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Another Free Office Alternative: Lotus Symphony 3

Remember OpenOffice 3.2, the open-source (read: free) alternative to Microsoft Office? Of course you do -- I sang its praises just a couple weeks ago.

What you may not remember is Lotus Symphony, another Office alternative that also happens to be free. Although the product seemed to lay dormant for a couple years (the most recent version, 1.3, arrived back in 2008), Lotus is putting the finishing touches on Symphony 3.

What's new? Why should you consider Symphony over, say, OpenOffice? And why did Lotus leapfrog a 2.0 release and go straight to version 3?

For starters, Symphony is like a more user-friendly, less feature-packed OpenOffice (which, incidentally, is the foundation upon which Symphony was built). It has just three modules: Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets, all of which are file-compatible with Microsoft Office. If you're looking for drawing tools and databases, you'll need to go with OpenOffice.

Symphony 3 features a wealth of interface improvements and new features, including support for Visual Basic macros, nested tables, embedded audio/video, and digital signatures. Lotus has also provided full compatibility with Office 2007 and OpenOffice file formats.

As for what's behind skipping a 2.0 release, I couldn't say. If anything, the new version feels more like Symphony 1.5, not 3.0.

Still, it's a fantastic alternative for anyone who needs full-featured word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, but doesn't want to shell out for the latest version of Microsoft Office.

Symphony 3 Beta 2 is available now. As with any beta, use caution when working with mission-critical documents.

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