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IBM Lotus Symphony 3 Beta

IBM Lotus Symphony 3 Beta

Available from: http://symphony.lotus.com

Minimum Requirements: Windows 2000, Linux 2.4, MacOSX 10.4, Solaris 10, 512MB RAM, Java RunTime Environment required for some features.

IBM’s free office suite is a bit of a hybrid, mixing core code from the OpenOffice.org suite with a custom UI designed by IBM. The new version, Symphony 3, currently in a stable beta, upgrades the OpenOffice bits with code from OpenOffice 3.2 and has revamped the UI. In theory, this should make it a great choice for those who want OOo's power features but fancy a more modern look and feel. Word processor, presentation and spreadsheet apps are included.
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In actual fact, Symphony takes some getting used to. Like Office 2000 to 2003 it's designed around a context-sensitive task-pane which hosts a range of expandable palettes and menus that change according to the view, object or feature currently in use. In version 3 the task pane now features tabs for further options, depending on the application. If you're using the Documents word processor, for example, you'll see Text Properties, Styles, Clip-Art and Navigator tabs. With toolbars at the top and bottom of the screen as well, there's a lot of interface to deal with, but, like the ribbon in Office 2007 and Office 2010, it's all in the spirit of making features openly available to users as and when they need them. When this works, Symphony can be very easy to use.

The biggest oddity is that Symphony houses every document – no matter what application it's created with – in just one main window, with tabs to switch between them. In a way, this makes it faster to flick from a text document to a spreadsheet, but it also makes it harder to cross-check information between two documents, or cut and paste text from one to another. We've also yet to find anyone who likes the predictive text facility in the Documents word processor. Typing is tricky enough without your word processor trying to second-guess you. Switch it off.

Luckily, there are also many pluses. The task pane makes it intuitive to apply and modify text styles in Documents or add animations or transitions in Presentation, and having a usable range of templates and clip-art so immediately available is a big help when you're trying to block out a basic document. We also like the Fill Style button, which allows you to apply a style multiple times on the same document, and the way the Spreadsheet’s Functions tab includes hints on what each formula does and the syntax required to use it. Like OOo's calc, Symphony also offers the DataPilot pivot table feature.
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Symphony will open most Office 2007 and 2010 documents, and makes a decent fist of handling even the most advanced Word docs and PowerPoint presentations, but backgrounds can go missing and animation may be ropey or non-existent. We also found that documents containing video would have it mercilessly stripped out. Interestingly, Symphony did a better job than OOo when it came to opening documents where we'd used some of Word 2010's more advanced graphics features. We’ve yet to see anything beyond the most basic Office documents import into Symphony without some issues, so don’t expect an end to compatibility headaches quite yet.

All in all, Symphony 3 makes an attractive option for users put off by the OpenOffice.org UI, but be warned that it can be a bit slow to run. This isn't a disaster on a decent spec PC, but it should discourage users of budget laptops or – perish the thought – netbooks. IBM is hoping to improve this for the full release, but for now those already comfortable with OOo might want to stick with that instead.

Verdict

A solid derivative of OpenOffice.org, Lotus Symphony 3 Beta needs to improve its speed before it's ready to take OpenOffice's crown.

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