Office suites group test review

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Now you have a third choice between expensive ‘office’ suites and cheap but under-featured ‘works’ packages. Ability Office 2000 admirably fills the gap in the market with well-featured and professional-quality programs, all for £50.

The suite comprises a word processor called Write and two other key applications unimaginatively labelled Spreadsheet and Database. Write is rather like Microsoft Word but with all the bits that you never got around to using shaved off. For everyday jobs such as correspondence and mail-merges, reports and other visually attractive business documents, it’s ideal. Our only problem is that you can’t create tables in Write except by embedding Spreadsheet ranges.

Spreadsheet is less powerful than the likes of Microsoft Excel, but you’d have to be building pretty complex mathematical systems to spot the difference. For the rest of us, it provides more than you need for financial accounting, what-if scenarios and the like. Named ranges can be inserted into Write documents and updated dynamically. Ability Database is likewise deceptively powerful. It’s a relational database for a start, and you can create VBScript macros and even edit SQL commands within the program.

Also included are two graphics packages, Draw and Photopaint. The former is a pretty basic vector drawing utility, but Photopaint is much more welcome. In fact, it’s a full multi-layered bitmap editing application with tools reminiscent of Paint Shop Pro and even more gradient colour options than Adobe Photoshop.

Best of all, this latest version of Ability Office lets you import and export straight to Microsoft Office 2000 document formats. All that’s missing is a presentation graphics package, aside from the other limitation that Ability Office’s Internet-related features are limited to a ‘send to Exchange’ command. But even so, we love the suite for being so seriously Microsoft Office-like for the kind of money you’d fork out for shareware.Fighting head-to-head with Microsoft in the premium price office suite arena, as it has done for some time, Corel’s latest suite makes it clear where its priorities lie pretty much from the start. Screaming ‘Microsoft compatible’ in many quarters, there’s a clear, obvious and correct priority on its part to make the transition from the market-dominant office suite as straightforward as possible. A pity it has to do that, as Corel’s suite has regularly been walking away with greater critical acclaim over the years, and rightly so.

The constituent parts here are WordPerfect X3 (the latest version of the word processor with a very long pedigree), Quattro Pro X3 (spreadsheet), Presentations X3 (er, presentations) and WordPerfect Mail. No database or graphics program here. Incidentally, the X3 is meant to denote that this is version 13 of this particular office suite, but without offending those of a superstitious nature.

Starting with WordPerfect then; it’s a tremendous word processor and has been for a long time. Its does have a problem, but that’s not unique; it does so much so well, yet most people will barely get anywhere near exploring its gamut of features. One major addition is the ability to not only export PDFs (as all the applications here can do), but also the option to edit them.

It handles imports and exports from rival applications with ease, and for those who yearn for the simplicity of yesteryear you can run the application in WordPerfect 5.1 mode, blue screen and all. Other modes available are WordPerfect mode, Office mode and WordPerfect legal mode, and while choosing between them doesn’t affect the functionality of the program, it does affect the presentation, letting you settle with something you’re happier with.

Quattro Pro works on similar principles. There aren’t too many new features (after all, software such as this seems to evolve less and less with each new generation), but there is an exhaustive effort to be compatible with everything else. So here we have Quattro Pro mode, Excel mode and Lotus 1-2-3 mode.

The compatibility we found less effective here than in WordPerfect, particularly when importing macro-driven Excel spreadsheets (something OpenOffice Calc made a slightly better fist of, albeit taking a lot longer to get anywhere). On the other hand, the on-screen help was surprisingly useful and far less patronising than the infamous Office Assistant. The PDF option was a major boon here, too.

Both Presentations and Mail are excellent applications, for the detail rather than headline, sweeping features. They’re setting a standard for the upcoming new version of Microsoft’s own suite, and it’ll be interesting to see how they measure up.

Aside from some fiddly moments with the PDF editing features, the main problem with have with Corel WordPerfect Suite X3 is, ultimately, its price. While cheaper than Microsoft Office, the likes of OpenOffice and its commercial cousin, StarOffice, are driving down the perceived value of an office suite, and Corel eventually is going to have to react to that. For while this suite is really, honestly, superb, it does still cost in excess of £200, and that’s not going to appeal to the cost-conscious audience we discussed earlier.Here we have two office suites that are very strong, but for slightly different reasons.

