The Complete National Geographic On Hard Drive: Nice Mags, Shame About The Interface

Geek Culture

As someone who has subscribed to National Geographic frequently through the years, amassed several shelves of the magazine, reaches for it first at any dentist office visit (my dentist doesn’t subscribe to Wired) and continues to make use of the magazine in my kids’ school projects, I was quite interested when the offer came through to test out the latest library release from the publisher. This version ships on an external hard drive, negating the inconvenience factor of swapping out a bunch of CDs or DVDs. Gadgetlab had a look at this last Christmas, but I thought it was worth revisiting.

The Complete Gational Geographic on 160 GB Hard Drive (image from National Geographic)

The Complete National Geographic houses every issue of the magazine from 1888 through 2009 on a compact external hard drive and retails for $199.99. It’s a 160 GB USB 2 drive measuring approximately 3″ by 5″ and 3/4″ tall, powered by your computer’s USB port, so no power brick to worry about. It includes a Mini USB to dual USB 2.0 connectors Y-style cable, so if one port on your computer is insufficient to power the drive, you can plug the second USB cable in. I only needed one cable on the iMacs and a MacBook Pro I tried it with. Computer requirements are quite modest (minimum OSX 10.4.11 and a 1GHz PowerPC processor on the Mac side and 1 GHz Pentium III with Windows XP for PC users).

The installation process was a little rough -at least on a Mac. It’s a simple enough, double-click installation with the usual licensing agreements (including for Adobe Air), but once it started, the progress bar trundled away until it hit the midway point, where it remained frozen for about five minutes. Just when I was wondering if it had crashed, the installer finally popped up a dialog box for the Adobe Air installation, after which it suddenly jumped ahead to 3/4 complete. Adding to the confusion, components of the installation throw up their own progress windows, so there are sometimes two installation/progress windows on screen at the same time.

When you launch, you’re greeted by the familiar National Geographic refrain (if you don’t like having sound, it’s easily turned off with a toggle switch).

The interface could use some work. It’s very busy and not exactly intuitive, however once you actually open an issue and begin reading, the process is straightforward. Flipping pages is accomplished with prominent forward and back arrows. Mousing over a page reveals additional controls, including zoom, bookmarking and print, however there’s also a magnifying glass icon. Most of us have become conditioned to think of that magnifying glass as a zoom, but in this case it’s used to search for related articles. I found that if I re-size the window, it would result in a sketchy “preview” version with a “Loading Page please be patient” icon on top. I’m a pretty patient guy, but even on a decently powered machine, loading this page was taking forever. If I gave up and flipped to the next page, everything was fine- instantaneous rendering of both text and photos. I think this may be an Adobe Air issue.

Quibbles about the UI aside, it’s incredible to have every issue of National Geographic, from 1888 through 2009 contained on a single volume, complete with text, photos, maps and even the advertisements. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 articles and 200,000 photos from over 1,400 issues. As a parent, this is an invaluable school resource. As someone adopting a digital lifestyle, it’s even more space saved on the bookshelves -too bad I can’t export these onto my eBook reader…

Search functions are quite powerful (with the ability to drill down to maps, advertisers and contributors on top of expected options like feature articles). You can choose to browse by year, choose an Issue browsing option that anyone familiar with iTunes will recognize as being very similar to Coverflow and you can also use a Microsoft bing powered geobrowsing option. There are useful extras such as a Trivia game, bookmarking, reading lists and print capability. A bonus DVD is also included that includes photography tips and other useful information. There is an update function for software, but the one thing I’m not sure about is whether the collection can be extended by purchasing digital copies of issues after the 2009 collection cut-off. If I find out the answer to this one, I’ll let you know.

The Complete National Geographic: UI is visually appealing, but confusing (screencapture by Brad Moon)

While doing so may run contrary to licensing agreements, it’s quite simple to duplicate the drive as a disk image on your laptop or computer (not that we’re recommending you do so), so you have full access to the content without having to drag the external hard drive everywhere (while it’s a 160 GB drive, the actual data volume of the drive is considerably smaller, making for a 63 GB disk image). Doing so also makes the application considerably snappier in performance. Those looking for a less expensive alternative could pick up the same collection on DVD-Rom through Amazon for $79.99 or less and either deal with the disc shuffling or try a local install. Portable USB 2.0 hard drives of this capacity go for around fifty bucks, so at $200, basically you’re paying around a $70 premium for the convenience/cool factor of hard drive over optical disc.

Disclosure: National Geographic supplied a Complete National Geographic hard drive for this review.

Wired: Every National Geographic ever on your computer! You get a pretty useful little external USB drive that can be re-purposed.

Tired: Installation process is far from smooth, user interface is a bit of a confusing mess, considerably more expensive than DVD-Rom version.

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