At the price Britannica now sells at, it's well worth getting anyway.

Overall, then, a powerful and effective information resource, particularly good with for younger users with its wide range of extra features for children and teenagers.

Note review is of UK edition: US version may have different features.

Gift category - midrange

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007