OS/2 eZine

16 August 2000

Christopher B. Wright is the Editor in Chief of OS/2 eZine, a title he tried to duck for many months with little success. When he's not working on OS/2 eZine (what? he's not supposed to have any other jobs!) he works on his web comic strip, Help Desk.

If you have a comment about the content of this article, please feel free to vent in the OS/2 eZine discussion forums.

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Lotus Smartsuite 1.5 for OS/2

The last time OS/2 eZine reviewed Lotus Smartsuite, it was in comparison to Star Office 5.0, and Lotus' suite wound up on the losing end. For the most part, it simply felt too unstable to use properly... and while there were many parts of it we liked, ultimately we liked Star Office more.

With Lotus' latest update (1.5, along with a patch for 1.5 that can be downloaded for Lotus' Smartsuite web site), the tables are turned. Smartsuite is now the application it should have been at the 1.0 release, and I don't mind telling you that I now prefer it to Star Office for most tasks.

Yes, Star Office 5.1 is a free download. Yes, in some cases it has features that Smartsuite does not have, and it's presentation module far outstrips Freelance, which is an aging product in desperate need of more complex drawing features. However, where Smartsuite and Star Office have similar features, Smartsuite will, 9 times out of 10, perform those tasks better and faster.

That's the short version: Smartsuite is a "recommended buy." Even though Star Office 5.1 is free, Smartsuite has some distinct advantages that you will find very seductive.


I have been an enthusiastic Star Office supporter since I bought it at version 5.0. I was probably one of the last people to ever purchase a license for Star Office. I was impressed with it's staggeringly comprehensive feature set, and its ability to synch up with my Palm Pilot was an added plus.

However, I did have complaints about it. First, it was slow. Second, it tried to hard to mimic a Windows desktop. Third, it was slow. And fourth, just in case I forgot to mention it, that application was slow. It took a long time to load -- once it was loaded, it performed acceptably, but staring at that silly stopwatch waiting for the initial screen to appear could be maddening.

When the review copies of Lotus Smartsuite came in the mail, I was a bit dubious. My last experience with Smartsuite generally went like this:

click on icon, choose document, type, type, type, try to do something other than type, crash, reload, type, type, type, try to do something other than type, crash, reload, wash, rinse, repeat.

In other words, it seemed buggy, unstable, and generally not worth the bother.

So I wasn't really expecting anything spectacular from Lotus, especially since there's a perception going around the OS/2 community that Lotus creates an OS/2 version of their suite simply because they have too, and I'd heard unsubstantiated but persistent rumors that the Smartsuite line was going to be discontinued in the near future anyway.

Well, I don't mind admitting, I was pleasantly surprised.

It's as if Lotus released a new version of the suite. I mean, all the same features are there, but this time, they work trouble-free. In short, I found myself using Word Pro, Lotus 1-2-3, and Lotus Approach far more than StarWriter, StarCalc, and StarBase -- though the Star Office's drawing tools are still more useful and feature complete than Lotus Freelance is (I'll discuss that in a bit.)

Let's look at everything that genuinely surprised me about Smartsuite 1.5:


Smartsuite is fast. It is incredibly, amazingly, fast, especially if you're used to the laborious loading times of Star Office. Double-click on the Word Pro icon and the application loads, ready to go, in a few seconds. Applications load quickly and formatting changes take place quickly. You can scroll down pages of text quickly. I put it on my laptop to see the difference in speeds between a 500 MHz K6-2 and a 150mhz Pentium... while it is slower, it still loads faster on the 150 MHz Pentium laptop than Star Office loads on my 500 MHz K6-2. Wow.

This is the first thing I noticed, and the thing that consistently blew me away. Speed.


I had so many stability issues with the previous version that I eventually stuck with Star Office. I could never really track down why, but it seemed like it was always crashing and otherwise "flaking out on me" when I was trying to get work done. The latest version has given me no real problems to speak of, other than a persistent crash when trying to import Word 97 documents that was fixed by the 1.5 patch. (See more below.) In other words, I haven't noticed any of the stability problems that made using the previous version so unpleasant.

