Lotus SmartSuite 9.8 review
An improvement on the previous release, but still a poor showing from an overpriced product. SmartSuite is in need of some serious updating if it's to once again be a viable office suite option.
Review Date: 21 Oct 2004
Price when reviewed: (£198 inc VAT)
This would have been a dream ticket a decade ago. Word Pro, 1-2-3, Approach, Freelance Graphics and Organiser: it's a reunion of the best business tools of a time when the 286 ruled supreme. Sadly, Lotus seems to have lost interest in them since 1-2-3 was trumped by Excel.
The interface is ugly, and when you start to use it, it's illogical and hard to master, too. Many of the settings are controlled by a set of tabbed panels, which look like they were designed for Windows 95, and the menus are poorly organised.
In Word Pro, new styling applies only to existing text. Selecting 'all' and setting a half-line space below each paragraph adjusts what you've already written, but the moment you start a new paragraph, space below switches back to 'none'. With Microsoft, Corel, OpenOffice and the like, new paragraphs sensibly take existing settings along with them.
The toolbars have been split across the top and the bottom of the screen, for no discernable reason, with formatting below your document and file-keeping above. The formatting toolbar is particularly ugly, and is half the height of the rest of the toolbars - almost as though Lotus is embarrassed that it looks such a mess.
Compatibility with Microsoft Word is fair. It will read and write basic text-based files well, but when you introduce complex formatting, things can go awry. Some of the line-art in our standard text document was lost, although the images were properly embedded. It made a stab at the Word Art - something that has been improved since version 9.7 - but still it wasn't as accurate a rendition as that in OpenOffice, and it was rendered as an image, so couldn't be edited. Our second test document was poorly formatted: it was spread across six pages rather than three, and lost the bullets in its floating sidebars. Again, line-art was lost, but it assembled a multipart image organised in a table more accurately than Corel WordPerfect managed.
Lotus 1-2-3 hasn't moved with the times either. Hit either Enter or Return after typing a value and your cursor will stay where it is. We're so used to modern spreadsheets skipping into the next cell when we do this that we found ourselves typing over what we'd already entered. Its formulas are similar to those used by Excel, Ability and OpenOffice, but if you get them wrong it doesn't tell you why. Neither does it let you click out of the cell until you've either fixed it, or hit Escape and abandoned your efforts.
This is less serious than the fact that it uses 1 January 1900 rather than the same day four years later as its base for calculating dates, which is in conflict with Excel. While this isn't bad in itself, failing to update Excel files to compensate can be disastrous. Ability Spreadsheet was the only other application to falter here.
On a more positive note, 1-2-3 managed to import our Excel charts without difficulty and the range of bundled templates is excellent. Also good is the quick-formatting button at the bottom of the screen that gives you two-click access to common number types, such as currency, date or time. In both OpenOffice and Excel this is hidden away in a menu.
Conditional formatting is exceptionally difficult. It's controlled through LotusScript, Lotus' own programming language, and all conditional formatting in our test file was stripped out on import. Googling 'conditional formatting in 1-2-3' threw up 'it's not easy' in the first hit. It went on to detail 13 lines of code used to turn a negative number red. Searching for the same on Lotus' site brings up a document about Excel instead.
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