Like clockwork, back-to-school time means yet another update to Microsoft's Encarta reference library. As with prior editions, the suite incorporates a sizable encyclopedia (68,000-plus articles), a dictionary and a thesaurus, a book of quotations, a world atlas, and thousands of pictures, videos, maps, charts and music clips. A single search box grants entry to them all: Start typing a word, and matches unfold below, with icons to distinguish articles, maps, video clips and other multimedia offerings.

A search on "Portugal," for instance, turns up scores of hits, among which you'll find a sample of the "Traditional Fado Song of Portugal" and a map of the city of Portimao. Select that map, and a zoom command sends your perspective nearer or farther, while arrow buttons whisk you north, south, east or west.

As in earlier versions, Encarta stays prodigiously current with a Web-update feature. The program will insist that you join "Club Encarta" before you can get any updates (which in turn requires getting a Microsoft Passport user ID), but the updates are free for the first year.

The 2005 edition's major new feature is Encarta Kids, a separate but closely integrated program that organizes subjects and media by such easily grasped categories as Science, Animals, People and Places. Colorful buttons and satisfying sound effects make clicking through the offerings inviting and exciting. The coverage in each category is thin: "Writers," for instance, lists only Shakespeare, Anne Frank and nine others. A big search box allows young minds to delve deeper if they select an option to query the main Encarta library.

A less obvious addition, the Encarta Search Bar, adds a search form to the Windows taskbar (much like the Google Deskbar) for quick reference. With this, you can also select a word or phrase in any program, then press Alt-Shift-E to search on that topic.

One thing that hasn't changed much is the confusing array of Encarta editions. In addition to this single-DVD release, Microsoft offers a five-CD version with slightly fewer articles and multimedia tidbits (both CD and DVD releases can be copied to your hard drive, but you'll need at least 2 gigabytes of free space to do that). The company also publishes a pair of less-comprehensive editions, Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 2005 and Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2005, which include fewer articles and leave out such extras as Encarta Kids. Those not interested in such whiz-bang features as the kids' version or 3-D fly-throughs may do better with these cheaper versions, which sell for $30 and $20. -- Joe Hutsko

Win 98 or newer, $70



Most users still don't make regular backups of their data, and who can blame them? Their personal files are often scattered across the hard drive, making it hard to locate them all, and Windows doesn't include any software to automate this task.

For $50, Alohabob PC Backup utility can remedy that situation, providing a simple, relatively painless way to keep your important files backed up. It starts by automatically finding most of the things you need backed up, including the files that don't live in the My Documents folder -- for instance, system settings and e-mail messages. You can also identify specific folders or files you want saved; Alohabob then displays all these items in a list, showing how much space they will take on your chosen form of backup storage.

The program supports any media imaginable, such as CD-Rs (two blank discs come in the box), recordable DVDs, USB memory key chains and external hard drives. It will warn you if your set of backup files will need more than one disc or drive, a common occurrence in large backups, then let you reduce the size of the backup to fit or automatically span it across multiple discs.

Once you've established the basics of your backup routine, you can set Alohabob to run every week or day, as you wish. The program is smart enough to offer dynamic, incremental backup, in which it only saves those files that have changed since the last backup session. In essence, this program offers users the same sort of constant, regular backup that they would get in a well-maintained office network. (For extra security, keep one set of backup copies at a separate location, or at least in a fireproof box at home.) -- John Breeden II

Win 95 or newer, $50

Encarta: an even more all-encompassing reference in this 2005 edition. Alohabob: Say hello to easy backups of your data. The Guy Game might outrage politicians, but it won't amuse gamers.