SYMPHONY

Lotus Development, Corp., 161 First St., Cambridge, MA 02142, (617) 253-9150, Min. memory: 320K RAM, Retail: $695

Spreadsheet-based, as opposed to the modularity of most of the other integrated packages, Symphony is tied into one gigantic ledger sheet on whose larger than 2-million-rectangle surface all five components are laid out. You can't load files from various sources, but must stick to one worksheet -- as large as it may be -- at a time. This means that you can't intermingle material on the screen from two or more data disks, as you can in other systems, or even from a second Symphony file on the same data disk.

As restricting as that may be, the immense area nonetheless allows third-party software writers to supply particular applications that fit onto the sheet, where they then can tap into the host's considerable computing abilities. Ironically, one such program-within-a-program teaches you how to use Symphony. And any help you can get is welcome: Symphony can juggle more than 30 windows at once, venting areas of the worksheet like the calderas of a volcano. The command structure used to probe among them is formidable, if followable, and utilizes the resources of a PC keyboard (to which Lotus wisely supplies a fold-out map) several times over.

Changing work environments is outstandingly simple. With a single keystroke, on-screen work that may be a spreadsheet can instantly be integrated into a database or a text document without leaving the open window. Unseen by the user, Symphony ingeniously moves data out of the way when more space is needed. But that continuity of space can be a handicap as well as an advantage. Two texts can't be efficiently set up in contiguous windows, for example. And anything erased in one window is also reased in other windows that may overlap that area of the spreadsheet.

In a departure from the group, printing graphs requires loading a separate program, and graphs can't be included within a printed document, but must be appended to it. Little matter, though. Symphony's graph selection is thin and its execution run-of-the-mill -- although it does contain the rare but useful open-high-low-close chart.

A NOTE ON JAZZ

Developed exclusively for Apple Computer Inc.'s 512K Macintosh (which makes it possibly the savior of 1985 for both Lotus and Apple), Jazz is to Symphony as, well, the St. Louis Blues is to the Eroica. It is even more sprightly, once you get past the puerile cartoons that regulate the Mac. The major differences are that Jazz lacks a user-programming language, but it can manipulate several files from different sources at the same time, including Symphony spreadsheets complete with formulas. It is the only system that can impose a grid of rectangles over the spreadsheet, as one an old-fashioned bookkeeping ledger. And, calling on the Mac's native ingenuity, you can enlarge a section of a spreadsheet on the screen, as if placing the range of cells under a magnifying glass. Also singularly among the packages, Jazz is able to update numeric data that has already been spliced into a text document, and it can dynamically link other components as well. Jazz can draw graphs of any size on the screen and decorate them with the Mac's large but sometimes silly font selection. However, unlike Symphony, mouse-driven Jazz is a closed system and cannot accommodate third-party applications.

CORPORATE MBA

Context Management, Systems, 23868 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, CA 90505, (213) 378-8277, Min. memory: 384K RAM, Retail: $695

Few situations better testify to the fact that to stand still on the fast-spinning world of microcomputers is to take a giant step backward. MBA is little changed from the Dark Ages of 1982 when it first emerged, despite the added appellation "Corporate." Only minor adjustments have been made to this four-window system since then, such as better memory-management and improved (but still creaky) filing routines. That is like taping a couple of paper wings on a brontosaurus and assuming it will fly.

The new terminal emulation is no big deal, since a microcomputer is comparatively dumb-struck in the presence of mainframe data, anyway. And MBA's database entry-forms generator, a feature likewise tacked on, is rudimentary.

Virtually nothing has been enhanced in text processing, which remains the worst of the integrated bunch. Indeed, sometimes it is inexcusable: When a cell containing up to eight pages of text is moved to a different location on the worksheet -- a common maneuver -- only one-third of a page makes the leap; the rest gets summarily expunged by the system.

The command menu, a parade of one-word entries that are summoned by the old "/" key left over from 1979's VisiCalc, is obscure, containing such bony choices as "glbl." Four key-strokes are required just to expand or close a window. Always a powerful number-cruncher, its usefulness is compromised by a stubborn refusal to enter titles across columns -- a virtual necessity that everyone else executes without a fuss. Nor can you "point" to a range of cells with the cursor and see them high-lighted on the screen, as most of the other systems let you do.

Both telecommunications and graphics require finicky formulas entered at the top of the screen that are often broken up into lines that disappear off the edge of the screen. If there is an error, the system suggests merely "about" where it is located. If you're lucky, you'll find it in half an hour.

FRAMEWORK

Ashton-Tate, 10150 W. Jefferson, Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230, (213) 204-5570, Min. memory: 256K (512K recommended), Retail: $695

Cleverest of the lot, Framework is centered around an outline motif, in which an overall subject (cost of sales, for instance), can be broken down into as many as 32,000 subsubtopics within subtopics. This nesting is done inside windows ("frames") that can be shaped and dragged around the screen at the user's will. They make up Framework's metaphor for integration, the desktop, complete with a little in-basket for files. Perinent parts of a subject -- memos, sections of spreadsheets, parts of dataabases, even graphs -- may be placed like Russian babushka dolls in a "containing" window that thematically houses the whole. Or a body of work can be given residence in its own independent frame. Any number of frames can be opened on the screen at once, like so many manila folders on a typically messy desk.

