A first look at IBM's Symphony office suite

IBM's downloadable suite off productivity apps does much of what Microsoft Office can do and costs nothing

IBM is challenging Microsoft with a game of "anything you can do I can do." Its new Lotus Symphony office suite -- now available as a public beta -- does much of what the $400 Standard edition of Microsoft Office does, only at a much better price: It's free.

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Comprising three applications -- a word processor (Lotus Symphony Documents), a spreadsheet (Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets), and a presentation creator (Lotus Symphony Presentations) -- Symphony supports both Windows (XP, Vista, 2000) and Linux operating systems. (IBM says a version for the Mac OS is coming, but it hasn't said when.) Each app can open and save in a variety of file formats, including Office (2003/XP/97; not 2007) and ODF (Open Document Format), as well as save files as PDFs.

The suite is available as a free download. It requires a minimum of 540MB of hard disk space on Windows (750MB on Linux) and 512MB of RAM. In my initial tests, I found that Symphony launched slowly and had noticeable lags with some tasks when operating on a PC with 512MB of RAM, but it ran at a clip on a 1GB system.

IBM doesn't offer direct tech support; instead, it has set up an online user support community to which an IBM support team contributes.

Documents not quite ready to rival Word
Unlike Microsoft Office, which makes you launch its applications separately, the entire Symphony suite opens in a single window with a tabbed interface that integrates all three applications. The feature set and cosmetics of the three applications mirrors Lotus' Symphony office suite from the 1990s, and the look and feel will be familiar to any Office user. Still, there are enough differences between Microsoft's suite and this one to give newcomers pause as they attempt to locate functions. But the learning curve for any user should be short as Symphony's menus and toolbars are intuitive.

Symphony Documents opened my existing Microsoft Word files with no problem. After editing the documents, I was able to save in Word's .doc format or in Symphony's native OpenDocument (.odt) format. One nice touch: I saved a document with 1000 characters in both formats and found that the .odt version had a 66 percent smaller file size (7KB vs. Word's 21KB).

Another nice feature is called Text Boundaries, which places a thin line around the perimeter of the printable part of the document so that you can actually see how the borders and margins are set up. The default page view also has a Text Properties sidebar that offers a convenient way to preview the fonts, font sizes, and special style options (such as shadow or engraved) used in the document. Unfortunately, this view wastes valuable screen real estate, and the only other viewing option is an online view that hides page breaks.

Alas, the special effects you can render in Symphony Documents are lost when the file is saved as a Word doc. And while most elements of a Word doc are transferable to Symphony, some -- such as macros, tracking changes, and special format styles like drop caps and shading -- are incompatible. When I opened in Symphony a Word doc that had tracking marks, the marks were intact, but I could not accept or reject them; I was also unable to hide or delete them from the page. Similarly, when I created a file in Symphony and formatted text as a drop cap, then saved the file as a .doc and opened it in Microsoft Word, the formatting was lost.

While Symphony Documents has fewer features than Word, it is still a very useful word processor that comes with enough power for most everyday needs.

Basic spreadsheets and presentations
Lotus 1-2-3 was the dominant spreadsheet program in the 1980s; with that legacy, you'd think Symphony Spreadsheets would be a strong application. That's only partly true. Using Spreadsheets is like moving back to 1-2-3: The basic functionally is there with only a few extra bells and whistles.

Excel worksheets lose some of their formatting and advanced features when opened in Symphony Spreadsheets. On the plus side, Spreadsheets includes a Data Pilot feature that's similar to Excel's Pivot Tables. Both Data Pilot and Pivot Tables allow you to combine, compare, and analyze data, interactively rearranging and summarizing all or part, according to different points of view. It allows basic chart creation, also, but the operative word here is "basic" with only a fraction of the chops offered by Excel. Then again, that the free Symphony has any charting capabilities makes it a deal. Spreadsheets also includes a convenient Cell and Text Properties sidebar and a Create menu for instantly launching a new worksheet, chart, or graph.

Context-sensitive right-click menus are helpful, as are hovering tooltips with cell formula hints. And the Text and Cell Properties sidebar is a handy aid, though it also takes up a lot of screen space. But you can close this sidebar or choose to have it "float" on the screen, so it won't hog one side of the display.

Creating presentations is Symphony is easy, much as it is in PowerPoint. But the end results are prosaic, because you can't insert video or music, and its templates can't match the more eye-catching layouts possible with PowerPoint. Symphony allows you to add basic transitions, but, overall, the presentations created with the app simply lack sizzle.

IBM says that version 1.0 of Symphony will be available in the first quarter of 2008, and it will still be free of charge. That's a good thing, as the zero price point is Lotus Symphony's best calling card. It's an efficient program with a handsome interface but with feature enhancements still to be made. While powerful, it certainly does not rival Office's robust capabilities -- yet.

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This story, "A first look at IBM's Symphony office suite" was originally published by PCWorld.

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