The world of Bible software is very diverse and often becomes pretty confusing. There are a lot people who sooner or later are faced with the decision of what product they ought to get, and it is extremely important that they realize what the proper starting point is. Questions like “What is the best Bible software around?” are usually quite meaningless. The right questions to ask are, in my view, “What do I need this or that Bible software to do for me?”, “What are my personal or professional needs in the short and middle term?” Once those questions have been properly addressed, then it’s the time to start looking at what’s available, based on our level of expertise, area of interest and budget. And at this point is where potential buyers usually begin searching for reviews.
Reviewing Bible software is a bit like textual criticism, as much science as art. There are two many variables that invalidate it as a pure, empirical science, but on the other hand, this does not mean that there are no distinctions between good, average and poor applications. There are objective differences, and these have to be noted, but there are also some grey areas, where more subjective elements come into play.
Unfortunately, comprehensive and comparative reviews are hard to find, and even then it is sad to see that many readers don’t seem to go much further than skimming the article and focusing on the ratings given to the different products available, thus missing entire bits of important information. I’ll let you in on a little secret: the whole matter of using ratings is more of a concession to readers than a real need. It is not only subjective, but also prone to misinterpretations (just like statistics). This is so for a number of reasons:
1. Not all programs are created equal. Not all applications are intended for the same kind of user, and so their value needs to be assessed keeping in mind what the stated goal is (that is, in relative, rather than absolute terms). Now, how do you account for that? It’s a tough call. Bible Software Review does have a particular focus on the more advanced features, suitable for the academic study of the Scriptures, but not exclusively. So you may find a small freeware application that works fine and accomplishes everything it is intended to do in a brilliant way. Does that mean that because it has an overall rating of nearly 10 it is a much better program than other packages that are capable of doing some really amazing stuff and have many unique features but are only rated around 8 or 9? Not at all! Let’s compare apples to apples and leave the oranges out of the equation!
Only when a review compares the same feature in roughly similar programs can one really say that this one is better than the other one in that particular area (but see point 3 below). But for the most part, ratings are not meant to be compared.
2. Even one single program fluctuates in quality and features, depending on how it is used. Let me give you an example based on the last published review of Logos Bible Software – Scholar’s Library: Gold. I gave it a rating of 4 stars for Ease of Use. Now, let’s consider this for a moment. If we think in terms of the Homepage, and the fact that you only need to enter some Bible verses, a single word or a topic and click the Go button in order to run extremely helpful and comprehensive reports, or use the Quick Navigate box, type the text you want to look up and hit the Enter key, it’s a piece of cake! What could be easier than that? Even a completely computer-illiterate person could do it in no time. It surely deserves a 5! But then there’s the other side of the coin. If you want to build a reasonably complex graphical query or set up a syntax search you will soon find out that it is a fairly convoluted process that may dissuade many from even attempting to use those tools. Even power users will find it difficult sometimes to get the kind of results they are after. This area needs to be revisited, and in my opinion deserves a poor rating.
So how do I end up with 4 stars? I have to try to keep a balance between what is very easy to use and what is not. Since it is obvious that far more people will be using the Go button rather than some of the other advanced tools, I decided to give a more generous rating. Remember that the reviews are meant for others, not for me. I may not think that a 4 star rating is fully deserved, but it is reasonable to assume that it is a fairly accurate grade, all things considered (not only based on the examples I mention here, but on the program in its entirety).
3. Rating features depends in no small measure on the way we are “wired.” It so happens that we all have different ways of approaching a problem and finding a solution, just like programmers. When we use a program that roughly follows our mental workflow, we immediately find it great. Conversely, when we are faced with an application that does things in ways we are not accustomed to, we tend to think it has been poorly designed. The truth is that neither of these reactions is based on bias, and neither of them is true in an absolute sense. It is a result of our preunderstanding of how to carry out certain tasks and, quite frequently, of the acquired habits that, over time, have molded our way of thinking.
