Test Drive: Lotus Notes 4 is like a daisy-now you love it, now you don't

I love Notes, I hate Notes, I love Notes.


Notes users know what I mean. This groupware can assemble a team scattered around the
country to do otherwise impossible tasks quickly and efficiently. Then there's the rest of
the time, when Notes moves like a slug uphill.


The best thing about Notes 4.0 is that only changed fields are replicated between
documents. You'll never again have to wait while an entire 10K document replicates after
someone changes a value from T to F in a one-character field.


With Notes' new SyncCenter, you can have a single icon for all the replicated databases
from a given server on a work page. In the past, you needed an icon for each database, and
you could act on only one at a time


To replicate a database to your home machine, just grab its icon and drag it to the
Replicator tab.


Even better, you can switch back and forth quickly and easily--ideal for taking Notes
on the road. No more suffering through horrific setup maneuvers to switch your notebook
computer from office network mode over to modem mode or to get your portable, local PC and
server databases all onto the same page.


Accessing Notes e-mail remotely used to be a necessary evil. With 4.0, you might
actually find it enjoyable. This edition has Lotus cc:Mail-like folders--yes, you finally
can sort your Notes mail--and agents.


The mail agents, which also work in Notes applications and discussions, are a
powered-up version of cc:Mail rules. Say, for instance, you want to distribute a report
but you're going to be away. It's a snap to set up an agent that automatically forwards
the report to anyone on your list. Do it right and they won't even know you're out of the
office.


There's a catch to all this, though. To take full advantage of Notes 4.0, you must have
a Notes 4.0 server as well as a Notes 4.0 client. The client worked very well in my tests
with Notes 3.0 and earlier servers. Unfortunately, you can't enjoy the benefits of folders
unless your server is up to 4.0 snuff, even if the data is stored locally.


The Notes interface, formerly a maze of confusing commands, has been simplified to
three windows for folders, folder contents and mail preview. You can quickly scan messages
without having to pop each one open first.


From a programmer's and administrator's point of view, the new interface is a clear
improvement. Expert users will find it different enough that they'll miskey commands from
time to time. There's a complete help system to get over the hurdle between command sets.


Another good feature: If your Notes 4.0 server has an Internet connection, you can
wander the Web and send back messages with live uniform resource locators inside them--in
other words, mail your coworkers active Web links via Notes.


Federal offices with heterogeneous hardware will approve of Lotus' plan to release
Notes for all leading platforms within this quarter: Microsoft Windows 3.x, NT and 95;
Macintosh System 7.5; OS/2; and most versions of Unix.


Last but far from least, the new Notes supports Microsoft's Messaging Application
Programming Interface as well as Lotus' own Vendor-Independent Messaging. That means you
can send messages to colleagues who have Microsoft Mail or Exchange without special
gateway software--important for the Defense Department's planned Defense Message System
using Notes and Exchange.


With all that going for it, there's still plenty wrong with Notes 4.0. The version I
looked at, the final beta before scheduled release in late December, weighed in at a
ponderous 50M on the hard drive.


You think that's bad? This could be the first Windows program ever to require a Pentium
processor. Notes 4.0 dragged a 33-MHz 486DX with 16M RAM to its knees. Normal operations,
like changing a single field on the settings, took a second or two to run.


Things didn't get any better as the jobs got bigger. After 16 hours of waiting for
Notes to finish building a full-text index on a 16M document database I closed down. It
was 37 percent done.


On a 100-MHz Pentium Windows machine, things sped up considerably. If your office is
ready to make the commitment to groupware on Pentiums, PowerPCs, Sparcstation 20s or the
like, Notes 4.0 will be worth the trouble. If you're stuck with the last generation of
hardware, don't invest now.


Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a computer journalist in Lanham, Md.


Client $275, server about $1,000, on CD-ROM


Lotus Development Corp. 617-577-8500


http://www.lotus.com 


[+] Vastly improved e-mail and cleaner interface


[+] Native Web protocal support


[-] High system requirements


[-] Slow even on a fast system


Pentium or equivalent with 16M RAM


CD-ROM drive


At least 50M free on hard drive



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