These days there seems to be an abundance of free software floating round on the Internet. Whether you want an alternate web browser, a free CD burner, or even software to change the boot screen on your PC, somebody has created it. The trouble is with all this free software is that firstly, it's generally completely pointless (or just plain bad) and secondly it rarely turns out to be completely free. With this in mind it's nice to see OpenOffice.org 2.0. Not only is it completely free, it's very useful - an entire suite of programs a la Microsoft Office. Cynics might argue that there's no such thing as a free lunch, but in this case OpenOffice.org 2.0 bucks the trend and emerges as a viable alternative to Bill Gates' product.
- Completely free, better drawing editing than MS Office, PDF output
- Slower than MS Office, no equivalent to Outlook, interface not quite as well designed
OpenOffice.org isn’t as refined as MS Office, but it’s certainly better value for money
As a fully featured office suite OpenOffice.org 2.0 contains a multitude of programs. These are Writer (think Word), Calc (Excel), Base (Access), Impress (PowerPoint), Draw (Visio) and Math, an equation editor. There is no bundled alternative to Outlook, nor anything to rival Publisher. Microsoft claims that OpenOffice.org 2.0 is 10 years behind the current state of Office, and only suitable for users with "limited needs". While it is undoubtedly true that OpenOffice.org's performance lags behind MS Office, and it lacks some of the more advanced functionality, in other respects it is a superior product.
Firstly, we looked at Writer, the alternative to Word and probably the program that most people will use. The first thing we noticed was that Writer definitely takes longer to load than Word. This rang true with the whole of the OpenOffice.org suite, loading files and opening the various programs definitely takes longer their MS Office counterparts. This is really only a minor inconvenience though and it by no means makes the programs unusable. When opening Writer, our first impression was that it looks almost identical to Word. The layout is incredibly similar, some of the buttons on the toolbar having near indistinguishable icons. For most purposes using Writer is also exactly the same as using Word. Virtually every function is implemented, though we did miss Word's grammar check. It may be notoriously inaccurate, but it's nice to have some kind of safeguard. Where Writer does manage to trump Word is with the ability to save files as PDFs. The useful ability to output PDFs is present in all of OpenOffice's programs and definitely gives the package bonus points. Overall, we felt that Writer was a little less refined than Word, but still contained more than enough functionality to make it a good choice.
Calc, the alternative to Excel, also bears more than a striking resemblance to its Microsoft cousin. Anyone used to using Excel should feel quickly at home. The layout is nearly identical, and again virtually every function is represented. Previous versions of Calc have suffered by having a limit on the size of the spreadsheet, but this has now been addressed and Calc boasts the same 65,536 rows as Excel. One problem that Calc does face is, again, the performance issue. Loading large files can take exponentially longer than the same operation in Excel. This is really only an issue for truly massive files, but it is still an annoyance. Other than this Calc performed perfectly, again being just as useable as Excel.
OpenOffice's PowerPoint alternative, Impress, is another decent program. The user interface, while not being quite as intuitive as PowerPoint's, is very easy to use. Anyone making the switch from PowerPoint shouldn't encounter too many problems. One disappointment is the lack of templates. Impress comes complete with a distinctly unimpressive two, both of which are ghastly. More can be downloaded from the OpenOffice.org website, but why more weren't included in the first place is a bit of a mystery. We also felt special effects didn't work quite as well as in the Microsoft offering, but this wasn't a major problem.
One nice feature is the ability to import graphics with Draw. This graphics program may not be that spectacular, but it far outstrips anything that Microsoft offer. Importing graphics into any of the other OpenOffice.org programs works seamlessly. Base functions as an adequate database tool, being compatible with both Access and MySQL databases, and again mirroring the functionality of the Microsoft offering. The final offering, Math, is a little obscure. Math purports to be a formula editor, basically making the sometimes difficult task of typing out complex instructions a little easier. It can't actually solve any calculations and it's not a patch on LaTeX, but it does the job well enough.
So, why would you buy MS Office instead of downloading OpenOffice.org for free? Although OpenOffice.org can handle MS office proprietary formats with ease (.doc, .xls etc), it doesn't perform as well with them as Microsoft's own products. As these are the standard forms of document for many people this is certainly something to bear in mind. The lack of any dedicated mail and scheduling client may also put people off, though Mozilla's free program, Thunderbird, should provide an acceptable alternative.
There have also been lots of complaints about bugs; purportedly there are many thousands of bugs in the program waiting to be fixed. We didn't encounter any major problems, but they do appear to exist. Should you encounter any problems there is no dedicated support to help out either. The only help you can expect to receive is from the many legions of fans on the forums of OpenOffice.org's website.
There are a couple of things however, that go in OpenOffice's favour. Firstly, it is compatible with all versions of Windows since Windows 98, unlike the latest versions of Office which insist on the user running XP. OpenOffice.org will also happily run on Linux and Solaris, areas which Microsoft wouldn't touch with a barge pole. One final consideration is the dancing paperclip. There isn't one on OpenOffice.org. Nevermore will you have to suffer the infernal blinking of "Clippit". We think this alone is reason enough to ditch Microsoft's product and make the switch!
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