April 13, 2006


Microsoft Works Suite 2006. Windows 2000 SP4 or Windows XP for full functionality. Microsoft. $99.95.

     Microsoft’s Works Suite line has always been something of an afterthought for the company – a mishmash of products that work reasonably well individually and reasonably well together, but do not have the functionality or usefulness of the company’s standalone products.  But with the 2005 edition and this 2006 update, Works Suite has cemented a niche: it’s for families that have fairly modest computer needs and want an inexpensive, all-in-one way to deal with them.

     Microsoft has the “inexpensive” part down pat.  Works Suite 2006 offers a $20 rebate that reduces its already low price, and if you shop around a bit, you can find discounts that will get you the program for only $60 or so after the rebate.  However, this is still not exactly an “all-in-one” program – it’s really six-in-one, and the six components do not always work flawlessly together.

     Works Suite 2006 includes Microsoft Word 2002 (yes, 2002) for word processing, Works 8 for organizational tasks, Money 2006 Standard for financial tracking and budget work, Digital Image Standard 2006 to organize and enhance digital photos, Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2006, and Streets & Trips Essentials 2006 for planning customized road trips.

     Each product individually has pluses and minuses, but what counts for Works Suite buyers (and potential buyers) will be the usefulness of the entire package.  It’s better in some ways than others.  For one thing, the default word processor is Word 2002, but Works 8 has its own, separate word processor, which you can use within the Works 8 component – except that templates and wizards operate under Word 2002 even when you use Works 8.  Got that?  This is needlessly complex – a result of taking standalone products and packaging them together with minimal modifications.

     It helps to remember that Works Suite is not intended to replace the far more expensive Microsoft Office, or even to replicate many of its functions.  Microsoft would never undercut itself that way.  As a result – to cite just one example – you cannot look at or modify Microsoft Excel files when using Works Suite.  It simply won’t display them.  This is no problem if all your financial needs can be handled through Money 2006 Standard, but if you use Excel at work, don’t expect to bring spreadsheets home and be able to do anything with them.

     Also, Works Suite 2006 can run on computers using operating systems as far back as Windows 98SE – but if you want to use the Encarta component, you must have Windows 2000 SP4 or later.

     It’s probably best to look at Works Suite 2006 as a starter program – on which basis, it is very good indeed.  Word 2002 is a fine, solid word processor.  Digital Image Standard is simple to use and surprisingly feature-packed: you can crop, edit, color, filter, and introduce special effects easily, and the results look excellent.  Money 2006 Standard is all right – it handles basic family budgeting tasks with aplomb, and as long as you do not require anything too complex, it’s all you need for everyday money management.

     The value of the remaining three programs will vary from family to family.  Streets & Trips Essentials 2006 is easy to use, and its maps are good, but families with GPS systems in their cars, or who are familiar with Google Maps, will not use it often.  Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2006 has solid information and some attractive multimedia elements, but if you already use Wikipedia, you may not find Encarta much of an improvement, if any.  And Works 8 is a bit of a mishmash within a mishmash: its calendar (which works much like those in Outlook and Outlook Express) is okay, but it is hard to imagine a time-pressed family using this software to make grocery lists, greeting cards and the like.

     Microsoft Works Suite gets incrementally better every year, and the 2006 version does improve on the 2005 one, which was already a very good buy.  But “a very good buy” remains the main reason to recommend this suite – it does many things competently, but nothing that will make you sit up and take notice.  Still, for families that do not need to do much more than write letters, store digital photos and plan an occasional trip, Microsoft Works Suite 2006 is a worthwhile investment and, in many of its elements, a pleasure to use.

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