I should point out, however, that I have heard other people claiming they had stability issues. Based on your system hardware and your installation (what fixpak, what WPS add-ons, etc.) you mileage may vary.


Lotus SmartSuite applications, for the most part, talk to each other very well. It's possible to drag a Freelance presentation or a Lotus 1-2-3 bar chart and insert it into a Word Pro document, for example. It's a little more difficult to do this with an Approach database, of course... some of the applications do not lend themselves as well to being embedded into others.

And Now, the Applications

Word Pro

Word Pro is set up a bit differently from other word processing applications, and this can take a bit of getting used to. For one thing, all of the text formatting controls (including paragraph styles) are located at the bottom of the screen, rather than with the rest of the tool bars at the top of the screen. This is the most visually striking difference, but another thing that may fluster you is the different key bindings Word Pro uses for screen navigation. Some are the same as the "standard" key combinations that are used in Microsoft Word and Word Perfect, but some are not, and those will trip you up on occasion.

For example, when you use CTRL plus the left or right arrow key, the cursor jumps forward or back one word, as it does in Microsoft Word and Word Perfect. However, when you use the SHIFT + CTRL and the left or right arrow key, it does not select an entire word, as you would expect. Pressing down on the SHIFT key alone does that, pressing SHIFT + CTRL will select a single letter within a word. This switch trips me up more than anything else. There is an option during install to include a feature that appears to be macros that will re-map the key bindings to one of the other well-known word processor layouts, but after installing it I couldn't find it... so I can't tell you if it is or not.

Word Pro is an extremely capable word processor, but I do miss some of the extensive right-click functionality that Star Office has. For example, Both Lotus Word Pro and Star Office have the ability to display and correct spelling mistakes on the fly. With Star Office, any word tagged as misspelled is displayed with a squiggly red underline underneath it, similar to the way Microsoft Word works. With Lotus Word Pro, the word is highlighted with a blue field.

The difference comes from how that word is corrected. In Star Office, you only need to right-click on the word and you'll be shown a list of choices. With Word Pro, you actually need to click on the spelling icon at the bottom of the screen, which will display a list of choices from you to choose from. I find Star Office's method a bit more convenient, and I miss it a lot.

On the other hand, Word Pro has something that I wish Star Office had, and that's a "draft mode" that displays your text on a screen without showing page layout information. It cleans up your screen immeasurably and is a lot easier to just write text in.

The Word Pro toolbars (called SmartIcons) take a somewhat unique approach to formatting. While most word processors use toolbar buttons to represent one specific command (bold, italic, bullet list, numbered list, etc.) Word Pro uses them to represent a set of commands. For example, one SmartIcon allows you to cycle through the commands bold, italic, and underline. When you click on it once, it bolds your selection. Click on it again, it italicizes your selection. Click on it a third time, it bolds and italicizes your selection, a fourth time, it underlines your selection, and on the fifth click will return your selection to normal. Another SmartIcon toggles through various alignment commands (left-justify, right-justify, center, full justification). It's not necessarily the fastest way to do things -- you could very well have to click on an icon a number of times before it reaches the format command you're looking for -- but it does allow you to access more functions without browsing through menus. The SmartIcon's themselves change, depending on what you're doing. If you're typing text, most of the SmartIcons deal with text formatting, justification, line spacing, that sort of thing. If you create a table, however, when you click inside the table the SmartIcons change to reflect various table formatting commands. In this way the SmartIcons never take up more than one row at the top of your screen, which I find extraordinarily helpful...

Finally, Word Pro uses a tabbed notebooks motifs when it comes to fine tuning the formatting of your document. Similar to Star Office, when you right-click on an "object" (text, the page, a table, etc.) you have the option of opening a tabbed properties palette that

Lotus 1-2-3

The spreadsheet that made the XT a popular business machine is still a very good spreadsheet application. In fact, it can do far, far more than I can, so I can only touch on the basics.

