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Let's be clear: this isn’t an office suite. Microsoft Works Suite 2003's new design and bundled applications clearly mark it out for students and anyone who needs productivity software at home: all but the tiniest of businesses should look elsewhere. This suite's less complicated programs cannot perform the same complex calculations as Excel, nor can they generate presentations as dynamic as those of PowerPoint. But for a mere £119 (inc. VAT), this suite contains plenty of family-friendly applications: a slick, Web-style task launcher; a simple spreadsheet; a database; a calendar; an address book; a fully functional copy of Word 2002; and a bunch of bonus software, including a mapping program, an encyclopaedia, a personal finance program and an image editor. If you can do without Excel or PowerPoint, this bargain home-productivity suite is the best software deal that Microsoft has to offer. Businesses, though, should stick with the Office suite, even if it is overpriced.
You’ll need to clean out your hard drive because Works requires a big chunk of space. A typical installation chews up about a gigabyte, but at least you get to decide which parts of the suite to install -- you can decline any component except for Works itself. Macintosh owners, as usual, are out of luck, and so is anyone still stuck with Windows 95: neither this suite nor the standalone Works 7.0 supports Windows 95.
Once you get Works Suite on your drive -- installation took us more than half an hour -- you'll have plenty of software to choose from. Works 7.0 itself includes a simple spreadsheet, an even simpler database, an address book and more than 400 document and project templates for everything from creating greeting cards to making a family budget. Add to Works the full versions of Word 2002, Money 2003, Encarta Standard 2003, Picture It Photo 7.0 and AutoRoute 2002, and you may feel overwhelmed.
But don't worry. This version is easer to navigate than previous Works Suites. The Task Launcher, the main launch page for the entire suite, has undergone a significant overhaul and now displays a cool, tabbed interface. This new home page -- which looks a lot like MSN Explorer's bubbly, colourful home page -- displays icons that launch Word, Money, Picture It, Encarta and AutoRoute. You'll also find several links that open recently worked-on documents. Plus, Works now displays your calendar on its main screen, along with your appointments for the day, so you can view and update your schedule the moment you launch the program.
Also new to 2003, the Works Projects tab takes you to a page of convenient links to big-deal projects, such as family-reunion plans. Click one of the colourful icons, and Works shows a list of sub-chores to complete the project. Under the ‘Plan a family reunion’ project, for instance, Works includes tasks such as building a family tree, scheduling the events and finding online directions to the reunion venue -- very cool. Unfortunately, there are only 11 such projects, although you can create new ones yourself using the Blank Project template. We'd prefer more.
Other than this face-lift, Works 7.0 really shows its age. The spreadsheet and database remain easy to use, but they're no match for Excel and Access. The spreadsheet, called Works Spreadsheet, reads Excel files, although in our tests it altered some original formatting details, including colours and column widths. The flat-file database, called Works Database, can't cope with Access files at all. Thanks to their utter simplicity, these applications are fine for making family budgets or lists. But to create highly functional databases and spreadsheets, small businesses should stick to heavyweights such as Excel and Access. Nor are Works' dinky calendar and address book a match for a serious product like Outlook. For the money, we're not surprised, but don't expect a business-level contact manager.
Speaking of simplicity, Works Suite provides you with more templates than before -- more than 400 by our count -- to create everything from loan-comparison calculations to CVs. To help you design specialty stationery, the Works word processor now lets you apply decorative watermarks to documents. Another plus for mobile types: Works now synchronises with Palm- and PocketPC-compatible handhelds, so you can move calendar and address book data back and forth. And we're glad to see that Portfolio is still around. This separate window on the desktop organises files, images and documents. It's a superb assistant for school research.
Among the other applications bundled in Works Suite 2003, Word 2002 is the biggest draw. The word processor in Office XP, Word by itself costs more than Works Suite 2003. Here's a tip: if you want Word and don't need the rest of Office's applications, go the cheapest route and get Works Suite 2003.
As far as technical support is concerned, Microsoft offers phone support via a national-rate call to a contact centre, available Monday through Friday 8am to 6pm. The program's built-in help file and its online support are both excellent, as well. The latter is chock-full of solutions and FAQs, and you can email for technical help.
If you don't have the cash for Office XP but you want Microsoft Word, Works Suite 2003 is the way to go. It's the best all-around collection of software for the home. In fact, for the PC market, Works Suite is pretty much the only home-productivity option.