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Suite Dreams

Office suite upgrades: Do we need them? Are they worth it? Which one do we want?

Do I have to upgrade? Should I? It's hard to miss Microsoft's full bore marketing campaign in support of its new Office 2000 suite, so you've got to be wondering if this is software you need. And the answer is: It depends. Most software reviews are of a "gee-whiz; it's new; it's great" variety, but that doesn't always work for homebased entrepreneurs who want reliable no fuss software that doesn't necessitate huge expenditures for new hardware just to run the stuff. With that caution in mind, let's dissect not only Office 2000, but also its chief rivals, Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 and Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition.

For starters, how old is your computer? On anything slower than a 200MHz CPU with 64MB RAM, these suites are plain pokey. They're also big. A full installation of the premium edition of Office 2000, for instance, gobbles up well over a half gigabyte of hard drive real estate. The others aren't as greedy--probably 200MB will do for loading most of the features--but with any of these suites, you need a reasonably powerful box with a spacious hard drive before even thinking about upgrading.

Another determining factor is how old the suite you're now using is. If it's Office '97, or Corel WordPerfect 8.0 or Lotus SmartSuite '97, you probably have all the power you need, because those programs are plenty slick. The latest editions of the suites are mainly tweaks. However, if you depend heavily on the Web, take note that the new breed suites are thoroughly "Webcentric," meaning they're designed to make it easy to import and export information (documents, spreadsheets and so forth) to the Web. So if you spend a lot of time converting documents into HTML, an upgrade might be in order. All three of the suites make it fast and simple to edit Web documents and to put up almost anything you create on the Web, without much (if any) loss of features or formatting.

Expect to pay street prices of about $200 for the standard MS Office upgrade, about $100 for the Corel upgrade and about $100 for the SmartSuite upgrade. Here's what they offer:

  • Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000 (www.corel.com/Office2000/index.htm) builds in WordPerfect for word processing, Quattro Pro for spreadsheets, Corel Presentations for creating PowerPoint type shows and CorelCENTRAL for keeping calendars and to do lists. CorelCENTRAL remains awkward and unlikable, but the other components are first-rate and offer high levels of compatibility with their Microsoft counterparts. It's a solid package, offering terrific value and usability.
  • Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition (www.lotus.com/smartsuite) is a strong package, with WordPro; 1-2-3; Approach, a bang-up database manager that's easy to use; Freelance Graphics, a PowerPoint clone; and Organizer, a spiffy time and work organization tool. That's a lot of software for $100, but, frankly, it's not especially aimed at you or me. The Lotus target market is a networked office--particularly mega corporations. Many file sharing and group work tools are built in and I'm sure they're great, but those of us in home offices don't need them. Another drawback: The WordPro file format ("lwp") isn't widely supported--MS Word, for instance, opens those files as gibberish. However, Lotus is often bundled free of charge with parent company IBM's laptop and desktop computers. If a freebie copy comes your way, use it and know you're using the same apps that folks in Fortune 500 companies use.
  • Microsoft Office 2000 (www.microsoft.com/Office) has to be acknowledged as the leader of the pack. The barebones standard edition (consuming about 200MB of drive space) includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and e-mail applet Outlook--all top choices in their niche--and that makes Office 2000 the suite to beat if you have the willingness to shell out an extra $100. Buy it and you never have to explain why--with millions of others using it, you'll have plenty of company.

Want more definitive answers? The happy fact is all these suites get an "A" on any report card. While you're thinking about that, chew on this: In '84, I bought WordStar Professional, a word processing program that included a (revolutionary) spelling checker and a couple of other neat features. The price? About $500--five times what a full suite can be bought for today. So know whatever you buy counts as a bargain, a very suite deal indeed.

Robert McGarvey works out of his home office in Santa Rosa, CA. Visit his website at: www.mcgarvey.net.

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