Files from disparate sources can be loaded at the same time, and moving stuff around is simple enough. The trouble is, it has to come from the same working environment; spreadsheet sectors can't be moved directly into a word processing window, for instance.

On the other hand, Framework can display several graphs together on the screen -- a singular achievement. Nor do graphics require expensive circuit boards, high-resolution screens, such as the one that comes with the Corona Portable, can display Framework graphs right out of the box. And its macros -- chains of user-designated commands triggered by a keystroke -- may be stored in their own file.

By tapping a built-in programming language that lets you compose your own routines, spreadsheets and databases can be interlinked, so that when fresh material is entered in one, the others are automatically updated as well.

Like Ventian blinds, command menus are pulled down from the top. Many commands, such as search and replace, are applicable systemwide. So is a powerful undo command, which mercifully rescues inadvertent deletions in any environment. Spreadsheet entry, however, is slowed considerably by the user's having to hit the enter key each time. And for some reason, as data is being typed, the cursor is removed from the cell being worked on, so that you lose track of where you are.

ENABLE

The Software Group, Northway Ten Executive Park, Ballston Lake, NY 12019, (800) 932-0233; (800) 338-4646 (in New York), Min. memory: 192K, Retail price: $695

Latecomer Enable still has some fumigating to do and additions to complete. But, bugs aside, a birdlike appetite for RAM keeps this virtual-memory system sprightly, even in stock MS-DOS machines. Enable has you pausing a lot at the keyboard while it reads what it is supposed to do from its program disk or stores chunks of work on your data disk. And every so often, you have to feed it a second disk of program code. But that is small price to pay for so nicely turned an apparatus.

Up to eight separate files can be brought into active use at a time, in windows that may either be laid out contiguously or stacked one behind the other. Among other advantages, that means you can work with two or more texts at once -- an impossible task with spreadsheet-based setups. Material then can be manipulated among the windows with comparative ease. The program's menu trees reach downward to three levels, and are well illuminated by on-screen prompts at each step. Tyros get their command selections spelled out at the top, but experts can adapt a set of "quick" single-letter strokes.

Among Enable's many considerate touches is a combine command, by which sections of separate spreadsheets may be consolidated automatically. It also highlights interconnected formulas on a spreadsheet, so that mistakes can be traced rapidly. By summoning special character sets, you can bill a customer in yen or draw rectangles for a flow chart.

In word processing, Enable boasts the fastest margin and tab-set formatting among the systems, and is one of the few that will search an entire file -- backward and forward -- from any cursor position. A strong text performer, it deletes a word completely, no matter whith letter the cursor is on. And deletions are unusually foolproof: Properly dubious, Enable first highlights the proposed erasure, then asks the author if he or she really wants to kiss it goodbye forever.

Watched over by a mainframe-like supervisor, file management is exemplary as well. But a tired worker would be reassured by a "work saved" message at the end of a session.

SMART

Innovative, Software Inc., 9300 W. 110 St., Suite 380, Overland Pk., KS 66210, (800) 255-0470, Min. memory: 256K, Price: $895

Dumb, Smart isn't. Demanding, however, it is. Smart is a modular system with independent components, each residing on one of five disks. Without hard-disk storage, you need the forearm of a discus thrower to scale floppies in and out.

Because the command trees of each component stand on their own with only a handful of overlapping universales, the sheer number threatens to grow like sumacs. There are 47 main commands in the database component, for instance. Smart tries to keep command structures within three levels -- a bonsailike structure that often leads down twisted paths. (For example: Simply to prepare to move one word in a text requires menu-pecking at "escape," then at "move," and then at "word.")

Smart grades the commands in three "experience" levels. Arbitrarily, certain "complicated" options, such as how to split a window horizontally or use the system's built-in calculator, are rendered off-limits to beginners. And you aren't allowed to use the system's "database-relate" command unless you are a member of Mensa.

Still, Smart shows exceptionally high IQ.It can move material among any of its components, even sending processed text to a spreadsheet. And it can dynamically link spreadsheets even if some of the files aren't currently in use; on its own, Smart pulls them temporarily from the data disk. Unlike the others, in spreadsheet mode Smart uses RAM only when a given cell is occupied. Or, demanding even less memory, a given spreadsheet can be utilized only for providing cell values to copy into a work in progress. Thus, remarkably, a spreadsheet could be constructed that is larger than a computer's memory.

Other bright spots include a systemwide sort function that operates even in storage-file management, English-language formula- and routine-writing, and selectable scrolling speeds.

For all its smarts, the system fails when it comes to integrating files on-screen. Its 32 windows can't be filled with differing modes. A spreadsheet and a database cannot coexist on the screen, for instance, but must be manipulated one to the other via a temporary storage file.

