December 08, 2005


Microsoft Student 2006. Windows Professional 2000 with Service Pack 4, or Windows XP. Microsoft. $69.95.

Think of this as a “homework helper deluxe.” Microsoft Student 2006 combines homework tools from recent editions of Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, adds a variety of bells and whistles, and ends up with a series of templates, toolbars and tutorials to make middle-school and high-school homework easier to do and more professional in appearance.

The software includes a Web Companion to pull in results from major online search engines without needing to open a browser; a full copy of the latest Microsoft Encarta Premium encyclopedia; and a Learning Essentials for Students module to make it easier for student to write reports, create diagrams, build charts and more. There are tools for managing group projects, too, and an especially neat graphing calculator that displays in either 2-D or 3-D and, with an extensive Equations Library, does trigonometry, calculus, geometry, physics and chemistry – all in full color.

This is an impressive piece of software, but it is not one that can be recommended wholeheartedly to every family, and not one that parents should buy naïvely, in the belief that a student can just start it running and get loads of help with all aspects of homework. Actually, you can’t just start up the program at all: you must first install the clunky and cumbersome Microsoft .Net technology, if you don’t have it already – and if you use the version bundled with Microsoft Student 2006, you must then download multiple service packs and patches to repair the security flaws in that version. This is not fun and not fast. Before even starting installation, you should make sure you have gobs of available computer memory – the fully installed program requires more than four gigabytes! And be sure you already own Microsoft Office XP or Office 2003, because some elements of this program require those other ones, and buying the combination just to use the student software would be prohibitively expensive. In fact, this program alone is not cheap – kids already familiar with free homework help available online or through their schools, and comfortable using the Web for research, will not get enough benefit to justify the $100 cost.

Still, there is a great deal to like here. Online Math Homework Help gives step-by-step instructions and good hints for problem-solving (but only one year of it is included); plot summaries of numerous great books, and details of their authors’ lives, make book reports easy to design and can even make them fun to write; extensive guidelines for starting essays and reports make the design-and-format drudgery easier so students can focus on creativity; foreign-language assignments are simplified by the included translation tools, verb conjugations and spell checking for French, German, Italian and Spanish; and the automatic links to more than 70,000 Encarta articles – provided in a separate window that can be minimized – make it gratifyingly easy to organize search results.

Microsoft Student 2006 has some of the feeling of a beta release, though the software itself works flawlessly. Excellent elements are mixed with less-useful ones, installation is far from quick or seamless, and this software requires a computer with plenty of spare memory and several other programs already installed. If you do have everything this student helper requires, it can be a great one-stop shop for kids seeking homework help. But if you don’t, the cost of Microsoft Student 2006 is very hard to justify.

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