The 2006 version of Microsoft's budget-friendly alternative to Office brings some hefty software into the mix – including Word 2002. Reading the list of applications in Microsoft's £70 Works Suite 2006 brought to mind a line made famous by late-night US TV commercials: 'But wait, there's more!'
We checked out a shipping DVD version of Microsoft's suite aimed at home users. It has the same four apps that the existing Works 8.0 bundle contains – a plain-Jane word processor, Excel-compatible spreadsheet, basic database and a calendar program. You also get a few additional applications we found particularly useful.
Works Suite 2006's extra applications include Word 2002, the Digital Image Standard 2006 image editor, Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2006, the much-improved Microsoft Money Standard 2006 and Streets & Trips Essentials 2006. These four would cost well over £100 if sold separately, so from the start it's clear that this suite is a good deal.
The core Works 8.0 applications appear to be identical to the versions in previous releases. However, the inclusion of Word 2002 makes the word processor superfluous – in features it's similar to Windows' free WordPad program. The best aspect of the Works spreadsheet app is its ability to open and save files in Excel's .xls file format.
You won't find Excel's support for formulae and sorting/formatting options, though. Like the other Works apps, the database uses its own proprietary file format. It also lacks Access' relational capabilities. The Works calendar is a breeze to use and its ongoing support for the iCalendar standard simplifies sharing your diary via the internet.
The Digital Image Standard 2006 image editor is a welcome addition to the lineup. This program replaces Microsoft's lame PictureIt imaging app with a modern tool for enhancing, combining and presenting still images. You can use its Digital Image Library to manage (but not edit) video files and assign ratings, keywords and labels to your pictures.
In addition to offering basic mapping features, Streets & Trips Essentials 2006 can serve as an in-car navigation system if you have a notebook with a GPS receiver – although this version lacks the turn-by-turn voice instructions of the standalone release. And in lieu of a GPS signal, the program's Locate Me feature can use a Wi-Fi finder to pinpoint your location.
Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2006 is the only app here to receive a design makeover since the previous edition appeared. It has a cleaner interface, with fewer items on each page and a more prominent search box. Online updates are free and the company says it adds content roughly every 10 days.
Finally, enhancements to Money Standard 2006 include the ability to pay bills online from multiple bank accounts and a feature called Spending Trackers that alerts you when you're approaching budget limits in various categories. The 2006 release has fewer noteworthy new features than 2005, but it's still well worth the upgrade.
Cheaper than chips
While Works Suite 2006 is the most versatile budget application on the market, there are others that can still beat it in terms of value for money. If your budget doesn't stretch to spending any money at all, and you can do without bundled digital imaging apps or encyclopedias, then there's really only one option worth considering: OpenOffice.org 2.0.
OpenOffice.org 2.0 is the freeware version of Sun's low-cost Star Office Suite. It offers an all-important word-processing application, plus spreadsheet and database building features. And there's an equivalent to Microsoft's PowerPoint so you can create presentations. It also has the ability to read Microsoft Office files.
Home users, small businesses and educational facilities on super-tight budgets are now regarding OpenOffice.org as a valid alternative to the dominance of Microsoft's mighty Office Suites.