Surprise! Look who's got the best suites

This has been a banner year for new releases of the three leading office suites:
Microsoft Office 97, Lotus SmartSuite 97 and Corel WordPerfect Suite 8.


Microsoft Office has enjoyed a healthy federal market share without serious competition
for the last couple of years. Lotus SmartSuite seemed to be floundering, but under IBM
Corp.'s ownership, it is showing new strength. WordPerfect Suite, bought and then sold by
Novell Inc., has finally become a version Corel can call its own.


The Outlook 97 personal information manager in Office 97 is new, but the rest of the
suite is much the same. The same can't be said for the two underdog suites, which have
grafted on features while trimming their disk footprints through aggressive code sharing
between applications.


Corel and Lotus also have managed to update their interfaces for far easier use than
before.


The GCN Lab has been using all three suites for many months. We started with
prereleased beta versions, then we installed the production code and the inevitable fixes
and patches.


We tried out the individual applications for tasks from memo writing to posting
databases on a World Wide Web site. We reviewed each suite individually for GCN's Page 1
Test Drives: WordPerfect Suite 8 in the July 21 issue, Microsoft Office 97 on Jan. 27 and
SmartSuite 97 in the Oct. 21, 1996 issue.


Choosing the best suite for a specific environment is an arduous job of matching needs
with features, staying compatible with other offices and applications, and figuring out
which suite will tax support personnel the least. Equally important, of course, is whether
the suite maximizes user productivity.


Now let's try matching up these suites toe to toe. The mainstream features are similar,
though each has certain niche capabilities that will appeal to some users more than
others.


Word processors. The contenders are Corel WordPerfect 8, Lotus Word Pro 97 and
Microsoft Word 97. Word Pro has the most unusual interface, but all three word processors
are easy for most users to navigate. WordPerfect and Word Pro have had interface lifts to
bring them more in line with typical Microsoft Windows applications.


The differences come in the enhancements over previous versions. All three work
similarly in creating business documents. WordPerfect and Word Pro allow
what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing of Hypertext Markup Language documents.


WordPerfect handles tables well with its named ranges and automatic calculation. Word
Pro 97 has great support for group collaboration. Its TeamConsolidate feature
automatically opens document versions created by individual authors.


Word 97's changes add Internet integration, such as the automatic formatting of Web
uniform resource locators. Word's AutoCorrect now fixes spelling and grammar errors better
on the fly.


For single-user word processing, Microsoft Word is a good choice. However, in a
workgroup or enterprise environment, WordPerfect and Word Pro have significant advantages
over Word.


SmartSuite 97 has the best collaboration tools of any of the suites, and this is
highlighted in Word Pro's excellent integration with SmartSuite. WordPerfect is a good
choice for offices whose users have a variety of needs. With its Web integration, desktop
publishing and customization features, it will please users who need more than just a
glorified typewriter.


It's hard to pick a winner when capabilities are so evenly matched. But because of the
performance and stability problems the Lab ran into with Microsoft Word 97, we do not
recommend it for most offices. So WordPerfect and Word Pro belong in the winner's circle.


If you need collaboration tools or already have Lotus Notes users, we recommend Word
Pro. Otherwise, WordPerfect 8 has excellent features and is the most stable product of the
three.


Spreadsheets. Venerable Lotus 1-2-3 lagged behind market leader Microsoft Excel for the
last few years but has made a comeback.


Corel's Quattro Pro shows significant improvements to back-end code and interface in
its latest release, Quattro Pro 8. The improvements surpass those of the Microsoft and
Lotus spreadsheets.


Microsoft Excel 97 is a much better spreadsheet than Word is a word processor. It
suffers few of the performance problems we saw with other Office 97 applications. Quattro
Pro and 1-2-3 take a more open approach to data connectivity and file imports, so they're
preferred for environments with multivendor applications.


Quattro Pro is easily the most improved application of this bunch. Its performance
surpasses that of Excel in many instances. 1-2-3 97 also enjoys a much-needed performance
gain over its previous versions.


Users will find few differences among such good spreadsheet contenders. Again, Lotus
takes the lead when it comes to group computing, and Corel has the lead for usability.
It's almost too close to call a winner.


The spreadsheet has gone pretty much as far as it can go, although we'll continue to
see performance enhancements, increased Web awareness and integration, and new
collaboration tools. Because spreadsheets are more often shared than not, and 1-2-3 does
sharing the best, it gets the nod for best spreadsheet--by a nose.


Databases. This is an interesting area. Corel and Microsoft reserve their database
programs for their Professional editions. Lotus sells only one version of its suite, which
includes a database.


Microsoft Access 97 is an extremely robust application development environment with
more power and features than the average business user would ever need. Paradox 8, part of
the forthcoming Professional edition of the Corel suite, has an improved engine and could
give Access a run for its money. We tested the Beta 4 release of Paradox 8 because the
final code was not quite ready.


Lotus Approach is perhaps the easiest of the three to use and is also quite scalable.
For the average user, Approach and Paradox give the fastest entry into application design
using relational databases.


A power user already familiar with Visual Basic probably will feel most comfortable
with Microsoft Access. Paradox definitely gets a thumbs-up for its Java run-time addition
that lets any platform supporting a Java virtual machine run applications developed for
Paradox.


In databases, it comes down to a choice between flavors. For some offices, Approach
would be the best choice; others would benefit more from Access or Paradox. Database
development generally builds on what's already in use. It's much easier to switch word
processors or spreadsheets than it is to move to a new database environment. For that
reason, we find no clear winner in this category.


