For most people using a computer at the office, their word-processing application will come bundled in one of the three recently released major office suites -- Corel WordPerfect Office 2000, Microsoft Office 2000 and Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5. Each of the three word processors contained in those suites -- WordPerfect 9, Microsoft Word and Lotus Word Pro -- has its strengths and weaknesses.

MICROSOFT WORD

Microsoft has made its Word program in Office 2000 a bit easier to use.

The word processor still tries to outthink the user, although its arrogance is toned down from previous versions, which practically tried to rewrite -- mostly incorrectly -- what the user entered.

You still might find Word inserting an erroneous paragraph break or trying to put something in italics that you wanted in boldface, but such mistakes are rarer.

The program finally does a good job of removing all the older components of itself during installation over an existing version.

Microsoft has also done a good job of revitalizing the help system. You no longer have to know Microsoft's terms to ask questions. For example, if you want to form text into a shape, the function is called "autoshape." But in the help menu, you simply type, "How do I put text into a cloud?" The program will respond in your own terms: "To put text into a cloud ..."

The "file open" window keeps track of where you have saved files and helps find them again. This is valuable for users who save files in multiple places.

One great new feature is automatic activation of the correct foreign dictionary for spelling and grammar checking whenever you start typing in a foreign language. If you stop typing in English and start up in, say, Spanish, the program spots the change after about three words and does not continue to flag Spanish words as misspelled English ones. When you return to English, the reverse happens, making mixed-language documents easy to create and use.

Overthinking, however, still afflicts Word. It has gotten a bit better at letting the user find and turn off unwanted bells and whistles, but they should all have a default turnoff.

Microsoft has a ways to go, especially considering that the suite costs more than twice as much as comparable products.

MICROSOFT WORD

Microsoft Office 2000

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.

1-800-285-7772

www.microsoft.com

Grade: B+

Price: $799 for Office Professional 2000

+ Lots of new features

+ Easier to manage, but learning curve still high

- Costlier than competitors

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or higher, 200-Megahertz or faster Pentium processor, 32Megabyte of RAM, 252Megabyte of free storage

WORDPERFECT 9

In my view, this still ranks as the best of the big three.

A word of caution, though: As WordPerfect tries to compete directly with Microsoft Word by adding functions and features, this once-dominant word processor gets less and less easy to use.

I hate when a word processor thinks it knows how to format my documents better than I do. Most users don't want any more fancy features. They simply want to type letters and do basic formatting.

WordPerfect has always been good for that, but the newest version does some of the same things that are so maddening in Microsoft Word, though to a much lesser extent.

When you type in a hyperlink such as www.fbi.gov, the program automatically tries to make it a clickable link. That might be okay if you always post to the Web, but it just looks stupid when you are writing a memo to your staff.

Also, as a default, WordPerfect 9 applies something called "smart quotes." When you type in a double quote, the program automatically slants the quote marks in the direction of the text. Sometimes it's unnecessary, and trying to turn the dumb thing off or back on proves difficult.

Both the smart quotes and the automatic linking can be disabled. But the smart-quotes feature is buried about three levels down in a place that you would never find if you didn't know how to get there. The help functions point out, rather vaguely, where the controls for all features are located, and different smart controls are positioned under different menu options.

The saving grace is that Corel wisely left its famous "reveal codes" option in place. With a mouse click, you can view every formatting code that changes the document. If green text appears and you can't figure out why, reveal the codes and eliminate the command that colored the text.

This is most helpful when inserting graphics into a document, as you can see exactly how the program is being told to display the art. If you know the codes, you can even program the document to display exactly as you want, without using the program options.

As Corel adds more features, it should be cautious about losing functionality. WordPerfect 9 is less muddled than the other suites' word processors and fully compatible with its earlier versions.

WORDPERFECT 9

Corel WordPerfect Office 2000

Corel Corp., Ontario, Canada

1-888-267-3548, Ext. 5717

www.corel.com

Grade: A -

Suite price: $117

+ Reveal Codes shows why things happen

- Features increasingly complicated to manage

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or higher, 200-Megahertz or faster Pentium processor, 32Megabyte RAM, 220 Megabyte free storage

LOTUS WORDPRO

Lotus Word Pro blows Microsoft Word away -- at least in functions. But it works too slowly.

Unlike Corel's WordPerfect, which tries to mimic Microsoft's product, Lotus refreshingly has gone in the opposite direction, toward easier use. Word Pro has powerful features and a simple interface, rather like old versions of WordPerfect before Corel tried to fancy it up.

As soon as you open the program, you see a list of features, such as "quick correct" and the like, that you can activate or disable. There are no annoying features turned on by default. If you dislike bubble help menus, for instance, disable them at the start.

Instead of forcing you to page through multiple menus to do simple things, Word Pro knows what you might want. To add a header or a footer, merely click on that part of the page.

One of Word Pro's best features is its ability to manipulate graphics within documents -- anything from a small piece of line art all the way up to a full-blown color photo. When you insert an image, a little anchor appears with a line tracing back to the photo. The anchor represents the invisible point in the document where the code for the photo is.

Never again will you accidentally delete an image while editing a document, and anchor points can be far from their graphics.

Lotus also has given users single-click access to common actions, such as changing text fonts and colors, styling documents and making tables. To adjust the text, pull up the text menu and alter size, color or attributes right from one control box.

Some components stay available even when the program is not running. As long as you have the suite installed, you can open both the dictionary and the thesaurus from within the tool bar.

I had no problem converting files from other word processors.

So it would seem that Word Pro is cruising for a high grade, right? Unfortunately, the program's lack of speed holds it back.

The code in Word Pro must be like spaghetti. It takes forever to do anything. Much of the time I was testing the program, I thought its check-as-you-go spelling was turned off, but in fact it could not keep up with my typing. When I misspelled a word, the program would not alert me until I had written about three more sentences. In Word or WordPerfect, correction was instant on the same test computer. The find-and-replace function was also slow.

If you're looking for a clever interface and a well-rounded program, Word Pro is good. If speed is what you need, pass this by.

LOTUS WORD PRO

Lotus SmartSuite

Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, Mass.

617-577-8500

www.lotus.com

Grade: B-

Suite price: $370

+ Excellent interface

+ Useful features available from task bar

+ Good graphics handling

- Very slow

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or higher, 233-Megahertz or faster Pentium MMX, 32 Megabyte of RAM, 230 Megabyte of free storage