It used to be that our main sources of information were hefty volumes of printed materials stacked in our schools or home libraries. Now these books can be reduced to bytes and you can carry them around in a palm reader or slip the CD or DVD into your laptop's optical drive. Despite the innovation behind it, reference software just like books needs to be judged for its quality, accuracy and usefulness.
1. Consider the source.
Just as you would judge a set of encyclopedias, a dictionary or a textbook by its author, editor or publisher, a reference software's credibility also rests on its source. University presses and other educational or research institutions are producing software or CD/DVD versions of their reference materials. Large software development companies also come up with reference and tutorial programs to help consumers master their applications. You should first check out these sources before trying to hunt down some secondary or obscure reference software.
2. Evaluate the content.
Some publishers of reference software try to push their products by boasting the volume of information they present. But more important than the number of entries is the depth of knowledge. Quick-reference types have their uses but they might not be enough to get you through your periodical exams. If a certain reference software offers evaluation or demo copies for free, take advantage of this so you can judge the quality of its content. How much of a certain topic does it tackle? Is the reference for basic or advanced level students? Does it have multimedia presentations? Are there interactive sections? You would normally browse through a book before you buy it.
3. Check for ease-of-use.
Besides having visual and audio data presented alongside text, reference software should have indexed links and bookmarks. This makes for easier navigation through pages and pages of information. Reference software should be designed to be easily accessible and navigable, much like the Help files that come with most software applications. Look for search functions and a clickable Table of Contents. You should also see if the software will work your current system. Do you need to install a separate program? Will it run on its own on the CD/DVD drive? A reference software may have quality content, but if it makes it hard for the user to get to that content then its usability is lessened.
4. Look for update functions.
In some fields where a lot of research is being done, content in their associated reference software can quickly expire and become obsolete. You might want to check if the reference software has a way of updating its content by linking to an online resource, or at very least has an updated online version. It can be tedious if you're going to have to purchase an updated version every few months or so just to make sure your reference software is still accurate.
Having assessed the features of the reference software, you can now compare that against the price. Some reference software can actually be downloaded for free. But just because it didn't cost any money, you could still waste your time reading something that isn't useful.