Certainly the best here is Corel WordPerfect Office X3, even in the Standard guise we’ve looked at in this face-off. It’s packed with interesting options, with small areas that have been infested with so much attention that you’re hard pushed to think of what more they could do. Granted, the PDF options need some tuning, but with probably the finest word processor on the market at the heart of the suite, Corel has turned in some excellent work here. 2 is, truthfully, some distance behind it. But that’s not the point. Because for all its spit and polish, WordPerfect Office X3 doesn’t offer much in the way of compelling extra features over its open source rival. True, Corel has implemented its ideas with more focus and to better effect, and undeniably if price is no object then the Corel suite walks away with the prize here.

But price is an object, and if our money were on the line we’d take 2, warts and all. Because if you accept that there are warts, and there are elements where you’ll not have the usual support safety net, then it’s the bargain of the year.The office suite market is still, after all this time, owned by Microsoft. In spite of rivals that are generally accepted as being better and cheaper than Microsoft Office, the stranglehold that Gates’ software giant has held over this sector of the market still endures.

But is it weakening? With increasingly cost-conscious users on the lookout for a bargain, and people’s eyes being opened to alternatives by the continuing success of open source software such as Firefox and Linux, we investigate two suites looking to eat away at the market share of Microsoft. Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.Once you’ve downloaded all 65MB of it from the Sun Web site, StarOffice is free of charge. Sun’s plan is to encourage companies to standardise on the suite and charge only for technical support and customisation services, all in the hope of selling them up to a Web-based upgrade called StarPortal in the future.

The big surprise is that StarOffice simply doesn’t feel like free software: it’s as powerful as any commercial suite costing hundreds of pounds. It’s a bit different in the way it runs too, as the suite launches inside its own unique desktop, either in a window or in full-screen mode. You can still access your local and network data in this new desktop, just as you might in Explorer, but it allows enhanced integration with the StarOffice modules.

The core set of applications includes word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation program, all of which are Microsoft Office 97 file-compatible. We were most impressed by the seamless HTML import and export between the word processor and integrated Web browser, which was so clean as to be imperceptible. The Web browser is much faster and seemingly more reliable than Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, although you can use any browser you like. On the other hand, StarOffice’s e-mail utility is rather ordinary.

The spreadsheet and database interfaces feature drag-and-drop as in Microsoft Office, plus unique functions such as the rotating text within cells. A nice touch is the little charting program which runs independently from the main spreadsheet, and there’s a stunning drawing module which works with precision vector graphics and OpenGL-accelerated 3D primitives – if you know what we mean… The presentation package is powerful yet easy to use, with 50 transition effects and full multimedia support. It can also be used for creating business graphics such as org charts.

To summarise, StarOffice is fast and highly integrated – more so than any other suite on test.This market-leading office suite can be purchased as a variety of software combinations. The Standard edition reviewed here comprises the latest versions of Word (word processor), Excel (spreadsheet), PowerPoint (presentation graphics) and Outlook (e-mail, contact manager and scheduler). There is no full database program in this edition.

Microsoft Office programs are not terribly speedy, but this could be down to the overstuffed – if wonderfully customisable – interface. Most annoying is the animated Office Assistant character who pops up everywhere to offer suggestions on tasks you’re not remotely interested in, but at least you can switch it off. Word itself is a powerful, and surprisingly accessible, graphically rich word processor. It includes loads of excellent little features, such as being able to right-click on any word for a pop-up list of synonyms, not to mention HTML import and export.

Excel is a clean, multi-layered spreadsheet program with a vast formula and macro capability. Features like auto-complete and drag-and-drop moving of cell contents make editing easy, and you get an extensive range of charting and reporting options. PowerPoint is a good presentation package, but for graphics work there’s a Draw utility built into all Microsoft Office programs for adding clip art, drawing simple vector artwork and even working with photo images in a basic way. The nice thing is you never have to leave your current document to use the Draw features, no matter which Office program you’re running.

