I have been reading encyclopedias obsessively since about 1992. In the early 1990s, it was mostly Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia and some Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia is about 20 volumes with blue cover, with great beautiful color illustrations on just about every page, especially detailing on mechanical devices such as automobile, engines, etc.)
I remember, around 1993, when CD-ROM technology was newfangled, and when the first ever consumer-priced digital encyclopedia was available for $550, i ran and bought it.
(Around the time, CD drive comes with Mac computers but PC is still taking a “wait and see” approach. The $550 is for a external CD-ROM drive bundled with Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. I mail ordered it thru MacZone or MacWarehouse)
In about 1998 to 2002, I have not done any encyclopedia reading due to working in the Dot-com startups. In 2003, i bought Microsoft's Encarta. Which, besides its textual content, includes a virtual globe much like today's Google Earth. To me, it was epoch-making fantastic. Wikipedia didn't enter my consciousness until 2002 or 2003, when i noticed it as a website linking to my Conic Sections page. I didn't know what Wikipedia was, just thought some academic site linked to it as usual. I registered wikipedia and participated “contributing” in 2003-11-19. (See my contribution history at P0lyglut)
At the time, wikipedia is full of Open Source fanatics, and its articles are imbued with Open Source propaganda.
I assert today, that wikipedia as a encyclopedia, with respect to quality, all things considered, has surpassed all major general encyclopedias as well as specialized encyclopedias in mathematics and computer science. If this is not true for humanity at large, it is at least for me. Specifically, if i can only choose to have one encyclopedia now of existing encyclopedias as they are currently, i choose Wikipedia.
(This review is based on the 2003 edition. Non-current edition of Encarta are very cheap, around $10 used.)
This is the best electronic encyclopedia ever. Among printed encyclopedias, the most authoritative one is Britannica. Most other general encyclopedias pale by comparison. However, the software for the CD or DVD version of Britannica sucks so major, making it a pain in the ass that frustrates. MS Encarta on the other hand, has superb interface, very easy to use, and includes a wonderful map feature.
The map interface is such that it is a globe one can rotate, and magnify to any location down to major streets for big cities. Map includes not just geographical but also political, social, geological, such as population density, annual precipitation, climate, tectonics. Maps have always been a essential item of civilization, and is a good indication of the era's technology. The digital maps of Encarta is a unprecedented achievement.
The content of Encarta is also excellent. Perhaps not as scholarly and in depth as the 20 or so printed tomes of Britannica, but quite informative for highly educated individuals who find many generic encyclopedias out there quite useless or juvenile. Each article on a subject is very well integrated with other parts of the encyclopedia such as maps and historical time line and annals, tables, and Sidebar essays. At first i didn't like annals or the Sidebar essays, but they turned out to be extremely useful.
For example, when reading about computers, it featured annals since 1967 of the industry. Reading 1990s' annals (i.e. a summary of what happened in the year at the time.) reminded me the early 1990s computing world i personally lived thru. Annals have a very different perspective than academic expositions. The expositions explain things, while annals function as a yearly historical outline and give a sense of what people where thinking.
When reading the article on economics, it features a Sidebar essay titled “Questions and Answers”, which answered common questions to the heart. Such Sidebar presentation serves a very different function or perspective than academic expositions in the main article. These sidebar essays are not quickly spun by the editors, but were articles excerpted from journals of respective fields.
The historical time-line feature is also great. It is a graphical representation of human history, with horizontal lines indicating continuity in time, and lots of stops with bubble texts indicating important events. (inventions, discoveries, political events, natural events etc, of the whole world) For the first time, i get a clear view to the contexts of happenings of the world throughout history and regions. Any digital encyclopedia can have a time-line, but a well-designed graphical interface makes a world of difference.
Encarta is a multi-media encyclopedia. That means, it contains illustrations, maps, photos, audio and video recordings. I usually don't like multimedia encyclopedias, because such are often geared towards school-kids with watered down or censored texts. (e.g. 2004 World Book) But time has changed. Encarta is a well-done one. It helps tremendously, when one can hear or see audio clips of historical events as reported at the time such as Mao's inauguration speech, or hear music of ethnicity or how Panda purrs or some nation's anthem, or a dynamic panorama of Hong Kong harbor.
I love encyclopedias. I've immersed myself in printed Encyclopedias in the early 1990s, mostly Britannica and Grolier Encyclopedia (excellent illustrations). I'm quite a digital media purist. I consider printed books inefficient and bulky. I'm the first person running to buy the first encyclopedia on CD — the Grolier's Encyclopedia — for $500 US dollars in about 1993. I've checked out many other online encyclopedias since, and i think MS's Encarta 2004 is the best one by far, followed by Britannica, all things considered.
Encyclopedia is just great. It's like the internet with info rampant, except its well researched and presented and more authoritative. Any thing you read, may it be news, you can immediately check the encyclopedia for context or verification.
Note: as of 2005, there is a massive grassroots encyclopedia called Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/) This is a free encyclopedia that is almost like the whole internet info content organized. From a scholarly point of view, it contains far more info and freshness than traditional encyclopedias. Its diversity of info content are far wider than any traditional encyclopedias or annals.
In traditional encyclopedias, due to the trouble of professional editing and printing process, necessarily limit it into academic subjects. The digital versions only started in the past decade and has yet to change much of this. What the digital versions have added new are multi-media and interactive content. For example, searching, cross-reference by clickable buttons, maps, videos of important events, sound recordings (speeches, animals, anthems, music compositions…). Though, the nature of the textual content or scope has not changed. However, because the nature of the internet and wikipedia, that anyone who access internet can edit it or contribute, wikipedia has become a massive information database, containing far more info than any encyclopedia. For example, it includes all major news (even trivial US news such as sensational murder) since about 2002, and contains much info of recent film titles, directors, actors and actresses, singers, TV programs, celebrities. It also includes all major computer science terms and technologies that are available in specialized encyclopedias. It also serves as a database of major corporations, their history, earnings, law suites, controversies, current chiefs. And it is a massive database of photographs taken by people around the globe by the now ubiquitous digital cameras. All articles on major cities contain copious photos, as well containing a database of world's subways, including subway maps. Info like these are never parts of traditional encyclopedias. All in all, it's like a information database of all things people can think of, and collected in a encyclopedia-like style of presentation.
The weakness of wikipedia is on academic subjects. In complex subjects such as Chinese History or World War, it suffer from chaotic and potshot writings and even often contain massive outrageous or systematic incorrect or bias.
See: Death of Encarta.