When you’re permanently connected to the internet via one device or another, then checking something on Wikipeda is very easy: just browse to the site, enter the topic and you’ll be reading more within seconds.
Life isn’t so simple for everybody, though. If you don’t have a smartphone, perhaps can’t get a signal, or are in an area with unreliable broadband (or maybe none at all) then accessing the site will be much more of a challenge. Fortunately there are other options, and although it’s still only an alpha build, XOWA is already one of the best.
The Java-based program takes a little time to set up. After unzipping the download, it must download Simple Wikipedia (a subset of the full site, though with more than 90,000 pages), as well as ImageMagick and Inkscape if you want to display images. This could obviously be a problem if your internet access is slow, but XOWA does at least make the process simple: click a couple of links and the appropriate files are automatically downloaded and installed for you.
There was one small glitch here, as after installing the graphics components we just got an error message when trying to view any page. This wasn’t anything major, though, and after restarting XOWA worked just fine.
The core interface looks and feels just like the normal website. There’s the search page top right, the usual tabs, and simple navigation tools (bookmarks, your browsing history). Every page is rendered very accurately (you’ll forget you’re not in a browser), and you can even edit your local copy of the current page.
What’s more, if you really need more offline resources, then the program can link those in, too. So while editing a page in your offline Wikipedia, for instance, you could in theory look up the spelling of a word in your offline Wiktionary.
Of course none of this will help very much if you regularly use Wikipedia to provide more information on current events. The web version can be updated with the latest developments on some topic within minutes, but this offline subset will be out of date before you even download it. And so you have to think of XOWA as more like a print encyclopaedia; it’s not going to cover what happened yesterday, but is still just fine for general reference purposes.
And of course there are a few issues. As you’re not working in a browser, for instance, XOWA provides a “forward” and “back” button of its own. But these are so small that it took us a while to even notice them. Hopefully clearer navigation is on the list of “things to do”.
Problems like this are to be expected for an alpha build, though, and elsewhere XOWA performs very well. If you need a portable and cross-platform mini-Wikipedia which you can use anywhere, then go grab a copy right away.