Ability Plus Software – Ability Office review

low-cost, capable office software package
Photo of Ability Plus Software – Ability Office
£49.95

It’s hard to justify the installation of hundreds of megabytes of office software when all you really want to do is run off a few letters, keep track of the accounts with a spreadsheet and maybe manipulate an image or two. It’s even harder for small businesses and home users to justify the price tag associated with some of the major office suite packages, and the associated hardware required to run them.

So it’s good to know that there are alternatives around. Some, such as Sun’s Star Office are free to use in some cases, but can differ considerably from the type of interface with which inexperienced PC users are familiar. What many people would like is a simplified, cut-down version of Microsoft’s Office suite which can share files with all the popular business applications. That description pretty much sums up Ability Office.

We reviewed an earlier version of this software here, commenting on how similar it was in look and feel to the dominant office suite. That’s still relevant now, but what’s particularly nice is that you don’t need the latest, fastest machine running Windows XP in order to use Ability Office (although this latest version does work on XP). We tested it on an old Pentium machine running Windows 95, with no problems. You will need 50-60MB of hard drive space free, but that’s the only major requirement.

Once installed, you have access to four main applications plus a couple of add-ons. The word-processor is called Write and can do just about everything you’d want, from simple text formatting and justification to tables, columns, frames, mail merges, spell-checking, thesaurus functions and so on. Microsoft Word files can be imported and exported, as can Corel WordPerfect files, HTML pages and numerous other document formats. All the buttons and menus are where you’d expect them to be and there are some interesting extras, such as the ability to create PDF (Adobe’s Portable Document Format) files that can be viewed by anyone with the Acrobat reader installed on their PC.

This PDF export function is built into the other main parts of the suite, too, including the Spreadsheet program. Again, this is read and write compatible with the most popular spreadsheet document formats and has all the important features, including a selection of 200 built-in functions that can quickly be applied to your financial or other numerical data. Let your mind wander for a moment and you’ll forget that you’re not using Excel.

Unusually for a small office suite, there’s a full-featured Database program that is compatible with Microsoft Access. It can handle SQL querying (and there’s a useful section of the documentation giving some examples) and can be used as a flat-file phone book or as a more detailed relational database manager. Of more interest to home users, Ability Office includes a decent photo editor, called Photopaint. Although compared in the back-of-box blurb with Photoshop, it’s geared more towards the amateur digital photographer, with a range of effects and filters that can be quickly applied to images. All the major image formats are supported. For business graphics, logos and other, simpler designs, there’s also a Draw package for creating vector-based graphics (i.e. lines, boxes, etc.).

Giving fast access to all these applications is a small, configurable Launcher bar. Running several Ability Office applications at once isn’t a problem as long as you have enough RAM (32MB minimum, 64MB for preference) and the main apps will share data with each other, so you can embed Spreadsheet images in a Write document, for example. It all feels well put-together, which it should, since Ability Office has been around since the eighties, originally for DOS.

Company: Ability Plus Software

Contact: 020 7231 1000


Verdict
Ability Office feels like an older version of Microsoft Office - perhaps Office 95 - brought up to date with practical improvements, good file import/export features, PDF export and the addition of a decent database program and image editor. The lack of a presentation tool might be a problem for some businesses, but really Ability Office is aimed more at home users who want a compact but capable suite of tools that lets them share documents with their friends and colleagues. It includes the features most users are likely to need, leaving out the bulky, obscure ones that very few people want. The unlimited free e-mail support is a nice (and increasingly rare) touch, too.