Digging deeper into the interface
To an extent, this impression continues as you start to use Symphony. So far, at least, Symphony does not have any major innovations, but it does include a number of minor ones, such a freehand table tool in Documents and a return to the space-saving tabbing of slides in Presentations.
Other tools are newly emphasized by being positioned more prominently in the menus. For instance, instead of being concealed among the menu options, the Direct Cursor, which provides a quick and dirty way of doing layouts in the word processor, is moved into the top-level of the Edit menu.
Similarly, Presentation improves on OpenOffice.org's Impress by the simple act of providing twenty professional-looking backgrounds for slide shows. These backgrounds are a little too heavy on the blues for anyone who doesn't work for IBM, but, even so, they correct an omission that has been left in Impress for far tool long.
Unfortunately, the more you use Symphony, the more the first impression diminishes. Open a dialog box, and you are usually back with the gun-metal gray that OpenOffice.org only lost in the last release. And while some of these dialogs have been tidied, most have not. In particular, the Macro window is still as daunting to new users as ever.
Similarly, while some of the changes to menu items make sense, others do not. "Instant corrections" seems more immediately understandable than OpenOffice.org's "Autocorrect," and the same is true of "Instant Formatting," which replaces "Autoformat" in the Tables menu. But the replacement of "Layout" with "Format" seems arbitrary, while "Create" seems a definite step backwards into obscurity compared to OpenOffice.org's "Insert."
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In other cases, Symphony's designers seemed to have had outbreaks of a desire to imitate MS Office. For instance, from a design perspective, there is no logic to placing the Page Setup in the File menu except that that is where MS Office used to put it. OpenOffice.org's placement of page options in the same menu as character and paragraph settings seems far more rational, and also has the advantage of emphasizing page styles, one of OpenOffice.org's main advantages over MS Office.
Even more importantly, the interface improvements are often achieved at the cost of leaving features out. Understandably, the beta has yet to implement some features. However, the list of features removed from Symphony is a long one. OpenOffice.org's database, drawing, and formula applications are gone entirely. So are options, configuration, and the extension manager for plugins. Ditto master documents, autotext, all means for making the component applications interoperable with one another, most fields, and the macro tools for adding dictionaries and free fonts.
While some of these missing features might still find their way into the final version, the ultimate impression is that Symphony is OpenOffice.org for beginning to intermediate users, with most of the advanced features either de-emphasized by the new interface, or thrown out altogether.Next page: Should you use it?