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Review: Symphony Sings As Office Clone

Lotus Symphony acts much like Microsoft Office, which is good if you are looking for something to replace Office at a fraction of the cost (free!). There are plenty of individual "Word-killers" out there, but the Test Center tested this Office-clone to replace Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Lotus Symphony acts much like Microsoft Office, which is good if you are looking for something to replace Office at a fraction of the cost (free!). It's not so good if you are looking for something entirely different from Office, but there aren't many free suites that accomplish that yet. Plenty of individual applications out there, but most office productivity suites at the moment are, more or less, Office clones.

Symphony consists of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. Based on the Open Document Format standard, Symphony saves all documents by default to that format. It can open and edit documents created under Open Office and other applications that also follow ODF. Symphony can also open and edit all Office documents saved in the older .doc format. Documents created in Office 2007 with the newer .docx (.xlsx, and .pptx) formats can't be opened under Symphony. The Office 2007 installation here at the Test Center by default saves documents in the Office 97-2003 format (in the interest of backwards compatibility) so there were no problems editing files created in Symphony under Office 2007, or vice versa.

Symphony runs in a single window with a tabbed interface for editing documents -- regardless of whether the file in question is a word processing document, spreadsheet, or presentation. Instead of opening up three different programs to look at Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, they can all be mixed and matched in one single window. It's a nice touch, considering how ubiquitous tabs have become in Web browsers, and makes the suite much more memory efficient and simple to use.

IBM has improved the OpenOffice.org code to make Lotus Symphony more accessible to screen readers for visually disabled users. Keyboard shortcuts are also more systematic and useful under Symphony than for OpenOffice. Symphony is actually built on IBM's Eclipse software platform, so it's efficient and tightly integrated. In addition, Eclipse's plug-in architecture supports plug-ins to extend functionality, such as the Database Connection, which connects an external database to the spreadsheet document, or Exporting Presentation to Flash, which converts presentations into .swf Flash files.

IBM has a separate site for Symphony, at symphony.lotus.com, but the download occurs from the main IBM software download site. With version 1, there is no longer any need to register with an email address as there was with the beta versions, but the servers are still sluggish. The Test Center tried downloading the software several times over the course of a few days and found download times varied from 33 minutes to 2 hours for the 192 Mbyte file.

Setup is simple, for both Linux and Windows (the Mac version is currently in Alpha and will be released summer 2008). The Linux version was installed both on Fedora and Ubuntu (using sudo). Starting the installer file opened up the same graphical installer as the Windows version. The "IBM Lotus Symphony" shortcut was automatically placed in the Applications menu on the GNOME desktop.

On the Windows desktop, the installer creates a single orange icon for "IBM Lotus Symphony" on the desktop and in the Start menu. The installer itself asks if Symphony should be the default reader for ODF files. Other than this, target directory to install, and the license agreement, there are no other prompts in the installer, making it a simple and quick process.

Symphony opens, as previously mentioned, into a single window with three icons -- to create a document, spreadsheet, or presentation. An existing file can be opened from this main window. Each file is its own tab. The application opened quickly with minimum of fuss. The interface is blue-gray with intuitive menus and icons. Text Properties and other options appear within a narrow frame along the right-hand edge of the screen. The properties sidebar changes the options depending on whether the highlighted object is text, image, or other page elements. The sidebar never gets crowded, unlike the oft-maligned ribbon in Office 2007.

The suite was stable, with none of the crashes or freezes that plagued the first beta, and quick, opening without hogging up memory or CPU resources. Large and detailed PowerPoint presentations were opened in Symphony without difficulty, although the flash conversion plugin didn't work as well for complex files. Animations are not supported -- Symphony harks back to the older PowerPoint look and feel. Footnotes, endnotes and table formatting in Word files all came across perfectly. Formulas in Excel spreadsheets were not lost, but it was harder to get all the chart options. Image files could be dragged and inserted directly into open documents and presentations.

IBM has said that Symphony 2.0 will update the base code engine and also include more OpenOffice.org features, such as an equation editor, database software, and a drawing program.

Most businesses and academic institutions that have upgraded to Office 2007 seem to have set up the software to save to the older version by default, not the newer format. This isn't just backwards compatibility -- it's also smart, since if files are being shared off-site, then the files have to be accessible for those who haven't upgraded yet. Considering that, applications like Lotus Symphony seem to have no problems fitting in. User license fee costs are slashed to zero, and while the suite is not as robust or powerful as MS Office is, it has enough features to fit the needs of an average office, student, and basic users.

The Test Center found Symphony a snap to use, and switching to Symphony after years of using Microsoft Office was painless. While Open Office was a nice alternative, Symphony looks and works much more elegantly while keeping the free price tag.

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