This third point is what has made me work with different programs since I started to use Bible software. Some programs do graphical searches, but for me the one that works best in this area is Accordance and its Construct windows. Other programs allow you to work with lists of words/hits, but when I want to do it “right,” I always end up using BibleWorks‘ Word List Manager. Many applications run all sorts of searches, but I love Logos‘ speed search and its ability to search in one language and see the results in another. And I could go on and on. It seems then that I am “wired” in such a way that I find it a lot easier to perform certain operations with one program and others with another. But I can assure you I am not an exception.
The bottom line is that there is a serious work of reviewing (click on the Review Policy tab above for more details), but one also has to account for the differences in the types of users, the task at hand, and many other factors.
This is a brief summary of the review policy followed at Bible Software Review.
Reviews always take into account the stated or perceived purpose of the program being analyzed, as well as its target users.
Overall ratings are given within that context, and only apply to the particular version that has been reviewed. Also, notice that decimals are rounded up, never down.
Ratings are always relative indicators, and should not be compared to other programs that do not belong in the same category.
Comments made in the body of the reviews, especially under the Pros and Cons headings, carry more weight than the rating itself.
By its very nature, reviews are somewhat subjective, but great care is taken so that they can be safely regarded as “informed opinions.”
When in doubt, reviews will usually give the benefit of the doubt to the product under examination, and its shortcomings will be pointed out in a constructive way, in the light of what the program is supposed to do, not what one would like it to do.
As can be seen on the screenshot that follows, there are 10 areas that are always taken into consideration.
- User Interface — How does the application look like? Does the front-end, the part that interacts directly with the user, make the most out of the potential offered by the back-end components, which are those hidden from the user? Are the menus and options readily available? Does the UI follow the standards we have come to expect from the platform it is designed for? Is there any innovation worth noting? Is it multilingual?
- Ease of Use — Is it easy to install? Is the program intuitive — i.e., does it react in a logical or predictable way to the prompts or commands it receives? Does it assume too much technical knowledge on the part of the user? Does it have a steep learning curve? Are there key features that many users would find difficult to use?
- Help & Support — How good is the documentation that comes with the program? Are there any manuals, tutorials, training seminars, forums or user groups available? Are tech support and customer service easily accessible? Do they reply promptly and in a professional manner?
- Customization — Can the program be customized according to the needs and tastes of different users? How flexible is the layout? Can the same task be done in more than one way? Are users able to generate their own content and integrate it seamlessly into the program? Can the content be highlighted, bookmarked and categorized? How well does the program interact with other applications (text processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs, and so on).
- Speed — Does it run fast on an average computer? How does it compare to other similar programs when performing the same kinds of tasks? Is speed coupled with stability in the overall performance of the application?
- Searching — How flexible and powerful are the searches that can be run? How many different kinds of searches are possible? How accurate are the results? How are those results displayed and managed?
- Features — Does it include a good number of features? In what ways do they make the user experience better and more profitable? Are there any outstanding or unique features worth noting or not found in other products? Do the features add significantly to the study of the Scriptures or should they be considered simply as eye candy or “bells and whistles”?
- Modules — Are there enough modules? How good is the content offered? What segment of users will benefit the most from it? Does it include basically, or solely, old public domain works or modern copyrighted tools? Are the different resources tightly integrated or “lumped” together?
- Original Languages — How well is the program suited for those needing to do intensive original-language work and exegesis? Does it allow users with little or virtually no knowledge of the biblical languages to get behind the English Bible text?
- Price — What is the value/money ratio like? Do you really get what you pay for? Could the same set of features and content be found at a lower cost in another product? If it’s a bit on the expensive side, is it really worth it?
The absence of one or more of these elements does not penalize the overall rating system. Each product is rated according to its own merits. Think, for example, that a Bible atlas or a vocabulary learning program will lack some or many of them, but it can nevertheless get a high overall mark.