AURA

BTI Systems, 3423 Guadalupe, Austin, TX 78705, (512) 454-4677, Min. memory: 256K (hard disk recomm.), Price: $595

Aura is particularly adept at executing a batch command (as mainframe parlance puts it). Unleashed by a single keystroke, such a command (which in Aura can set in motion as many as 32 operations) might take fresh sales data, compute discounts, update related records, recalculate cost of goods sold in a spreadsheet, and then go into the payroll database and issue printed commission checks. But since you need six floppy disks to run all of Aura's components (which don't include telecommunications), completing such a batch command without a self-containing hard disk is impossible.

Still, good performance can be achieved without one. Aura's file output is not limited by a computer's memory, as in some systems, but rather to the larger storage capacity of a disk. It can link any number of spreadsheets and/or databases -- performing calculations on database fields that are tied to spreadsheet formulas, for instance. That is outstanding performance, yet Aura is the only one of these systems that has no windowing facility, even on a spreadsheet. Although material can be interchanged among the various components through a central menu, you have to close up one environment before entering the next -- a chore that involves more swapping than a Hollywood party. To get a spreadsheet running entails at least three disk changes.

Even with a hard disk, the result is disappointing. Aura identifies cell locations by their special relation to each other, rather than the accepted letter/number "threater-seat" method. So reading a formula is like decoding an enemy message, and to add insult to injury, formula editing is the most cumbersome of the systems. You can't describe a range by "pointing" with the cursor, either. Spreadsheet entry and formatting is also the poorest of the lot. File management is primitive, on-screen menus and help screens are thin, and cutting-and-pasting in text is more laborious than with real scissors.

Aura is the only system that allows freehand drawing in graphics. Creating your own designs ought to be fun, but in practice it is just frustrating.

INTEGRATED 7

Mosaic Software Inc., 1972 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140, (800) 446-4620, Min. memory: 320K, Price: $695

As empirically unlikely as it may seem, a beginner actually can get rolling in Integrated 7 merely through its colorkeyed manual. Showing that instruction for the layperson can be well organized, well illustrated, and well written, Mosaic puts the rest of the companies to shame, as well it should. And the learning process is internally served by orderly command structures -- the closest of any of the systems to what practitioners call "intuitive." Integrated 7's on-screen prompts uncannily anticipate confusion and lead you through such complicated procedures as macro composition or telecommunications set-ups a step at a time.

But Integrated 7 doesn't have user-controlled windows. That means you can't visaully work with multiple files -- an inexplicable shortcoming compared with other modular systems. A file retrieved from a data disk replaces the one on the screen. And to copy part of one file into another necessitates storing the extract in its own temporary file; there is no direct crossover. In something of a compromise, when material is moved from one active file to another, such as a putting database extract into a spreadsheet, the system opens its own window, so that you can make sure the right stuff ends up in the right place. But at least a given spreadsheet can be split into windows -- an important feature in any number-crunching layout.

Integrated 7 is among the few systems that can create a third database file by joining two separate files. And its fairly complete graphics component (it can execute a double-Y-axis chart) is among the easiest to manipulate. Printing what are termed presentation-quality graphs (to impress your banker), the system takes over the drafting process, telling you when to change plotter pens. Integrated 7 is the only system that includes an on-line dictionary in its word-processing component, and the only one that can print a color graph within a black-and-white document.

In case you are wondering why the "7" in the program's name, the publisher has promotionally spun off two applications -- mail merge and terminal emulation.

OPEN ACCESS

Software Products International Inc., 10240 Sorrento Valley Rd., San Diego, CA 92121, (800) 321-1047; (800) 621-7490 (in California), Min. memory: 192K (256K recommended), Retail: $695

Open Access is the only entrant that can execute a true three-dimensional graph. (The others simply "shade" an area, as in a cartoon.) Twirling and spinning them on command, its outstanding graphics component can present four different types of graphs from the same data on the screen at the same time -- a tour de force of technology, if not a particularly revealing fiscal exercise. This component also can produce a pie chart of 30 pieces; that, too, is slicing it a bit fine.

Overall, accessing commands is quirky. For example, in text, simply to change from insert mode to type-over mode -- a common routine that should be done with a single keystroke -- requires going through a menu at the top of the screen. On a search-and-replace, the cursor disappears from the screen; it falls to the text-writer to recall where he or she left off.

Open Access doesn't offer user-designed windows in word processing. Without this option, moving material is clumsy and error-prone -- for example, in cutting and pasting, the smooth operation of which is the sine qua non of a word processor. Material can be copied (but not moved) between files in two system-created windows -- a cumbersome procedure, although at least you can see what you are doing.

The program's spreadsheet, though, vies with the best. In up to six windows, you can work among separate documents, or among different areas of a spreadsheet. A unique "edge" command brings a range of cells to the upper-left-hand corner of the screen, where they are readily accessible. Another nice touch is the error-in-the-formula message, which spells out how and where you have gone off the track.

Open Access has a disappointingly round-Robin-Hood's-barn integrating procedure, by which several spreadsheets or databases can be combined. To transport material from one component to another, you first have to set up an intermediate file so that the components can share computer talk -- a laborious chore that is more for the convenience of the programmer than the end-user.