Spreadsheets are used mainly to crunch numbers: lots of numbers, in many different ways. Lotus 1-2-3 has an extensive set of equations that can be applied to the numbers you put on your screen. Further, Lotus had the now standard and expected ability to create graphical representations of those numbers in the form of various graphs and charts. These features aren't difficult to use, and the layout of the chart is easy to modify.

Each spreadsheet project starts out with a single blank spreadsheet on a tabbed area, designated tab "A." If you right-click on the tab, you can add extra sheets (with accompanying tabs) to your project. This allows you to keep a lot of different information in one file but still keep that information separate and organized.

Like Word Pro, Lotus 1-2-3 is an extremely fast application, loading in seconds, and all its functions perform with similar alacrity.

Like I said, I'm not a spreadsheet guru. That was the extent of my testing.


While Star Office's presentation module also serves as a fairly comprehensive vector graphics drawing application to boot, Smartsuite's Freelance has a significantly smaller set of tools and sticks to its main job -- creating and displaying presentations.

For the most part, Freelance works a lot like Microsoft Powerpoint -- you start off by creating an overall look and feel for your presentation by choosing a style for your opening screen, then you go to the work area where you have three tabs that take you to three different project views: a "current page" tab, where you can add text and modify each slide individually, a "page sorter" tab where you can arrange the order that the slides appear in, and an "outliner" tab where you can create an outline of the information that will appear on the slides and on the accompanying liner notes.

Freelance has basic drawing tools -- nothing fancy, but they're acceptable for your standard business presentations. One very useful feature is that the drawing tools come with pre-made flowcharting shapes and connectors. It's not Visio, but it is a good way to churn out a fast-and-dirty flowchart while minimizing the dirt.

Freelance has the traditional "screen wipe" effects, allowing you to add a little elegance to your screen transitions (or, more commonly, allowing you to turn a simple laptop presentation into a gaudy spectacle of astoundingly bad taste.)

One of the more interesting, high-end features of Freelance is a tool called TeamShow, which allows you to run your presentation on simultaneous machines on the same network. This would be useful if you were on a teleconference with someone with access to your network, and you wanted them to be able to see the same presentation you were giving to the people physically sitting in your meeting room.


Of all the computer program personal organizers out there, Lotus Organizer is by far my favorite. The way it faithfully mimics the book versions is something I find incredibly useful. It's strange, because according to generally accepted UI research, using a 3-d world motifs for a 2-d program is disastrous... but I found, of all the programs I've used, I prefer Organizer.

Each section (schedule, to-do list, address book, etc.) is clearly separated by a tab. It breaks information into pages, allowing you to sort that information alphabetically (or however you prefer). You can even create your own sections... which means if you have specialized needs, you can modify Organizer to fit them.

Organizer seems a lot leaner than it's previous version... one of our complaints was that it was a dog... it took forever to load and seemed to hog up resources. While it's still one of the slower applications in the office suite, it's much, much faster and a lot more useable in that respect.

My only real complaint -- and it's a big one -- is that it's not possible to synch this up with a Palm Pilot. This is disappointing, because the windows version can... and so can the OS/2 version of Star Office. As someone who has a Palm Pilot, I consider this a huge stumbling block to using Organizer, since I take my Pilot with me a lot more frequently than I truck around my laptop or my workstation. It would be nice if they came up at least with a filter that would allow Organizer to load Pilot information saved through the pilot synch utilities ported from the UNIX platform.


Approach has been considered by many to be absolutely one of the most capable and easy to use database's ever to be included in a suite. Even back when Microsoft was bribing computer columnists left and right to get the "Editor's Choice" award for Access, it was rare to find anything really bad written about Approach. ("While Approach is one of the finest, most powerful and versatile databases I've ever used, the fact that it doesn't have a Microsoft Logo on it confuses us, so we must therefore award our prize to Access, which not only has a Microsoft Logo but also informs us that said logo is also a registered trademark.") I do, as it turns out, have one big complaint about Approach, but I'll get to that in a second.

