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Product Reviews – Office software
IBM Lotus Symphony Beta [PC Pro]
ISSUE: 0 DATE: Oct 07
Confusing menus, poor feedback and a lack of innovative features leave Symphony looking flat.
Yet another entrant into world of free office suites, the only element of this new offering to bear similarity to the old Lotus Symphony for DOS is its name.
The user interface is completely new, built with the Eclipse development environment, but the meat of the code behind the scenes is a cut down version of OpenOffice.
The main user interface presents all your open documents (whether word processing, presentations or spreadsheets) as tabs within the same main window. Above the document tabs are menus which change according to which type of document has focus. Below the tabs is a row of small toolbars which again change according to the document type. The document you’re working on takes up the majority of the window with a side bar to the right to set properties for the current object.
The side bar can be a bit limited at times. In word processing it lets you deal with the text and paragraph properties but insert an image and the side bar goes blank forcing you to use a modal dialog box to set things like cropping, wrapping etc. You can float the side bar off the edge of the window or hide it if you don’t want to see it.
The major ideas in the UI are good but the implementation is patchy. There’s a list of styles to use in the word processor but it won’t dock in the side bar, only float. There’s a button next to the tabs to show thumbnails of all the documents you have open but it doesn’t keep up with changes to your documents so the thumbnails may not match reality. And confusingly, a big friendly button labelled "Open" actually creates new documents rather than opening existing ones.
Some of the more traditional elements are even more confusing. The File > Open menu, for example, has another level of menu containing the single item "File…". And why do you have to "Create | Graphic from File…" when you simply want to insert an image into your document?
We’re also bemused by an ‘Auto Recogniser’. It appears on the Tools menu and is mentioned in the help text – but that tells you how to turn it on or off and change the colour or style of its line – not what it actually does. Then there’s "Create | Drawing Object…" which doesn’t as the ellipsis character implies, open another dialog to gather more information but shows or hides a toolbar and, if your window is narrow and the toolbars are all on one row (the default), you’ll actually only see one button of this toolbar.
It gets worse: when typing text, Symphony’s word processor is extremely annoying. It constantly suggests the word you might be trying to type, expecting you to press Enter to accept the suggestion. It also checks your spelling very aggressively, underlining words with red squiggles before you have finished typing them. This constant squiggle and suggestion is very wearing.
Yet another problem is that characters typed sometimes appear bold when they aren’t or appear malformed with half characters showing alongside the real ones – possibly beta bugs, but rather major ones, even at this stage of the game. Symphony is supposedly the same code as used in Lotus Notes 8, released in August 2007 – and that certainly has its own display glitches.
Out of the box, Symphony uses Times New Roman for body text and Arial for headings which nowadays look old fashioned. The presentations module includes 19 different templates of backgrounds and layouts but they all look hopelessly tired.
Creating a new page in the presentation involves going through another dialog to name the page and choose the layout. The dialog presents a thumbnail but that only shows one possible layout, not changing whether you choose "Title, Chart, Text" or "Title, Table". With separate dialogs to set transitions and animations it can be quite difficult to make professional looking presentations.
The spreadsheets component is reasonably competent as far as it goes but also has inconsistencies. You can set the shadow on a cell from the side bar but not the border. To do that you need to use a modal dialog. There are useful functions such as VLOOKUP to get values from a table but no way to validate that input conforms to one of the values in a list. Charting is slow and clunky on all but the simplest examples.
Symphony’s default file formats are ODF (Open Document Format) as used in OpenOffice, StarOffice. It will open and save Microsoft Office files from Office 97-2002 (XP). But it doesn’t support the Office 2003 or new Office2007 file formats (OOXML). When you open a Microsoft Office file you’re presented with a generic message which says "this document contains features and formatting that may not save correctly when opened". It doesn’t specify which will be lost or mangled.
Confusing menus and toolbars and a preponderance of separate and modal dialogs makes IBM Lotus Symphony more difficult to use than it should be. While we welcome another competitor to the market, Symphony in its current form is mightily out-gunned by Openoffice 2.0, also free, which has all the same features, plus plenty more. We’ll keep monitoring this upstart’s progress though, and bring you a full review of the suite on http://www.pcpro.co.uk once it makes release.
By Simon Jones