Once considered the defining medium of a new industry, the interactive multimedia CD-ROM is slowly riding off into the sunset, bested by (what else?) the Internet. The Web's ability to have dynamic content—changing with every use and user—makes for a more interesting interactive experience. And although they still hold more than a floppy disk, CD-ROMs are dwarfed by current multigigabyte hard drives. Nonetheless, most software is still sold in CD-ROM format, and with good reason. The drives are everywhere—it's almost impossible to find a computer without one. CD-ROMs still maintain an edge over the Internet in their ability to deliver multimedia content, and are far easier to use on a laptop at 30,000 feet. Despite the "maturity" of the CD-ROM market, 1999 saw the arrival of a substantial number of interesting titles, from games to reference materials and more. Here, in reverse order from 10 to 1, are the highlights:
10. Encyclopaedia Britannica 99
Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., $99
With Encyclopaedia Britannica's decision to make their Web site free to everyone, why spend the money on the CD? For one thing, you won't have to worry about the site crashing when you have a paper due. Less flashy than many competing encyclopedias, the Britannica CD is by far the most in-depth, making it a valuable research tool. The EB 2000 CD promises to be just as good.
9. Grim Fandango
LucasArts Entertainment Co., $30
Combining a clever mystery, Mexican Dia de los Muertos imagery, and subtle gameplay, Grim Fandango is one of the best games to come out of LucasArts. Taking place in the land of the dead, with gorgeous graphics and punchy dialogue, Grim Fandango shows just how interesting and different computer games can be.
8. Office 2000
Microsoft Inc., $299 for upgrade from earlier editions
Although some have complained about its size and complexity, in most ways, Microsoft got it right with Office 2000. From maintaining file formats to easy web tools to "self-repairing" installations, Office 2000 is a worthy upgrade from earlier versions.
7. Red Hat Linux 6.x
Red Hat Inc., $50 street, free download
1999 was clearly the year of Linux. The upstart operating system started showing up everywhere, and the most popular version came from a company called Red Hat. The Red Hat Linux CD-ROM lets users take a regular Windows PC and turn it into a fast Internet workstation. Great for Linux beginners who want to explore a new operating system without losing their old one.
6. Family Tree Maker Deluxe, Version 7
Broderbund/The Learning Company, $90
Broderbund continues to steadily improve this title, adding new tools (and new data) with every version. Family Tree Maker is the sort of simple and straightforward program perfect for new computer users, the kind of software that shows just how incredible a computer can be. The deluxe package comes on 20 CDs.
5. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Firaxis Games/Electronic Arts, $40
A follow-up to the smash Civilization series of games, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri lets you build a colony on a new world, competing with six other players (human or computer-controlled). A detailed technology tree, clever diplomacy, and multiple ways to win make this a compelling strategy game.
4. Total 3D Home Deluxe
Broderbund/The Learning Company, $49.95
Another of Broderbund's great applications, Total 3D Home Deluxe lets amateur architects and designers lay out the home of their dreams. From floor plans to paint colors, Total 3D Home Deluxe gives you control, then lets you "walk through" in three dimensions.
989 Studios/Sony Computer Entertainment Group, $45 plus $9.89/month
Everquest is a role-playing game that lets you play alongside thousands of other people from around the world. In a fantasy universe straight out of The Hobbit, knights, wizards, and elves explore dungeons and fight monsters. Stunning graphics, easy gameplay, and a world that continues to grow even after you shut down make this game both fun and addictive.
2. The Complete National Geographic: 110 Years of National Geographic CD-ROM
Mindscape/The Learning Company, $150
This is the entire collection of National Geographic magazine, all on 31 CDs or four DVDs. From photographs to articles, they're all here. A treasure of historical and geographic information, this is just the sort of application that the CD-ROM/DVD-ROM format still does best. No home library is complete without this one.
1. The CD You Make Yourself
By far the best CD-ROM this year is the one you create yourself. In the past year, CD-ROM recorder drives (commonly known as "burners") have become both affordable and easy to use. A CD-ROM burner can either replace or augment an existing CD-ROM drive, providing a tool for easy backup of important information (such as taxes or family photos), a handy method of duplicating files (such as homemade videos), even a way to create your own music CDs. Many CD-ROM burners are able to read and write to the new (and less common) CD-Rewriteable format, which lets you treat a CD like a big floppy disk.
Jamais Cascio is a writer living in Los Angeles.
THE 10 BEST CD-ROMs EVER
At different times, these were the compelling reasons to make sure you had a CD-ROM drive on your computer:
10. From Alice to Ocean
One of the earliest multimedia CD-ROMs, From Alice to Ocean documents one woman's journey across Australia in sounds, words, and pictures.
9. Cosmology of Kyoto
This Japanese CD-ROM attempted to turn classic myth into a bizarre and compelling game. Macintosh-only, it took great advantage of early video software.
8. Family Tree Maker
Still one of the best ways to introduce the power of computers to nontechnical friends and relatives. Easy to use and powerful. (see above)
Released before CD-ROMs were popular, the original SimCity (and its sequels) showed the power and fun of simulations. (www.simcity.com)
6. MacOS System 7 / Windows95
System 7 for the Macintosh (1991) and Windows95 for PCs (1995) made the CD-ROM revolution possible by building the CD "drivers" into the operating system. (www.apple.com; www.microsoft.com)
5. Civilization II
Far and away the best strategy game ever, CivII remains popular today. The multimedia animations and "civilopedia" make it a visual treat. (www.civ2.com)
4. The Complete National Geographic
Requiring 31 disks, this is the complete collection of National Geographic, covering the last 110 years of publication. A wonderful storehouse of knowledge. (see above)
Predates the CD-ROM, but took off along with it. Quicken was revolutionary—it put real accounting tools in the hands of everyday people. (www.quicken.com)
2. Homemade CDs
CD-ROM recorders let anyone create CDs for backup, duplication, even music. (see above)
Far and away the most popular computer game ever. Beautiful even today, and, for its time, a tremendous display of what a CD-ROM could do. (www.myst.com)