IBM Lotus Symphony: A Review of the Linux Version
Many users will recognize IBM’s Lotus Productivity Suite, which includes Lotus Word Pro (word processor), Lotus 1-2-3 (spreadsheets), Lotus Freelance Graphics (presentation), Lotus Approach (database) and Lotus Organizer (personal productivity.) Symphony, for the time being, includes Documents, Spreadsheets and Presentations applications.
To install Lotus Symphony, you have to visit its website and register in order to be able to download it. After the registration the website will ask you which operating system you are using and will take you to the download page. After the download, installation is very easy. The steps are described in Symphony’s website. If you have any difficulty, you can just google it with the name of your Linux distribution.
When you start Symphony, you will be greeted with a simple page where you select which application to use. You might have a question why the application has one window to startup rather than having an icon for each program. This is the power of the suite; when you open Symphony, you start all programs. You do not need to open Documents then Spreadsheets and wait for the window to appear. You open your office suite and you are done. To open the Spreadsheets program, you go to New -> Lotus Symphony Spreadsheet and that’s it. No bothering to stop your work and go through your operating system’s menus. And since the suite starts as a whole including all applications, the integration between them is seamless.
Lotus Symphony brings all these features together with the tabbed interface. Between the program’s main menu and the individual application’s toolbar, the opened programs are shown as tabs. This brings you the power and ease of use of Mozilla’s Firefox.
The icons more or less resemble all the other office programs, therefore we do not expect any difficulty in getting used to the Suite as a whole. Now let’s see each application one by one.
Lotus Symphony Documents - Part 1
We are presented with a beautiful and easy-to-use interface. We have to respect IBM’s experience in software design because they have used the program’s space very efficiently. There is a pane on the right which allows the document’s author to apply formatting in a couple of clicks without having the need to go through the toolbar or to go through the menus. The pane is named “Text Properties” and depending on what you want to do, you can switch the pane to “Page Properties” or “Paragraph Properties.”
When you are composing the documents, the application assists your typing by completing the words you type from its built-in dictionary. This increases your typing speed significantly. To assist further in your speed, IBM has made the famous editing keyboard shortcuts available to the users; for example you can hit Ctrl-J to justify your paragraphs. In terms of formatting, there is one different bit of jargon. Instead of “Format Painter”, the same action is carried out by “Duplicate Formatting.”
Headers, footers, footnotes, cross-referencing, bookmarking, inserting automatic fields (such as date, time, page count), page numbering, inserting graphical elements, inserting table of contents and index are all present in the application as you would expect.
Symphony Documents does very well up to now and you will not be missing your old word processing program. After this point on, it begins to add value and significantly increase your document editing.
The application has a powerful table creation menu. You can create a table by both predefining the number of rows and columns and by selecting “Freehand Table” from the menu and drawing by the mouse. If you were not able to calculate the number of rows or columns precisely, you can go on to add them by pressing Tab key or otherwise by right-clicking and selecting the appropriate command.
Lotus Symphony Documents - Part 2
Symphony can also create charts within the Documents. After you design your table and input values, you can go to Create -> Chart. You will be presented with a wizard that asks you the range of the data values, captions, chart type, chart title, X-axis and Y-axis names, and creates your chart. You can then double-click on the chart and edit colors, insert statistical stuff and the like. There is a point to note here. If you change the values in your table which you created the chart from, the chart does not reflect the changes immediately. You can double click on the chart and then press OK without changing anything to have the changes applied.
The drawing toolbar is always visible to the user in the top-right toolbar. The drawing functions of Documents are also very powerful. In contrast to the other word processors; you can select the shape that you want to insert precisely from the toolbar and put it in your document. For the arrows, you do not need to draw a line and then go through line properties to apply arrowheads. The arrowhead shapes are already there and you just select which one to use. Plus, working with 3D shapes has been made easier. Not only do you select which shape to use, you can go to “Extrusion” in the toolbar (or Create -> Extrusion menu) and select if you want to display your shape in wireframe, in plastic or in metal and in what color. Don’t stop there, because you can also apply the light source. A wonderful combination for including your graphics.
For the users who use “Fontwork” (named WordArt in Microsoft Office), the features I described above are also available. You can apply fontwork of your choice, format it in 3D, change color, apply plastic/metal material type and select lightning. Since all these options are apart from each other and rendered real-time with your selection, you need not hit “OK” and then restart if anything went wrong.
The bottomline is, Symphony Documents exceeds expectations for a beginner to upper-intermediate level user. Or, let’s say, for the users who are not using Microsoft Word’s advanced features, such as macros, Symphony Documents is a better choce. Since it is past the stable release (1.2 now), you can also use it in production systems.
Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets
Symphony’s Spreadsheets is what you would expect from a spreadsheet program. The big part of your screen is dedicated to the cells and a one-line toolbar is dedicated to the commonly-used spreadsheet functions. We do not expect any difficulty for the users that have previously used any spreadsheet application, but OpenOffice.org users are one step ahead. Since the Lotus Symphony uses the OOo codebase, the menu entries are pretty much the same.
The application uses the same logic of worksheets inside workbooks. When you open up a new spreadsheet, the program greets you with one worksheet, named “A”. You can of course rename the sheets and add many as you want. You can do that by right clicking on the worksheet name down below on the left.
Spreadsheets can work with complex data matrix. In addition, you can “goal seek”, create what-if scenarios, apply conditional formatting and create dynamic charts. There is also a solver in Spreadsheets, but for the time being it only allows you to solve linear equations. As we mentioned above, Symphony uses the same codebase of OOo, therefore the jargon for many features is the same, for example “Pivot Chart” is “Data Pilot”. And, as you would expect, you have as many functions available in Spreadsheets as in Calc.
One notable shortcoming is for hidden rows/columns. OOo indicates with a small icon where the rows/columns are hidden. In Spreadsheets, there is no such indication (we do not still understand why this feature is not present in all spreadsheet applications.) So, if you hide something, say column B, you have to select both columns A and C together and with right-click you have to click “Show”. Selecting either A or C and choosing “Show” will not show Column B.
We do not expect the users to face difficulties with creating charts. The basic idea is simple and the options are pretty much the same with other spreadsheet programs. For my personal usage, the charts that are available with Symphony Spreadsheets were enough and I personally did not miss anything that comes with the other applications.
In my opinion, Symphony Spreadsheets will be a good partner for your everyday spreadsheet tasks. If you are not a power user working with macros, then you will not miss Microsoft Excel. If you can not do without them, we have to say that Symphony comes with a macro editor and the macro language, called IBM Lotus Symphony Basic, is very similar to Visual Basic for Applications (Dim a$, b as Boolean will sound familiar, I suppose.)
Lotus Symphony Presentations
Lotus Presentations is the place in Lotus Symphony to create your presentations. If you have worked with a presentation software before, you will not have too many difficulties in getting used to the application. We do have to say a few things about what is where before going on.
First, the usual page/outline/page sorter/notes views are not presented at the top, but at the bottom right of the slide page in a drop-down box. When you open Presentations, the default view is Page View, with the slide thumbnails on the left and text properties on the right. Second, switching to Master View is done with the two small icons at the bottom of the slide. You can easily miss them. Third, the animation options are not presented in the right pane as you would expect, but under Presentation -> Animation Effects or through the object’s right click menu. I would very much prefer these to be easily accessible rather than through menus.
Presentations opens up a tabbed menu where you can define/edit your animations. However, when you apply them, you can not immediately see the effects. You have to select the first tab and click “Preview”, which will open up a preview window that will show you the resulting animations. If you have to edit anything, you have to go through the tabbed menus to correct and go back to preview. This is very time-consuming.
The image editing offered in the Presentations application is enough. You can resize, rotate, adjust color, brightness, contrast and gamma values. The graphics properties which you can access by right clicking on the image allows you to put your image precisely where you want to put it by defining coordinates. You can also change color resolution to reduce the size of your images. However, inserting an image is not obvious: You have to go through Create -> Graphic from File menu. In my opinion, this is not very intuitive.
Presentations offers an important usable feature, which is the ability to work with layers in slides. That means, you can put a slide of the kitchen plan in your slide and then put the piping plan on it as another layer and then place the electric equipment - such as the dishwasher- as another layer. This will save you immense time because you will not need to remake another slide for each view. You can access the slide’s layers through Edit -> Layer -> Insert.
Presentations has some rough edges in terms of usage, which I described above, but if you leave these aside, it is on the way to replace your current presentation software.
As a final word, the Lotus Symphony suite is well equipped and promising. I can recommend you use the suite in your production systems and I can also recommend you to switch to Symphony from Microsoft Office. Symphony is compliant with all pre-2007 Microsoft Office file formats, but of course, you have to expect minor conversion glitches here and there, which will not, possibly, affect your life at all.
This post is part of the series: Linux Office Suites
You are leaving your beloved operating system and migrating fully to Linux. You are thinking to yourself: how will you be able to create documents; how will you be able to work with spreadsheets; how will you be able to create presentations. Answers plus bonuses inside.