Which PIM is the best one? It's a toss-up

When the GCN Lab last reviewed office suites from Corel Corp., Lotus Development Corp.
and Microsoft Corp. [GCN, Aug. 25, Page 39], the Lab held off discussing the suites'
personal information managers for the sake of a fair comparison.


Microsoft had already released Outlook 97, but Lotus' and Corel's new PIMs weren't
ready in time to be covered. Now they are, and they promise to bring lots of new
features--and failures--to your desktop PC.


The cornerstone of each PIM is an e-mail client. All clients in this review can connect
to Post Office Protocol 3 servers, and they support open Internet standards such as the
Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions and the Lightweight
Directory Access Protocol.


This standards-based nature makes all three PIMs similar in their functions. Lotus'
offering breaks out into Organizer 97, which handles calendaring, scheduling, contact
management and project tracking, while Mail 4.5 sorts out the e-mail.


The offerings from Lotus and Microsoft support additional features when working with
their own proprietary mail servers. But because this is an overall look at PIMs, we
focused on how well the programs worked under open standards.


Now that open e-mail clients are so popular, it makes sense to have one in an office
suite rather than make it a companion to the mail server software. This is especially true
for environments that have multiple client and server platforms, for mobile users and
intranets.


No one doubts any longer that e-mail is an essential business application, and its
inclusion in these suites reflects that importance.


Over the past few months, we have used each of the mail clients daily, testing them
under similar scenarios.


Each client has its own strengths and weaknesses, so it's a matter of taste as to which
one a user prefers.


This question of taste prevents us from awarding a Reviewer's Choice this time.


Also, none of the packages was an overall leader.


CorelCentral 8.0 is an interesting amalgamation. The interface is Corel's. Most of the
behind-the-scenes work is done by Netscape Communicator.


A notable exception is the Card File feature, a holdover from Starfish Software's
SideKick, which Corel purchased and folded into CorelCentral.


The Personal Address Book does simple contact management, but the Card File can take
care of small database setup and reference lookups.


Like the other packages in this roundup, e-mail is very much the hub of CorelCentral.
Netscape Communicator serves as a framework for World Wide Web browsing, discussion groups
and online conferencing, while Corel concentrates on other specific areas and overall
integration.


CorelCentral is remarkably robust for something built almost totally on open standards.
Integration with the rest of the suite is excellent. In fact, Corel has probably done the
best job overall of coming up with a suite of applications that lets you focus on the job
at hand rather than on what you must launch to accomplish it.


The interface is simple and easy to use. In all the office suite's interfaces, you can
see Corel's experience as a graphics application vendor.


Obvious effort went into putting as much information as possible into one window that's
easy to read.


Anyone familiar with CorelDraw or Adobe Photoshop will recognize this approach, and it
works equally well in CorelCentral.


Setup is straightforward. If you have all the information needed to connect to your
POP3 and SMTP servers, you can be up and running in short order.


A performance problem, however, soon crops up with CorelCentral and Netscape
Communicator.


At times, both run inexplicably sluggishly. The parts of CorelCentral that are Corel's
own code seem to run a bit faster, so the problem may lie in the Netscape code.


CorelCentral doesn't have every possible bell and whistle, but you'll be surprised by
how much it can do. If you already use Corel's WordPerfect Suite, there's no reason to
turn to anything else.


As a newcomer PIM and e-mail client, CorelCentral is pleasing. As it matures, that
appeal will likely broaden.


Lotus Mail 4.5 also has some unusual features. For years, Organizer has been the PIM in
Lotus' SmartSuite. Instead of revamping Organizer with mail support, Lotus has now thrown
in Lotus Mail 4.5.


Lotus Mail works with Internet protocols and with Lotus Domino and cc:Mail servers. The
advantage is that people with different software needs can all use the same PIM.


From now until Jan. 15, buyers of the shrink-wrapped edition of SmartSuite 97 will get
Lotus Mail at no extra charge. Considering SmartSuite's already exceptional Internet
integration, this is a natural fit.


But the fit within the suite is by no means perfect.


The package itself is a fine standalone product. Within the suite environs, it remains
just that: a standalone product.


There's no real integration with any of the suite applications, including the essential
piece, Organizer.


Lotus Mail was developed to provide simple Internet e-mail support, so it has no
built-in hooks to SmartSuite. Any part of the suite that can send Internet e-mail can send
it via Lotus Mail, but you might as well be using the Internet e-mail built into Microsoft
Windows Messaging.