We would like to see some kind of database manager included with future versions of the
Corel and Microsoft standard suites. Users deserve at least some form of database manager
so they don't have to try to shoehorn a database into a spreadsheet program.


Personal information management. Early on in reviewing these suites, we saw that
excitement was going to build around the PIMs. We tried to time this review to cover all
of them, but unfortunately Corel's Corel Central was not ready. The final product is not
expected until early fall.


So we'll talk about Lotus Organizer and Microsoft Outlook but hold off declaring a
winner in this category until all three PIMs can go toe-to-toe in a later review.


Lotus Organizer continues to have one of the best PIM concepts around. It uses a
virtual daybook interface for contact management, calendaring, scheduling and project
management.


Microsoft went another route, choosing an interface similar to that of its Exchange
client to manage not just e-mail but calendaring, scheduling and contact management. Right
now, Outlook appears to be the best overall PIM, but the Organizer interface will still
appeal to many users.


That said, we've had quite a few problems with Outlook 97. System crashes, heavy
performance hits and inexplicable quirks have plagued it, especially on the Windows 95
platform. The problems were far fewer under Windows NT 4.0.


We recommend that Win95 users not follow Outlook's suggestion to use Word as an e-mail
editor. The performance hit is too big for Win95 on most machines.


A more elegant solution would have been to share annotation code between the Outlook
Editor and Word. But Outlook 97 has a great idea, and Corel and Lotus are hurrying to
catch up. We hope their future PIMs don't suffer from the same poor implementation.


Web integration. All three vendors have been rushing to integrate their suite
applications with the Internet and intranets. Lotus and Corel have done the best job so
far; Microsoft is a little further behind.


Microsoft mainly added features to connect, navigate and publish static Web pages. The
other two suites have done that and more. Lotus SmartSuite 97's groupware features,
TeamReview and TeamConsolidate, can work with files that have been opened and saved in
HTML format on an Internet or intranet server.


Corel goes one better by supporting embedded Java applets in any document. WordPerfect
Suite 8 Professional will include Corel's Web.Site.Builder software to create Web sites
through an easy drag-and-drop interface.


All three suites' applications can publish documents to Web sites, but of the three,
Corel has the most powerful editing and publishing tools. In this category, due partly to
its recent release date, WordPerfect Suite has the best Web integration features. For that
reason, it gets our nod as the most Web-savvy suite.


Suite integration. We looked at how well the three suites minimized disk space consumed
by code-sharing between applications, and how well the individual applications shared
data. We also considered how smoothly each suite worked with its vendor's standalone
applications and with third-party and competing applications.


Microsoft gets bonus points for the way its numerous applications tie into Office 97.
Nevertheless, this seems to be at the expense of accessibility to other products. We found
trying to import files from non-Microsoft products a horrific undertaking.


Just because you choose a certain vendor's suite doesn't mean the world will revolve
around your decision. Certain users and offices with which you must interact will have
other applications. Corel and Lotus both do a better job of supplying file filters, and
they recognize that they don't operate in a vacuum.


Corel's WordPerfect Suite 8 has a lot of built-in extras, but once you have maximized
the capabilities of Suite 8, there are far fewer Corel applications to choose from than
there are applications from Microsoft, IBM and Lotus. Right now, Corel is a minnow
compared to the other two. Corel isn't bad about importing files and integrating with
third-party applications, but that's not the same as full integration.


On the other hand, give Corel credit for a terrific job of molding an integrated
environment out of applications from disparate sources. Within itself, the current
WordPerfect Suite is almost perfectly seamless.


SmartSuite 97 works well as a heterogeneous application environment with good import
and integration features. It is adept at integrating with Lotus Domino and Notes.
SmartSuite applications continue Lotus' long tradition of good integration. Lotus is the
clear winner here, and Corel finishes a close second. Both companies have shrunk the disk
requirements of their suites through optimization and code sharing.


Microsoft, on the other hand, has worsened Office's already bad case of code bloat.
It's true that Outlook was added, but the space occupied by the core applications grew.


So which suite is the best? In a recent GCN Product Preference Survey [GCN, July 21,
Page 24], our readers said the top three issues they consider when choosing suites are
output quality, ease of use and ease of file import.


These became the basis for our ratings. We added flexibility, performance, stability
and suite depth. Because it's important for a suite to fulfill tomorrow's needs as well as
today's, we considered how well they performed with collaboration tools, cross-platform
applications and Web integration.


Our readers chose WordPerfect Suite 7 as their favorite office suite over Microsoft
Office 97 Professional. Lotus SmartSuite didn't make the list, due in part to the large
base of Office and WordPerfect users.


However, as a result of our tests, we decided to give Reviewer's Choice designations to
Corel WordPerfect Suite 8 and Lotus SmartSuite 97. Microsoft Office 97 comes in third for
its proprietary approach and its comparatively poorer performance and stability.


We recommend Lotus SmartSuite to anyone who collaborates in an intranet or network
environment and wants the best all-around suite. We recommend WordPerfect Suite 8 to those
who do a lot of Web work or are the sole authors of what they produce. For mobile users,
either suite is fine.


This may be the last time GCN publishes an office suite roundup. Judging by the trends,
we expect Corel, Lotus and Microsoft to adopt a more customized approach targeting
specific market segments.


We hope this will eliminate the bloated, try-to-do-everything office suite. The answer
to everyone's computing woes may be thinner clients, not thin clients.


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