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For all the variety in our lives, when it comes to computing, we all need to do pretty much the same things: compose documents, analyze numbers, and keep track of names, addresses, and the like.

That's why the starting point for any home PC is a good ''suite,'' a bundle of basic software such as word processing, spreadsheet, and graphics programs designed to work together. Most PCs come with simple all-in-one packages, such as Microsoft Works or ClarisWorks. But even moderately sophisticated users may quickly outgrow such programs. High-end bundles, on the other hand, include powerful database programs and development tools most home users don't need. Fortunately, between the extremes are packages that suit typical needs.

Whether you're a professional working from home, a small-business owner, or just a hobbyist, the time has never been better to invest in a suite to help you do everything from create a product brochure to balance the books. After years of runaway feature wars, software makers are focusing on ease of use. Competition is heating up, too, bringing prices way down: Software makers are offering ''upgrade'' prices as low as $99 to anyone trading up from an older version of the suite--or a competitor's. They're also throwing in extras such as Web browsers and free Internet time.

NET TIES. Indeed, the latest round of suites from Microsoft, Lotus, and Corel focus on meshing the desktop with the Net. First out was Corel, which shipped WordPerfect Suite 7 for Windows 95 in May. It centers around the WordPerfect word-processing program and includes the QuattroPro spreadsheet, Corel graphics, and a slew of other software. There's also a copy of Netscape Communications' Navigator 2.01 browser and features that make it a snap to create documents in the Web's hypertext markup language format and even Sun Microsytems' Java language. The price for first-time users is $395, but upgrades cost just $99.

Likewise, Lotus and Microsoft are planning updates for early next year. Lotus is putting finishing touches on SmartSuite 97, a revamp featuring Windows 95 versions of the 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Organizer personal schedule manager, Word Pro word processing, and Freelance graphics programs. The price is $399. Upgrades are $149, but a $50 rebate puts Lotus on par with Corel.

The blockbuster, though, is likely to be Microsoft's Office 97. Already the leading office suite, Microsoft hopes to stay ahead with improvements in automated help and Net connectivity. The standard Office 97 package includes Microsoft's popular Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs. In addition, Office 97 will contain Outlook, a combined E-mail program and personal- and group-information manager and scheduler, and the Internet Explorer browser.

Office 97 also borrows (and refines) the idea of ''personal assistants''--cartoon characters that provide helpful tips--from the company's ill-fated Bob graphical user interface. The Office 97 upgrade is $249; while an upgrade to Office Professional, which features the Access database program and works with a new mouse that lets you do things such as scroll sideways, is $349.

Of course, these new features have a price: the standard edition of Office 97 hogs 120 megabytes of hard-disk space. In general, you'll need 16 MB of memory to properly run any of the major suites. But look at it this way: A good suite may be the only software package you need.

By Amy Cortese

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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