By Jay Garmon
IBM Lotus Symphony is Big Blue's free alternative to MS Office. Can Symphony win a battle of the bands with Microsoft's productivity heavyweight, or does it ring hollow? We sound it out in this review.
Symphony is a forward-thinking and relatively full-featured productivity suite, but it lacks polish in some key areas. It's solid, but I wouldn't pay for it; luckily, it's free. This clunkiness starts with the download process, which involves over a half-dozen screens, requires the creation of an IBM ID, tries to opt you into affiliate e-mail newsletters, and insists the user actively decide between using IBM's Java-based downloader or a regular browser HTTP download. It's that needless lack of user-friendliness that mars an otherwise great app suite.
IBM Lotus Symphony gets high marks for supporting multiple operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS X, and multiple flavors of Linux. It loses marks for its format support, in that it can open multiple file types but can really only save to to handful - notably excluding MS Office 2007 file save options.
Interface and Usability
Symphony shares some ancestry with OpenOffice -- it's based on OpenOffice 1.1.4 source code -- but the two products diverged several iterations ago. Like most office suites, Symphony includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program, but it integrates them in a somewhat unusual fashion. Lotus Symphony 1.3 looks and feels like a recent generation Web browser - in fact, it has a somewhat feature-crippled Web browser built in - in that it employs a tabbed interface for its applications.
Essentially, Symphony lets you open a new spreadsheet, presentation, or document just like you'd open a new tab in Google Chrome or Firefox. Each of these tabs shares a standard menu layout, which means commands don't move around like they do in the current MS Office ribbon interface. When you open a specific tool set, it often generates a sidebar or menu-bar that stays onscreen until you close it. This is handy, but opening too many sidebars can crowd out the actual document.
The tab system also has the advantage of letting you toggle between multiple docs and sheets easily, though I recommend not doing the same with the extremely poor built-in browser. Web connectivity is nonetheless quite essential to Symphony, even though it's conventional software and not a Web app. An online user wiki is your best source of help information, and you can link directly to document templates, plug-ins and widgets from the Symphony Web site.
Widgets are somewhat like Google Gadgets crossed with MS Office Macros, in that they can analyze data in your documents and process them in the sidebar. For example, you could write a widget that reformatted addresses on the fly. They're a good idea in principle, but I had trouble finding a practical application for them.
Lotus Symphony Documents
Lotus Symphony presents a document interface very similar to a MS Word 2003, though there are just enough quirks to give Word power users pause. For example, Symphony has a very solid spellchecker but no grammar-checker or thesaurus. Robust functions that aren't found in most Web-based apps - like mail merge - are present and usable, though not spectacular.
My personal acid test for word processors is the ability to use the find/replace function to making formatting changes. Like OpenOffice, Symphony honors a list of regular expressions that let you create complex find/replace command strings. While I could accomplish most of the same power-tricks that I regularly use in Word, Symphony made me jump through more arcane hoops to get there. Symphony passed my personal hurdle, but it didn't exactly leap over it.
Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets
As I do with every new spreadsheet, I threw the most complicate, graphics-laden, macro-and-formula-infested file I could find at it to see how it held up. Despite warning of conversion errors, Symphony handled the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition multipage autocompleting character sheet with ease. No obvious function breakdowns or layout problems occurred.
When we used Symphony to create basic spreadsheets, all the standard formulary functions were present, and in fact the sidebar system proved useful in dealing with multiple commands at once. What isn't present are the SQL database hook-ins and pivot tables that MS Excel power users may depend on for heavy data-crunching. Symphony is a solid spreadsheet handler, but don't expect it to displace Excel for your custom uses.
Lotus Symphony Presentations
Symphony was decidedly schizophrenic when it came to presentations. It failed to properly convert our sample PowerPoint 2007 document, breaking some layers and graphs. That said, Symphony offered almost too many customization options when it came to building spreadsheets. A hefty clip-art library, multiple transitions, and 3D object generators were almost dizzying in their possibilities. For once, I think MS Office power users will; be comfortable with an alternate app, as there was little that PowerPoint can do (aside from Sharepoint hook-ins) that Symphony couldn't Except, of course, competently handle PowerPoint 2007 slideshows.
IBM Lotus Symphony is the ignored stepbrother of OpenOffice, in that both are free, traditional software alternatives to MS Office, but that OpenOffice is the one that has been embraced by the open source community. As such, it is OpenOffice that has the final shine and polish -- and template and extension support -- that Symphony lacks. Using Symphony is hardly a bad choice -- especially given the price tag -- but there's nothing Symphony does that OpenOffice doesn't do better. In the end, that's the worst criticism I can offer.
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