I'm a lexicographer (working on bilingual dictionaries) and English is not my mother tongue. I got the Encarta World English Dictionary (Bloomsbury edition) from Amazon immediately after I got back from my summer holiday. In size and layout it resembles last year's New Oxford Dictionary of English; moreover, both claim they were written from scratch, so to speak, applying the latest lexicographical principles and ensuring coverage of world English, which the Encarta dictionary considers enough of a selling point to put in its title.
I am very much in favour of dictionaries with illustrations, tables, diagrams, and notes in little frames. The NODE has the little frames but is not illustrated; Encarta is, like the American Heritage Dictionary (sorry, but there'll be some name-dropping in this review), though I find the latter's illustrations often more relevant. I believe an illustrated dictionary should illustrate as many as possible of those entries whose definitions can be enhanced by a picture. On the other hand, Encarta includes structural diagrams of chemical compounds, which would look nice and appropriate in Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary (though you wouldn't find them there). And somehow, I don't like captions which do not make clear which sense of a word they refer to, but then I don't think any other dictionary indulges my whim, either.
The Encarta dictionary also differs from the NODE in that it uses quick definitions in bold capitals to guide through longer entries to the appropriate sense: these, where they are not useful as alternative definitions, tend to be slightly shortened versions of the definition that follows, which seems like a waste of space. In this respect, I prefer the definition labels (called signposts) introduced by Longman in their Dictionary of Contemporary English. The definitions themselves in Encarta are meaty without being convoluted, and the examples short and to the point.
Encarta uses a home-grown pronunciation system, which is quite intuitive (at least to native speakers if not to learners of English), and there's a pronunciation key at the bottom of every page.
I liked the encyclopedic content, though I would have welcomed more 'cultural' entries. In this respect, the Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture is my model. For example, of the many cultural entries under 'little' that you can find in the Longman Dictionary, here are those I would have liked included in Encarta: Little Bighorn, Little League, Little Orphan Annie, Little Red Book, Little Red Riding Hood, Littlewoods.
I found the Cultural Notes of great interest, especially as whimsical digressions of a decidedly American flavour. So we get 11 lines on Dirty Harry after 'dirty' and 9 lines on The Naked and the Dead after 'naked'; even, admittedly, 7 lines on Munch's The Scream (what a pity they missed the picture), but where's Rodin's The Thinker? Oops, I'm afraid they dropped 'thinker' as an entry altogether.
A spot check of Encarta's range of vocabulary brought up a few glaring omissions: convenience store; grind to a halt; the jury is out; narrow money; pain barrier; punch the air; sanitary protection; get the show on the road (I was able to find most of these in the NODE). For a dictionary so closely affiliated to Microsoft, I thought that the omission of 'arcade game' was inappropriate (it's not in the NODE either; look it up in Collins Cobuild, or try one of the more than 30,000 occurrences on the Web). And for a dictionary that "has made maximum use of the Internet," a strange (but probably not inexplicable) omission is Linux. So how should the 'i' in it be pronounced, as in 'Linus' or as in 'lint'? But for that you should consult Internet.com's Webopedia. Oh well - there are still 2,172 pages of rich and up-to-date material, but I'm looking forward to buying the electronic edition and using its extended facilities.
To sum up, Encarta World English Dictionary has quite a fresh look but does not break any new ground. Like every standard monolingual dictionary, it defines a simple word like 'cat' using at least half a dozen harder words. It thus wastes a lot of space defining words which no user at this level will ever need to look up, and has no room for much of the more colourful language. It illustrates 'sheep' and 'pyramid' but not 'compass' or 'kite', let alone many other words that are harder to visualize. It lists Adam Smith, Keynes and Hayek but not Ricardo, Schumpeter or Galbraith. It includes a cultural note on 'Home Alone' but gives no help with how either cricket or baseball is played.
One, however, hopes that with the backing of Microsoft and expected high sales, this will be a dictionary that will be regularly updated and not go the way of Cinemania. Thus, its future editions, especially the electronic edition in combination with Encarta Encyclopedia, could eventually become a formidable source of knowledge.