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Suite dreams

Office 97

Microsoft, pounds 350

has its sights set firmly on the Internet. Every application gives you an easy route to uploading and downloading Internet files and for browsing the Web. Both Word and PowerPoint, the application for creating presentations, have facilities for creating home pages and complete Web sites. The new application included in the suite, Microsoft Outlook, gives a useful facility to integrate Internet communication with established types of contact.

As the information manager within , Outlook handles appointments, tasks and contacts. One advantage it offers over competing applications is linking these aspects with its e-mail facility. This fits very well with the modern way of working. Rather than sending paper memos or leaving messages on answering machines, colleagues are tending to use e-mail to schedule meetings and collaborate on projects and Outlook makes such an approach efficient. Outlook is also highly customisable and can be adapted to display just the information you require.

If you are not interested in the Internet, is there enough to tempt you to make the move? Well, there's the Office Assistant, who appears to help you in every application, but you'll either consider him a blessing or a bane. You can choose an alternative character - Genius, Hoverbot, a dog called PowerPup or Scribble, an origami cat - to replace the default, Clippit, a paper clip with (a pleasant) attitude - or you can hide the Office Assistant altogether.Clippit is a cheerful presence, but he does need oodles of memory.

There are tempting new features in each of the major applications. Word has numerous innovations, including interactive grammar checking. This is not nearly as impressive as the instant spelling introduced in Office 95, as it fails to recognise some errors and adds wavy green lines, its signal for faulty grammar, in situations where there is nothing wrong.

There are many other areas in which automatic help has been extended. The AutoCorrect feature, which helpfully replaces a mistyping by the correct word, can now cope with pairs of words. A new AutoText feature completes words for you. For example, if you type "Wedn" it suggests "Wednesday" and you can add items such as your address to the list and have them filled in after typing just a few letters. AutoSummarise is the most novel idea - it picks out salient phrases in a document to produce a precis.

Excel, the spreadsheet in Office, has taken a major step towards ease of use by allowing formulae to be written using words rather than cell references. Instead of A3+B3, you can now ask it to work out COST+PROFIT. Range Finder is another advance that makes understanding formulae easier - it simply highlights cells with colour coding to relate them to the relevant parts of the formula. AutoCorrect has been imported from Word and makes entering formulae easier by detecting errors and suggesting corrections. Other enhancements in Excel include a better Chart Wizard, a merge cells facility that is useful for titles, labels and boxes on forms and an improved capability for rotated text. All these make it easier to produce good-looking results.

The most notable improvement in the database component, Access, is that it is faster. However, in common with the rest of , you will only be able to make best use of this mammoth package if you have a powerful machine, plus Windows 95. I've been working with a 486-66MHz with 16MB of RAM and with this specification only one component (Outlook) fails to deliver a satisfactory performance. I'm pleased with the extra facilities on offer in the new Office and would be loth to turn the clock back to the pre-97 version - so I'm now intending to upgrade my PC to suit my software...n Janet Swift

, standard edition, pounds 350; upgrade, pounds 169; professional edition, pounds 450; upgrade pounds 279. Microsoft: 0345 002000.