Mail's address book is robust and flexible, and it can do LDAP searches. The default
directory it searches is at ldap.bigfoot.com, though you
can specify any LDAP server.


Lotus Mail does what the company calls foolproof addressing, which means you can enter
part of a recipient's name and let the software fill in the rest.


Mail seemed to suffer from performance lags, but generally it was a little more
responsive than CorelCentral or Outlook.


Response time when dealing with Lotus Domino was excellent, however, and it was really
nice to be able to look at Domino mail and Internet mail by way of Exchange Server.


Other features such as a preview pane, spell checking, sorting and stationery creation
make this product the equal of the other two in this roundup.


In real life, though, we found ourselves looking for better suite integration and a
better interface. If Lotus had combined the capabilities of Mail with the interface of
Organizer, we would have been happier.


Some users just don't like Lotus interfaces. We have found them intuitive and easy
since way back in the old MS-DOS days. After the advent of graphical interfaces, it is
easy to sail through SmartSuite applications thanks to their simple but powerful
interface.


After Lotus made a point of further unifying the application interfaces in SmartSuite
97, Mail's interface sticks out like a cloud on a sunny day.


This is the only one of the three PIMs you can buy separately, for $49.


Current SmartSuite 97 users will get it free in the upgrade that includes IBM Corp.'s
ViaVoice dictation software [GCN, Oct. 20, Page 1].


For federal users in the process of deciding whether to adopt SmartSuite 97, we still
rank it as the best overall suite. Lotus Mail has nothing inherently wrong with it. It
just lacks the integration so evident in the rest of the suite.


The upside is that SmartSuite 98 will be the first new office package to hit the market
next year.


Outlook 97, despite all the criticism that has been heaped on Microsoft, shows a
renewed focus on personal information management. Until Outlook came along, most PIMs
merely tracked contacts and sometimes aided in scheduling.


Dealing with contacts usually meant exchanging some e-mail, but via a separate
application and only in a very limited way.


Not anymore. Outlook 97 puts e-mail, scheduling, a contacts database and more into one
package.


Lotus and Corel are following suit. Outlook 97, though, remains immature--like other
programs in this review.


As a mail application, it lacks filtering, macro creation, e-mail groups, automatic
response and other refined functions found in high-end, standalone mail applications.


As a scheduling manager, Outlook is awkward when it comes to giving rights to an
assistant. It's confusing to schedule a simple appointment, and Outlook fails to interface
with other scheduling systems.


As a contacts database, it doesn't track calls or give gentle reminders of when to
check up on contacts.


These three components, which could easily be integrated, are not. For example, you're
checking out Jane Doe in your contact database and want to know how much e-mail you've
exchanged with her. Her e-mail address is in the database entry. How hard would it be for
Outlook to check all e-mails to and from jdoe@agency.gov?


Moreover, Outlook is cantankerous in deployment. In the last year, the lab installed
Outlook at least a dozen times. Even when following the same installation, different
problems have occurred.


The best example is Microsoft Fax. Because fax numbers are in the contacts database,
you should be able to send a fax to a contact. After one installation, faxing worked fine.
After another, it wouldn't work at all. What did Microsoft technical support suggest?
"Uninstall and reinstall again."


That may sound like a lot of criticism of Outlook, but of all these products, it
correlates the best with our work habits.


Outlook's integration with e-mail servers and other Microsoft Office applications,
though awkward, isn't bad.


Outlook could be a bit more customizable, but it does just enough to mold to your modus
operandi. Too often, PIMs force you to change the way you work. Not Outlook.


If you do most of your communication within the same organization and everyone has
Outlook, it is a wonderful collaboration resource.


It's not quite groupware like Lotus Notes, but it's a good system.


Outlook is very powerful for the individual but not equivalent to the team tools in
Notes. In fact, it's so powerful that Lotus has responded with a competing product,
code-named Lookout.


Regardless of Outlook's shortcomings, the lab likes it and probably wouldn't change to
any other PIM.


All together now: One of the biggest advantages of PIMs based on open standards is that
users have a choice of the best PIM to suit their needs.


If our testing showed nothing else, it showed that many people take advantage of PIMs
in idiosyncratic ways. None of the PIMs reviewed is a big enough standout for us to
persuade you to buy one suite instead of another, but it's nice to know you can rely on
getting certain basic functions, regardless.


As long as your e-mail server supports POP3, you're not locked into a particular
vendor's system across the board. Even so, the best functionality by far is in packages
that connect to a proprietary server.


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