The core program around which Office 2000 revolves, though, is Outlook 2000. It’s a combination e-mailer, contact manager and scheduler that can also be used for managing all your Office documents, Web favourites and so on centrally. Office 2000 also supports a feature called Web Folders which makes document sharing across a TCP/IP network a real snap, and you can e-mail directly from within any Office package. Microsoft Office is without doubt one of the most Internet-enabled suites around.Forget any preconceptions you might have about WordPerfect, once the king of word processors in the days of DOS. Today’s WordPerfect Office 2000 is a fresh, fast and very well-featured suite of applications and utilities. And as we’ve come to expect from Corel, you certainly get a heck of lot of software for your money.

The WordPerfect 9 word processor is clean but powerful, is much more usable than Microsoft Word for certain functions (such as toggling grammar-checking functions on and off) and you can spellcheck in up to 30 languages. It’s also the most graphical word processor on test here, and its dedicated HTML layout, import, export and publishing features are quite excellent. You can even publish to Acrobat PDF format, which will save some users a considerable bundle of cash.

For spreadsheeting, Quattro Pro 9 is shockingly under-rated. It’s an easy match for all the big-name spreadsheets, but looks prettier and produces some fabulous reports. Quattro Pro supports Cross Tabs Reports (the equivalent of Excel’s PivotTable) and the potential depth of the program is positively vast. At the same time, we found it all quite easy to get started with.

Business graphics is handled by Presentations 9, working equally well as a design package and slide presentation creator. On this note, you can insert and edit a wide variety of graphic media directly on the page in all the WordPerfect Office applications, including bitmap photo images as well as the customary vector drawings.

Unfortunately there’s no proper database in the Standard Edition of the suite, but you do get a clutch of handy database utilities, from a Microsoft Outlook-compatible address book to a customisable cardfile program. You also get a nice dockable diary and to-do list, a pop-up calendar and simple alarm and memo utilities, not to mention Visual Basic tools, an XML Project Designer and a heap of free Corel clip art, photos, textures and fonts. It all amounts to good software at cracking good value.Let’s make it clear: SmartSuite does pretty much everything that Microsoft Office 2000 can plus a whole lot more, but costs just the same. The suite includes four business essentials: word processor (Word Pro), spreadsheet (1-2-3), database (Approach) and presentation (Freelance Graphics).

It’s good to see a full database package in there, especially since other office suite publishers tend to omit them from their Standard editions. Also thrown in is the desirable Lotus Organizer for managing contacts and appointments even across networks and the Internet, and which also happens to import data from Outlook, ACT and Sidekick.

SmartSuite optionally installs an interface enhancement called SmartCenter which puts a row of expandable ‘drawers’ across the top of your screen. These can hold application shortcuts and Explorer lists, dictionaries and thesauri, appointment calendars and program help. It’s just a shame that SmartCenter’s calendar doesn’t integrate in any way whatsoever with Organizer.

Word Pro and 1-2-3 are superb business programs for the power user, yet neither are mere copies of Microsoft Word and Excel, while Approach on the other hand does feel similar to Microsoft Access in many respects. Freelance Graphics is much more than a presentation package, also letting you publish to multi-page Web sites and handle in-page editing of vector art and colour correction of photo images. You also get a dedicated Web publishing tool called FastSite which could be very handy for updating online documents regularly.

SmartSuite incorporates IBM’s ViaVoice speech recognition technology and headset as standard, not as an extra-cost item. Also thrown in the box is a full version of ScreenCam for recording real-time on-screen actions and overlaid audio as special movies for playback, which is extremely useful for IT training. Another look in the box reveals a free copy of Notes 5, Lotus’ groupware client, into which SmartSuite can integrate directly. This is certainly not an office suite which leaves you wanting.With a licence agreement of barely 100 words and a price tag of absolutely zero, it’s surprising that OpenOffice hasn’t enjoyed more success. Actually, scratch that; as good as the previous version was, there were unhelpful compatibility issues with the market-dominant Microsoft Office that have slowed its growth.

However, with the removal of a good deal of those obstacles in this fresh, full version 2.0 release, there must be some suits at Microsoft’s headquarters that are getting suitably hot under the collar.

