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It happens every year. These first few weeks of school, we end up laying out enormous sums for crayons, calculators, backpacks, binders, etc. (What happened to all those ring binders we bought last year, anyway?) And each year, of course, we have to buy some new reference books. But nowadays you can buy just about any reference book in print in the form of CD-ROM, to be used on a personal computer.

But is a CD-ROM dictionary or atlas better than the familiar ink-on-paper-between-covers version?

One obvious advantage of replacing the books in your reference library with CD-ROM is storage space. For example, Microsoft's terrific CD-ROM encyclopedia, "Encarta," has as much information as a multivolume encyclopedia, atlas and a collection of audio tapes -- all on one small disk. CD-ROM "books" also tend to be less than half as expensive as their printed cousins.

But price and storage space are concerns for parents. We also have to consider the matter from the point of view of the schoolkids, who use these references the most.

We have been testing two high-quality CD-ROM reference disks. Our conclusion: There are some things the computerized reference books do better, but no "book" on CD-ROM is, as yet, as fast and as easy to use as an old-fashioned book.

Our family has a huge (2,510 pages) "Random House Unabridged Dictionary" on a wooden stand in the living room; the kids (and the parents) consult it frequently. But this fall, we've been testing a CD-ROM called "Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary," a digital version of the same volume. It runs on Windows-based PCs and costs about $25 at discount or mail-order outlets, compared to $80 for the print version.

This digital dictionary has 315,000 entries and 2,400 illustrations, just like the print version. But it lacks some of the most useful features of the book, including the directory of colleges, the listing of signs and symbols, and the concise French, Spanish and German lexicons. The most important new feature of the CD-ROM is spoken pronunciation; if you've always wondered how to say coup de grace, you can hear it with one mouse click.

But the CD-ROM dictionary is disappointing in several ways. When a definition lists "see also" terms, you ought to be able to hyperlink to those words -- that is, click on them with the mouse and move directly to them. In fact, you have to type in those words by hand, a real waste of time. And the software is poor at a dictionary's most basic chore, correcting spelling errors. If you type in, say, "Bhudda," the program says "Word or Expression Not Found." It's not smart enough to steer you to the correct spelling, "Buddha."

We decided to stick with the low-tech book version of the "Random House Unabridged" until they put a lot more high-tech intelligence into the disk.

We've been more impressed by a brand-new electronic atlas program called "3-D Talking Globe," which runs on Windows or Macintosh and costs about $20. This program floats a beautiful full-color globe on the screen. You spin the globe with the mouse to focus in on a place you want to study, and then get a standard color map of that region. Then you can focus in closer and closer, from continent to country to a single city. This is smoother (but not faster) than browsing through the pages of a printed atlas.

In contrast to the Random House dictionary software, "3-D Talking Globe" takes great advantage of the computer.

It has a built-in mile meter, so you can use the mouse to measure the distance between any two points on Earth. It has a small window that always tells you the longitude and latitude of the point where your mouse is. It has an almanac window, which gives you basic facts about any country you click on. It has a built-in magnifying glass you can use to see more detail on a particular map. This program, too, includes pronunciations, so you can find out how to say "Nin-gxia Huizu" just like the Chinese do.

The downside is that the electronic atlas is still not as fast to use as a book -- even on a fairly powerful computer, like our 100 MHz Power Computing Macintosh clone. You can tour the globe with your mouse, but once you arrive at a specific place the screen is all fuzzy for a few seconds until the software catches up with you. That almanac feature also tends to lag, so you are kept waiting for the information. And even the most detailed maps on the disk don't give as much information as you'd expect from a complete atlas.

In short, we like these reference books on CD-ROM, but not enough to throw out the print versions just yet.

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