By Michael T. Rose
Updated June 17, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

In CD-ROM’s early days, discs often boasted of holding as much information as a 20-volume encyclopedia. True, but first-generation Britannica wannabes on CD — such as Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia — were weak imitations of their paper forebears; they lacked photos and illustrations, and retrieving information was painfully slow.

Times and technology have changed, with no more vivid example than Microsoft Encarta 1994, the latest edition of the software behemoth’s digital reference work. Video, sound, and images almost pop off the screen as you browse the thousands of well-written entries, and the program responds to complex requests with relative ease. Although Encarta aims its interface, including a trivia game and cartoon-decorated instruction manuals, squarely at younger users, adults will find the disc helpful and entertaining — the collection of more than 170 synthesized national anthems alone is worth the price.

About the only thing Encarta is missing is the InfoPilot, a cool trick offered by Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, which lets you pick a central topic — say, baseball — and view related topics, like Babe Ruth or card collecting, arrayed around the main entry. It’s handy and makes browsing through Compton’s 33,000 entries a breeze; unfortunately, the text-heavy approach doesn’t let you enjoy your explorations the way Encarta does. Encarta: A-