There’s no pretence to what OpenOffice tries to do, but it does it well. The suite’s featured components are a word processor (Writer), a database (Base), a spreadsheet (Calc), a vector drawing tool (Draw) and a mathematical function creator (Math).

For those who’ve never used OpenOffice before, it’s fair to say you’re in for a shock. It’s an astonishingly well-featured office suite, and while it doesn’t match the Microsoft equivalents right down the line, there’s ample here to satiate 95 percent of office suite users.

You simply have no right to expect so much, done so well, for free. The reason you get what you do is that this is that this represents the open source software movement at its finest, although its focus is inevitably more on recreating what Microsoft offers than the suite having a full identity of its own.

It deals with Microsoft proprietary files quite well, and while we experienced problems bringing in macro-laden files from Excel, and table-infested documents from Word, on the whole it talks to Microsoft Office – and several other suites – with real ease. XML support is integrated too, and OpenOffice comes with a few of its own proprietary file formats. PDF output is also supported and very welcome indeed.

Right across the board the tools here are impressive. Both Writer and Calc are very easy to use and have enough depth and power to suit all but the most intensive user. Even Base is a lot easier than it was in its earlier incarnation, and the suite as a whole benefits as a result. What’s more, given the dedication of the contributors to the OpenOffice project, this is one office suite that’s developing, improving and evolving all the time.

There are problems and omissions, however. If you do happen to get stuck, as with most open source projects you’re faced with a minefield of documentation rather than quick answers. Likewise, there’s no instant help at the end of a phone line, and nothing other than the admittedly generous goodwill of the user community to get you out of a pickle.

But make no mistake, 2 is ample proof that sometimes it is possible to get something very good for no charge at all. It may not be the equal of Microsoft Office, and it may lack the gamut of features that Corel’s latest WordPerfect suite offers, but this is still a major league bargain.There are certain programs that all business users should have installed on their PCs; a word processor, a spreadsheet package and some form of business graphics utility. You may also want a powerful database program, or maybe nothing more complex than an address book. For budget reasons, it makes sense to buy the lot as a pre-packaged set or ‘suite’. Home and hobby users are well-served by so-called ‘works’ suites, but the serious business user should be looking at the ‘office’ collections.

The undoubted market leader in office suites is, of course, Microsoft. In fact, so many new PCs these days come supplied with Microsoft Office already installed (whether you want it or not) that you might wonder why anyone else bothers competing. We refer you to the US Department of Justice for their opinion on this issue, but in the meantime note that Microsoft Office does face direct competition from several other office suite developers. These companies can make a lot of money from regular upgrade fees once you’re locked in to their suite, so the potential pickings can be rich.

To make their offerings more attractive, office suite developers bundle extra software such as personal organisers and photo editors, and promise more Internet-related features beyond the usual Help menu link to the company’s Web site. You can often even choose between ‘standard’ and ‘professional’ editions, allowing you to get exactly the package you need. Here we take a closer look at the five top contenders for standard edition office suites from Ability, Corel, Lotus, Microsoft and Sun. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.Two obstacles hold people back from dropping the office suite they were given (usually Microsoft Office) in favour of one of the alternatives. The first is money: why change suite if it’s cheaper to upgrade what you already have? The second issue is compatibility: Microsoft Office file formats have become a business standard.

The first issue is a red herring, since in business you should be using the best software for the job, not the one that came free for some reason. If another suite is faster, better featured, less demanding on memory and hard disk space, and so on, these are good reasons to throw your existing one away. We can also kill off the second issue altogether, as all the office suites on test can open and save back to Microsoft Office file formats as standard.

So in our view, Microsoft Office 2000 is not as essential as people tend to make out. The programs are slow and the interfaces are top-heavy despite the thousands of features they promise – most of which you will never use. For the undemanding standalone user on a very small budget, Ability Office 2000 would be a far better choice. Even in a networked environment, you should find that Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5 and Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 offer a better deal for your money than Microsoft Office 2000.

Our favourite, though, is StarOffice 5.1. No other office suite can offer the same level of integrated and Internet-aware features in such a high-performance and thoroughly professional set of business applications. We warn you that the desktop interface might not appeal, but if all your work centres around an office software suite, StarOffice will make life a good deal easier.

Company: Ability

Contact: 020 7231 1004