With Microsoft Student 2006, the Redmond, Wash., software giant has done some serious homework -- in the hope that it can help teens and tweens do the same.
This $100 release (Windows 2000 or XP) sets out to provide middle and high school students with an easy-to-use reference library. It also aims to help kids get more out of Microsoft Office -- a copy of Office XP or 2003 is required to install Student.
Cynics might say that this makes Student a fine way to get future customers hooked on Microsoft's products at an impressionable age.
But this ambitious release really is a sound idea. It just doesn't quite succeed at its goals.
The meat of the product is its warehouse of core-curriculum learning: math, social studies and history, geography, English, science, music and the arts, foreign languages and college prep. Want to learn about absolute value? Click on math, and this topic will be explained. Want to know the history of Boulder, Colo.? Head to the geography section. Doing a report on the native habitat of a red-spotted newt? Hit the science area.
The reference half of Student also features an English dictionary and a world atlas.
The Microsoft folks made a real effort to get this right, working with such big educational publishers as Houghton Mifflin and Pearson Prentice Hall on Student's "Learning Essentials" sections. You can tell: The definition for absolute value, for example, sounds as if it came straight out of a textbook.
But because Microsoft has tried to cram so much information into one program, many of the entries are superficial, offering little more detail than you might get out of Encarta itself (still available as a separate product) or online searching.
Student could have gone deeper in many areas. For example, why not allow kids to click on words within a definition for further explanation if they're still confused?
Two local teens who tested the product weren't quite awestruck.
"I definitely liked this program, but I don't think I'd use it for anything except maybe doing research for a report or playing with it when I was really bored," says McKenna Pierce, 14, who will be a freshman at West Springfield High School in the fall.
Her sister Evann, 19, a college sophomore, thought the program was too simplistic.
"I liked that it gave you a basic idea of a lot of different bits of information such as the top 25 pieces of great artwork, the top 25 musicians in the world, and I loved the section about ancient ruins. But I couldn't find anything that really went into depth on a particular subject. Since you'd have to go online, or go to the library to do more research anyway, why would you need this program?"
Student's role as a gateway to Microsoft Office involves a lot of toggling between Student and Office, thanks to the way Student offers shortcuts, templates and tutorials for Microsoft's productivity suite.
The idea is that, once you've done some basic research in Student, you'll click a link to kick off a project in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. For example, Student offers templates to get started on term papers -- in French, German and Spanish.
But even with this help, none of the Office programs are that easy to learn. If the kids don't get a little help from a parent (assuming mom or dad has gotten the hang of Office, a debatable assumption), they may not make much headway.
Student also bundles a nifty three-dimensional graphing calculator, but that's tricky to learn as well. Evann said she had trouble figuring it out, despite having earned an A in high school calculus.
Parents eager to help their kids succeed may still be tempted to pick up Student, especially if the homework hour stretches to several hours.
But Student's appeal is likely to be limited to middle schoolers, especially those who haven't quite mastered using the Web to look up relevant information. Even then, they'll need to show some initiative to get past Student's limits -- and if they do, the odds are that they may not need Student's extra coaching in the first place.