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IBM Lotus Symphony 1.2

While the interface of IBM's free office suite is sexy, its hunger for system resources and lack of features mean that OpenOffice.org 3 is still the best free office suite. Also, watch out for Symphony's lack of OOXML support.
Written by Alex Serpo on

IBM Lotus Symphony 1.2

Not yet rated

While the interface of IBM's free office suite is sexy, its hunger for system resources and lack of features mean that OpenOffice.org 3 is still the best free office suite. Also, watch out for Symphony's lack of OOXML support.

The latest version of Lotus Symphony (version 1.2) came out of beta on 4 November 2008, and in honour of this we thought we would look at the latest release of this historic office program.

Lotus Symphony takes its name from Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet application that helped IBM crack the business market in the 1980s, just as Generation Y was being born. Think DOS. The current incarnation of Lotus Symphony is based on the OpenOffice.org code base. As such, comparisons to OpenOffice.org are inevitable.

Like OpenOffice.Org, Lotus Symphony is free, but it's not open source, it's a proprietary fork of the OpenOffice.org code. Available in Linux OS X and Windows versions, Lotus Symphony can be downloaded from the IBM website with a free log-in ID. There are also versions for 64-bit operating systems, including 64-bit Linux (w00t!).

Unfortunately, Lotus Symphony is both bigger in download size and system footprint than OpenOffice.org. The download is 197MB and once installed the software takes up 404MB.

Opening Lotus Symphony rewards the user with a nice clean interface, and the more one uses Lotus Symphony, the stronger this impression becomes. We particularly enjoy the tabbed design that allows you to seamlessly move between different document types. The simple interface might also make it appealing as an office suite for new computer users.

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There are four components to Lotus Symphony: a document application, a presentation application, a spreadsheet application and a web browser.

Like OpenOffice.org, Lotus Symphony uses Open Document Format (ODF) for storing files. However, unlike the new OpenOffice.org 3, Lotus Symphony can't open OOXML files (otherwise known as Microsoft Office 2007's .docx), which could be a real show stopper. Comments from developers on the Lotus Symphony forum note that IBM plans to put support for OOXML into version 1.3. Until then, this lack of support alone is one reason not to use Lotus Symphony.

Lotus Symphony is also seriously hardware-hungry; when just running a single document inside Symphony, it chewed up 115MB of RAM. Ouch. For best performance, you'll want at least 2GB of RAM and a Core 2 Duo processor to run Symphony under Windows Vista.

Watch out, Lotus Symphony is hungry for system resources.
(Credit: Alex Serpo/ZDNet.com.au)

As with both OpenOffice.org and Lotus Symphony, transferring OOXML files won't result in perfect re-creation, as the two programs have completely different code bases. More complex OOXML documents might come out looking like well-healed car accident victims — good, but not quite the way they were.

Another drawback for those looking to migrate from MS Office is macros. As with OpenOffice.org, macros created in Excel can't be transferred; they must be re-created.

Word processing
The word processing offering in Lotus Symphony is very solid, and if you're principally or exclusively looking to create such documents, Lotus Symphony should meet your needs.

The word processing application in Lotus Symphony has substantially less tools than are available in MS Word, but it covers all the essentials. This screenshot shows all the possible tool bars enabled. (Credit: Alex Serpo/ZDNet.com.au)

Symphony's documents offerings contains all the essentials, including spell checking and good formatting options including the ability to track changes. It also makes nice tables. MS Office users shouldn't have too much trouble migrating, but might miss some features.

OpenOffice.org users won't have any trouble, as the Symphony documents interface is basically a simplified OpenOffice.org interface. As with OpenOffice.org, Symphony easily exports to PDF documents with only a few clicks — a great feature.

When we looked at the now historical OpenOffice.org 2.4, we were disappointed by the lack of decent-looking presentation templates. The templates available in Symphony on the other hand, are half decent.

We think the presentations functionality should suit the needs of most users, and we were pleased to see that you can still include animations for that extra bit of flair.

Turn over to see our views on Lotus Symphony spreadsheets, and our verdict.

In our review of OpenOffice.org 2, we noted that MS Office's Excel remained the most powerful spreadsheet program we have tested. OpenOffice.org isn't far behind Excel, but if you're a heavy spreadsheet user you may find it frustrating.

Much like OpenOffice.org, Symphony's list of formulas should meet the needs of all but the most mathematically astute, in spite of that its finesse in creating graphs is limited compared to Excel. We managed to make a reasonable graph showing the exponential decline in ice mass when melting in a glass of water. However, we couldn't seem to find a way to label the X and Y axis, which was disappointing.

We managed to put together some decent graphs in Symphony, but power users will be disappointed. (Credit: Alex Serpo/ZDNet.com.au)

We think that scientists, engineers and those in finance who regularly create complicated graphics in spreadsheets would still be better off forking out for MS Office.

Web browser
Yes, Lotus Symphony contains a web browser, and it's painfully slow. We put it side by side Firefox 3 and Google Chrome, which both left it in the dust.

Symphony's web browser creates a process called "IEOOP.exe" which suggests to us that it's based on IE's engine, which in the current browser wars is both slower and adheres less closely to IEEE web standards. (Why not WebKit, IBM?).

It also has almost none of the functionality we normally associate with today's basic web browsers — like making bookmarks or remembering passwords, much less advanced functionality like plug-ins or RSS. We can't imagine using it.

Value for money is a key criteria when reviewing all hardware and software at ZDNet.com.au, and had Lotus Symphony not been free we would have given it a much lower Editors' Rating. As it stands, Lotus Symphony is an aesthetically appealing office suite which is slow and light on features.

If you're looking for the best free alternative, go with OpenOffice.org 3. But if you just need a basic office suite which integrates well with Lotus Notes, then Lotus Symphony isn't a bad choice. It might also be a nice choice for users new to computers, because of its simple and intuitive interface.

Businesses looking to roll out Lotus Symphony should carefully consider its lack of support for OOXML documents, as well as its hunger for system resources.


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