Lotus stands out as the only company among the three covered here that doesn't sell different versions of its suite. Instead, SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5 is a one-size-fits-all collection of applications.
As with the other suites, several applications can be purchased as stand-alones. In fact, two--Lotus Organizer 5.0 and FastSite 2.1--have already been covered in separate reviews in this magazine. The new suite also includes releases 9.5 of the long-lived spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3; word processor Word Pro; Lotus Approach, a sophisticated relative database application; and the Lotus Freelance Graphics presentation package. (We looked at betas of these new versions.) Other utilities include the screen recording tool Lotus ScreenCam; a starter edition of Net-It Now, which converts documents into Java applications and HTML; and a variety of what Lotus calls "Extras," including, for example, ViaVoice sound recognition for Word Pro and 123.
SmartSuite ties these all together with a highly useful interface called Lotus SmartCenter, which offers quick access to various features without having to actually open their associated applications. The menu, which can attach itself to either the top or bottom of your screen, is presented as a series of virtual drawers that open at a click.
SmartCenter installs with eight default drawers that offer instant access to SmartSuite applications, Web reference sites, help files, a dictionary and thesaurus, and lists of your contacts and appointments, which can call your data from Lotus Organizer. You can reconfigure or add drawers at will. The value of some of these features is increased by the fact that you can use them outside of the suite as well.
Lotus Word Pro began life several years ago as Samna Ami, a neat Windows word processor, which was eventually acquired by Lotus and transformed into an unwieldy, bloated shadow of its former self. Good news: The current version of Word Pro is a very credible application, with some nifty features and a well-thought-out interface.
For example, Word Pro offers handy access to its arsenal of toolbars--Universal, Text, Internet Tools, Lotus Components, Review/Comment Tools, and Script Tools--through clean, attractive nested menus. Other interesting features include the use of divider tabs within a document to represent sections. Tools such as search and replace and the spell-checker attach themselves to the top of the screen so that they don't impede your view of the document. And former Word users can make the transition with an icon bar that copies Word's menu structure and then pops up a help window that tells you how to accomplish the same task in Word Pro.
SmartSuite offers a more user-friendly "Approach" to database construction than, say, Corel's Paradox. Building a new database from scratch is relatively simple--a window lets you quickly name each field, and specify the size and data type. The program then offers you options for refining your data or adding formulas depending on the data type. Plus, Approach includes a variety of useful wizards, including one that helps you create calculated fields, which is a must for novices. However, the wizards' usefulness goes only so far--if you are going to create a really complex database, the learning curve rises steeply.
Lotus 1-2-3 is the granddaddy of spreadsheets and was the most popular until it was eclipsed by Microsoft Excel. The latest version of 1-2-3 is a solid, useful application with many excellent features. For example, to create a chart, simply highlight your range, click on the chart button, and you're done. However, some features still don't come up to Excel's level of user friendliness. While you can quickly enter a series of dates in 1-2-3 by typing the first in the series and then highlighting a succession of cells, Excel gives you the option of immediately determining the kind of series you want (Daily, Weekly, Monthly).
Lotus Organizer has always been one of the prettiest PIMs around. However, until recently, it wasn't really suitable as much more than a date-and-address book for individuals. Organizer 5.0 might change some minds--a variety of tweaks has finally brought it into the category of serious business tools. For instance, the Contacts section now offers the History view, which includes a list of actions for each entry, such as calls and appointments--simply click on each item in the list for all the details. Another nice feature, EasyClip, sits in the System Tray and lets you send any data in your clipboard to the desired Organizer section.
Lotus FastSite is a nifty site-creation tool that lets you choose one of 24 "looks"; add documents, create hyperlinks, and organize them into sections; and then convert the project into a cohesive Web site. This is not the tool of choice for authoring original Web content, but it is ideal for creating corporate sites from existing documents.
Lotus no longer has the market pull that it had when 1-2-3 was everybody's favorite spreadsheet. But this combination of useful and nicely upgraded applications, combined with Notes integration, gives SmartSuite the edge as a good all-around business suite.