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Ability Office 2002, from UK-based Ability Plus Software, got our attention with its Microsoft Access-compatible database. But the rest of this low-cost office suite disappoints. Its word processor is very slow, the spreadsheet won't properly open Excel worksheets, and the suite as a whole has almost no Web functionality. If you’re prepared to spend a little more money, we recommend Microsoft Works.
Ability Office doesn't let you choose which components you want to install, but dumps all of its bits and pieces on your PC. Still, it consumes only a minuscule 20MB, just a fraction of what Works eats up. The program is easy to come by, though: just download the 13MB file from the Ability Plus Web site. And while you're there, grab the other necessary (and free) files that let you install import/export filters for Word and WordPerfect files and the multi-language spelling checker and thesaurus. You can opt for a 30-day free trial, or if you need only one or two Ability apps, you can purchase each one separately for $29.95 each. No other low-cost suite offers a free trial.
Perhaps because of all that downloading, Ability proves itself a substantial package. The suite contains a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a database -- the big three of office productivity. It also has a Photoshop-style image editor, called PhotoPaint. But like Microsoft Works, this program lacks a presentation maker.
Ability Write, the suite's word processor, looks solid at first. It includes a host of features, including tables, in-document editing of spreadsheet worksheets like that of Microsoft Office, HTML export, graphical text effects similar to Word's WordArt, multi-column documents, and more. Unfortunately, Write is miserably slow. In our simple scroll test, where we time how long it takes to scroll through a 200-page document, Write took seven times longer than Word (in Works 2002). It took Ability Write 10 minutes and 25 seconds to complete the task, compared to Word's 1 minute and 26 seconds.
Ability Spreadsheet offers slick tools, such as AutoSum, which adds up numbers in a column, and embedded hyperlinks that let you open a Web page from within a worksheet. But the program’s compatibility with Excel faltered. It produced blank worksheets when we attempted to open several Excel files. Ability says it is working to fix this bug.
The Database program separates this suite from the competition, but only for those who need a Microsoft Access-compatible relational database. Database opens native Access files (those in MDB format), including those created by Access 2000 and Access 2002. On the whole, Ability handles Microsoft Office file formats reasonably well. But if you're thinking of exchanging Office files, Works is your best bet.
Ability Office integrates well with its own programs but not as well as Microsoft Works does. You can, for instance, embed a blank spreadsheet from Spreadsheet into an Ability Write document, then start entering numbers. And you can launch Database queries from a toolbar in Write or Spreadsheet, making it easy to pull data out of a database and into, say, a Write document.
On the Web, though, Ability disappoints. You can save spreadsheets and word processing documents as HTML files, but the resulting formatting is awful. Our test document dropped both tables and charts when exported to the Web.
Ability offers no phone support, so you must rely on either the minimal 50-item online FAQ file or email support. Fortunately, Ability's support responds quickly and accurately. Unfortunately, email support is free for only the first 60 days after purchase. After that, support and software updates cost $50 for a 12-month plan.
We're all for competition, but Ability Office 2002 can't cut it in the alternative suite battle, much less against the big boys such as Microsoft, Corel, and Lotus. If you need an Access-compatible database, Ability is a good deal. Everyone else should look elsewhere.