Lotus Symphony 3: hands-on review

IBM recently released a new beta-test version of Lotus Symphony, its free word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation app. Oddly, Symphony appears to have jumped at a stroke from version 1.3 to 3, bypassing a version 2.

Lotus Symphony 3: hands-on review

Under the covers it’s still based on the OpenOffice code, but fitted with a completely different user interface that combines menus, tabbed documents, toolbars and floating or dockable tool panels. There’s a standard menu at the top of the window, below which appears a row of tabs showing all your open documents, with a big friendly “New” button at the left to create a new document.

Below the document tabs lives a single toolbar row, the first button on which is another, smaller New button for creating documents. Some of the toolbar button icons aren’t particularly clear, and they have no textual titles, so you have to hover your cursor over them to see the tooltip to find out what they do – they’re the normal 16 x 16 pixels, but a lot of empty space around them makes them feel smaller. Below the toolbar is a ruler, and then finally the document text you’re working on.

To the right are the dockable tool panes, with their own tabs down their right-hand edge so you can flick between them. Regrettably, despite plenty of unused space, you can’t dock the Properties pane at the top right and the Style List at bottom right – you see just one of them unless you drag the other off to the left.

Doing anything remotely complicated means launching a modal dialog, yet there’s wasted space below the 32 tools on the Properties pane, and 14 of those 32 tools are duplicated on the toolbar at the top. You feel that the designers of this UI could have used space better, putting more options on the Properties pane, reducing duplication and making the pane resize more sensibly (resizing either reveals more blank space or cuts off half the icons).

Lotus Symphony 3

The word processor Properties pane shows basic text and paragraph options such as font name and size, bold, italic, underline, bullets, numbering, spacing and indentation, while the Style List shows styles in alphabetical order. There’s no preview of what each style looks like, so you must double-click to apply it to know what it does.

There are buttons at the bottom of the pane to create a new style or modify an existing one, and modifying brings up a dialog with 13 different tabs – the options are laid out fairly logically, but its sheer complexity can be daunting. Happily, you can also update a style based on the formatting of selected text, so you can make changes visually in the document and then save them to the style.

The Clip Art pane offers a fantastic array of fancy bullets – including coffee beans, pebbles, popcorn – but nothing else; no search facility, just an ability to select a category (or “theme”, since both terms are used interchangeably) and to import an image or folder of images. A link at the bottom of the pane called “Get Clip Art Online…” opens a web-based Clip Art gallery inside Lotus Symphony: yes, there’s a web browser built into the application. Why? In this Clip Art gallery you can search, browse and select from a reasonable range, but when you click the Download button you’re just given a zip file containing your choices to save or open, and that’s it.

There’s no help in getting these images into your Clip Art gallery or document – you have to extract the zip file to somewhere, click Create | Graphic from File… on the menu, or find the Create Graphic button on the toolbar (if you squint hard it looks a bit like a tree and a sun, although the tree is just nine green pixels so you might miss it). You can’t drag and drop files straight from the zip into your document, but you can once the images have been unpacked.

The Navigator pane shows a useful list of all the headings, tables, graphics and other elements in your document, and enables you to jump directly to any one of them. There are also tools to move to the next or previous in any of the lists, and to set which outline levels to show.

Using Symphony

Writing in Lotus Symphony is pretty much like using any other word processor: it’s reasonably responsive but it does like to second-guess what you’re trying to type, offering suggestions that can be a little distracting as a string of irrelevant part-words pop up before you finish typing. After a while, it learns which words you use frequently and starts suggesting what you’ve typed before – including misspellings, which is irritating – and you press Enter to accept a suggestion. This might be helpful for someone who isn’t a good typist, but I found it annoying and spent a fruitless five minutes searching File | Preferences… to turn it off, before discovering it was actually under Tools | Instant Corrections….

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