Although Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006's new features include a clean, easy-to-use interface and a handy Web Companion that lets you do research through a search engine and Encarta at the same time, these redesigns aren't the biggest change. At $49.99 (before a $10 mail-in rebate), Encarta Premium 2006 offers most of the same features as Student. The Homework Help, the articles, and the dictionary tools from last year's Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005 essentially make up this year's new $99 Microsoft Student 2006. But Encarta Premium 2006 doesn't require Office to run and costs half the price of Student 2006.
Unfortunately, when you use Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006, you'll have to log in with a Passport account and put up with Microsoft's intrusive data-collection practices. At the beginning of installation, you're asked to join its Customer Experience Improvement Program, which collects information on how you use your hardware and software. Microsoft says that this is not spyware because the data collection process protects your anonymity. You can opt out of this program, but you must provide personal contact information to register with Club Encarta for weekly content updates. These are free until October 31, 2006, when you'll have to pay $4.95 per month or $29.95 per year to continue the service.
The thoughtful Encarta interface groups data logically so that you can find the type of information you want on a given topic, such as articles, maps, or videos. For a search on San Francisco, for example, you can choose from articles, dictionary entries, Web links, Photos And More, and maps.
You get two installation choices for your Windows 98-or-higher PC: either six CD-ROMs or a single DVD-ROM. Installation took us a quick-and-easy 10 to 15 minutes, which is fortunate, because Encarta arrives without a printed user guide, and Microsoft does not provide one online. The Help and Explore pull-down menus let you learn more about some features and basic troubleshooting, but otherwise, you're on your own.
The lack of a user guide is a shame, because you could miss some of the great features within Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006. The Search Bar, for instance, adds an icon and a small text box to the bottom of your screen. This feature lets you quickly look up words and phrases in Encarta's Dictionary Tools, which include a dictionary, a thesaurus, and translation dictionaries (for English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish). You also get a password-protected parental-controls option that lets you set a password and limit the dictionary access to what the program calls "family-friendly content," though this control isn't customizable and doesn't explain what's covered.
Encarta's 68,000 articles, its small collection of riveting animation and Discovery Channel video clips (such as the collapse of Washington's Tacoma Narrows Bridge), and its interactive atlas with political, physical, and statistical information make it a delight to browse. It organizes home-page information by knowledge area, such as History, Geography, and People And Society, which makes it easier to begin a search. The Visual Browser feature provides a series of floating icons that you can click to narrow your search on certain topics. Some users may find this feature distracting; if so, you can turn it off.
The separate, colorful and friendly Encarta Kids interface for kids age 7 to 12 provides 10 knowledge areas (Animals, Science, and History, for example) with more than 2,500 pieces of multimedia (such as interactive educational games, diagrams, and videos) and over 500 perky and kid-targeted, if somewhat sanitized, articles.Quick and friendly unlimited toll-free telephone help is available weekdays from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT. You can also e-mail questions for a 24-hour turnaround and browse the Microsoft site for Encarta newsgroups. Although we were disappointed by the lack of a user guide, Microsoft provides three generous years of tech support, with a $35-per-incident fee thereafter.