Corel just never gives up on its office suite portfolio. The Canadian company’s latest offering is stripped-down suite that provides core functionality for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Designed to eliminate the unnecessary features most of us never use, Home Office can even run on a netbook. The software features a fresh and simple interface thanks to tabbed toolbars for quick navigation (a more traditional toolbar interface is also available) and, in case you’re wondering, the suite is compatible with Microsoft’s market-leading Office so you can interchange files with friends, family and colleagues without a hitch.

Corel hopes to tap into the netbook craze with Home Office. Those who jumped on the netbook bandwagon early will have noticed that their cute little machines are a little under-powered – and lack the screen real estate – to handle mainstream office productivity suites. Home Office takes advantage of this and is even available on a product-branded USB key, so folks with netbooks that don’t have an optical drive have a non-download option for installation. In an unusual move (at least for Corel), the suite is not available on CD-ROM.

Home Office comes at a netbook-friendly price of £49 ($69.99). The suite requires at least Windows XP (Vista is fine) and a system with at least 256MB of RAM. However, the suite requires at least a 1024×768-pixel display (768×1024 on a tablet PC), which is a bit bigger than the 1024×600-pixel displays built into many netbooks.

The suite consists of Wire, Calculate, and Show, handling word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, respectively. You can choose to install the applications one at a time, or all of them in one go. Each application features relatively wide file format support (including Microsoft Office) and can export PDFs for easy sharing. The programs also support 13 languages and offer a wide range of customisation options so you can manage and maximise your use of screen real-estate.

Almost identical to Microsoft’s Office 2007 in appearance, all three applications should be instantly familiar to anyone who has used an office suite previously. It features familiar tabbed toolbars that put the right tools just where you need them, allowing you to write letters, create spreadsheets, and make slideshows in seconds. Corel’s most significant interface contribution is the F11 hot key, which toggles the menu bar between collapsed and full-screen view. Shrinking the menu bar gives you an extra inch or so of screen real estate – significant on small screens. The menu bar doesn’t disappear completely – it shrinks down to a small button that you can also click to recall the expanded menu.

You can open, edit and save Microsoft Office files, though it requires downloading the Microsoft Office 2007 compatibility pack first. In tests it successfully imported all the .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx files I threw at it. You can’t import PDFs to edit or convert slides to Flash format in Show. You can, however, create PDF documents from any of the three applications and switch languages (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Dutch and more) at the click of a button. Home Office isn’t as feature-rich (or bloated) as Office 2007, but it still offers enough features to create great-looking documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. You’ll probably spend most time in Write, and although formatting and other features are more than adequate, those working in groups will miss Office’s revisions mode. Calculate and Show are equally pleasing.

It’s fair to say that consumers and home-based business owners are increasingly seeking greater simplicity in their software. At the same time, the growing popularity of netbooks means that more users are focusing on a smaller set of core tasks. Corel’s Home Office addresses this segment’s specific needs by striking a reasonable balance between features and ease of use. Having said that, I just don’t see the point in paying for an office suite when there are such fantastic solutions available for free on the Internet. As an added incentive for netbook owners these programs don’t even need to be installed – all you need is a compatible Web browser.

If you are after office suite functionality but don’t want to spend, why not stop by Google Docs or Zoho. Granted they don’t look as nice as Corel’s Home Office, but that’s rather trivial on the grand scale of things. Home Suite is a definite improvement on the company’s previous suites in terms of usability, but I think Corel is barking up the wrong tree. It needs to shift its product portfolio online, and quickly, if it wants to survive in the increasingly Web-centric world of software.