Approach really does make creating and maintaining a database easy. It allows you to build your data entry screens, create your fields, and generate reports in easy and logical ways. It also comes with a large array of standard database templates that you can modify to suit your needs, or simply use straight out of the box if you don't need anything more complicated than what they offer (and many people will not).

I don't do too much with databases, but when I do need to use them I've preferred using Approach over Access in most situations. It certainly outshines Star Office's StarBase, which is both difficult to use and limited in scope.

My only real complaint about Approach is that you can't create complex html-formatted reports. Approach can work with databases already set up on the web (like DB/2), and it's possible for someone with Approach to load and work with an Approach database on the Internet via TCP/IP, but when it comes to saving database reports as static html pages, the results are sparse and unattractive. I'd love to be able to print out a bunch of pretty, static html pages containing whatever database information I need to generate at the time... to be able to format a database report to match the design of my web site so that it wouldn't look out of place... but when you save a report to html in Approach you get very plain, text-only reports. Sadly, Access is a lot more useful in this regard, and these days, when so much information is being posted on the web, Approach is noticeably lacking in these features. Sometimes there is value in not having to code a CGI front end to interpret the information in a database... I can see a great many situations where static pages of information would be preferable to cgi-scripts generating the information on the spot...

A few people emailed me the last time I reviewed Approach, taking me to task for criticizing it's lack of web integration as much as I did. To some extent, I feel this criticism was fair, but I still feel that at least in the foreseeable future, databases must not overlook the web, and it seems that Approach has to a great degree.

Overall, however, Approach is a very powerful database that can do many things, and as far as databases go it is exceedingly easy to use.

A few bumps in the road

Lotus Smartsuite is overall an excellent office suite, but it does have a few problems, one of the biggest being the way it handles file conversions. For a long time, Word Pro would crash whenever I would try and load a Microsoft Word 97 file... it would convert about half of it and then promptly shut down without warning or explanation. This was fixed with Lotus' recent update (1.51), however, and it now works very smoothly. However...

...it doesn't convert Star Office files. Or, for that matter, Clearlook or DeScribe files. I've resigned myself to no DeScribe features, and I never actually created too many Clearlook documents, but I have many, many StarWriter documents lying around on my hard drive that Word Pro doesn't recognize as anything other than corrupted text files. Shame on Lotus! If you're using Star Office right now you'll find this a big hurdle if you plan to migrate to another suite, since it'll mean saving all your documents in a file format Word Pro will understand.

Another thing I found a bit strange is that while Word Pro supports a great many graphics formats, it doesn't recognize graphics created in Freelance Graphics unless you drag it directly from Freelance Graphics into the Word Pro document you're working on. It seems like a strange oversight -- so strange that I half suspect I'm not understanding the problem correctly.

Final Thoughts

The latest version of Lotus Smartsuite is, in my view, what an office suite for OS/2 should be -- fast, stable, and flexible. While I wish that Freelance Graphics had many more vector graphics drawing tools than it has, it is the weakest application of the bunch and is still perfectly adequate for the job it was intended to do. And though I wish that Approach had more flexible straight-to-html report generation capabilities, in all other respects it is a very powerful and easy-to-use database that performs its job admirably. My biggest disappointment was Lotus Organizer, for though I love its interface and think it's a strong and useful application, the fact that it won't share information with my Palm Pilot means I would have to maintain TWO organizers instead of one -- so it sits unusued on my machine.

If you're currently a Star Office user, you might find annoying to have to convert all your documents into a "neutral" file format before you can start using Smartsuite -- on the other hand, you'll find Smartsuite's speed genuinely surprising. I'm spoiled now that it takes only seconds for a word processor to come up on my machine. I still keep Star Office around and use it from time to time, but I've since switched most of my work over to Smartsuite.

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