Although still in beta testing, IBM Lotus Symphony offers strong alternatives to Word, PowerPoint, and Excel with more features and nicer interfaces than most other free software.
IBM Lotus Symphony is a free productivity software suite for both Windows and Linux users. IBM has resurrected the Symphony name from the early 1990s, but don't confuse the new Symphony with the failed effort of the past.
This suite, which remains in beta testing, consists of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. IBM's Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets are foils to Microsoft's Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Our early look at Symphony reveals the package to be closer to that of the free, open-source OpenOffice than Microsoft's nearly ubiquitous and all-encompassing suite.
To download the free Lotus Symphony, you must register first with a free ID from IBM, which nicely gives you the option to separate whatever you do on its Web sites from your identity. Make sure to check a box near the end of its registration forms to opt out of potential ads via e-mail.
Installation on our Windows XP and Vista systems each took us about 15 minutes, including downloading the EXE file, unzipping the package of files, and running setup. You'll need 315MB of hard drive space to run the programs. However, we were unable to register or download the file for a few hours--perhaps IBM's servers were overwhelmed on the first day it released the beta applications. And our installation efforts were stalled on two other Windows XP machines, which would not run the initial EXE files we had downloaded--a frustrating waste of time.
Once setup gets rolling, Symphony adds three shortcuts to your desktop, which is slightly irritating. With Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets open for the first time, they were easy enough to figure out. Unfortunately, our Windows XP machine froze for about 5 minutes the first time we opened Presentations, although we didn't need to reboot, and we weren't sure if Presentations or Firefox was the culprit. Yet the beta suite crashed about once for every hour we spent testing it. Granted, that may not happen (hopefully) when Lotus Symphony is a final product.
The soothing blue-gray interfaces are a cinch to use--a bit more attractive in our view than those of OpenOffice and Google Docs--with intuitive menus and icons to boot. Text Properties and other options appear within a narrow frame along the right-hand edge of the screen; this changes depending upon whether your cursor is highlighting text, an image, or other elements on the page. Symphony applications organize open documents into tabs. It's easy to jump between tasks, because all three programs appear within a single, tidy window.
By default, Symphony saves your work in the Open Document Format. As much as we like open-source standards, Microsoft Office and Apple iWork Pages do not support this format. Luckily, Symphony can read files from Microsoft Office and make PDF files, too. You'd be wise to save your work in Microsoft's DOC, PPT, and XLS formats if you want to send it to users who might use Office software. However, Symphony does not save work in the new Office 2007 formats. You'll also be warned when opening Microsoft Office files that Symphony may not support the formatting, which held true for complex Word documents. However, simple letters and reports maintained Microsoft's bullet points and numbers without a hitch. But IBM's beta suite does not yet offer templates to get started with preformatted files.
The features within Documents include a spelling checker, footnotes, bookmarks, charts, indexes and tables, and more. Documents even displays the appearance of more than 200 fonts within their dropdown selection menu--although you can't preview them live on the page as Word 2007 does without applying a change. We wish that Symphony's word count appeared at all times as it does in Word 2007, but to be fair, most word processing software does not display a running tally, either. Although we could not open JPEG and other image files, Symphony did let us drag or insert these images directly into our open documents and presentations--although with a delay of up to 30 seconds.
Similar to Documents, Presentations retained most but not all of the attributes of our Office 2007 PowerPoint file. There's not much hand-holding here, due to the lack of templates, but you'll be able to create a slide show without too much hassle if you're already familiar with other presentations applications. We were able to whip up a slide show in several minutes. The program supports charts, but unfortunately, we couldn't find options for adding movies or audio files.
Spreadsheets offers a formula bar that supports functions from Excel, but not the same handy dropdown menu of shortcuts. We were surprised at Spreadsheets' depth, although Microsoft's software remains the strongest for engineers and others who regularly crunch numbers. However, if you don't need so many calculations--or if you've already memorized them, that shouldn't be an issue. Symphony Spreadsheets also offers fewer graphical options for making bar, pie, and other charts. But this appears to be a fine program for those who need to use spreadsheets occasionally or don't demand a slew of professional-looking graphical templates. We were able to sort data and create charts easily without hunting through dropdown menus.
At this point, support for Lotus Symphony is limited to help provided by other users. We can forgive that for a free software package, but the amount of support provided will depend upon how the fledgling community of Symphony users grows. The Help options from within the applications weren't working during our tests.
Overall, Lotus Symphony beta appears to be a decent productivity package with features that compare with OpenOffice, Sun StarOffice, and ThinkFree (which offers a handy online component). It's not as rich as Microsoft Office 2007, which costs $150 and up. Nor is it as easy on the eyes as Apple iWork '08, despite rather elegant interfaces. We hope that whatever caused Symphony's installation delays and instances where it froze our Windows XP system will be resolved by the time this beta suite reaches its final release. We found Symphony a snap to use, and its price--none--can't be beat.