Can OpenOffice 3.0 finally replace MS Office?

Beta of the open source office suite brings a new Start Centre and some added features that provide a serious, free alternative to Microsoft Office

If you think that you always get what you pay for, the just-released beta of OpenOffice 3.0 should convince you otherwise. This free, open source software suite provides most of what anyone could want in an office suite, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, database, drawing tools, and math equation editor.

Although it doesn't include all of the high-end features and the slick user interface of Microsoft Office 2007 (for the PC) and Microsoft Office 2008 (for the Mac), it will handle just about any job you need done. If you're not working in an enterprise that has standardized on Microsoft Office, you should think twice before paying full freight for Office, and give serious consideration to this free alternative when the final version is released.

Keep in mind that OpenOffice 3.0 is in beta and should be used for evaluation purposes only. I tested the Windows version on a 1.83GHz Core Duo PC with 1 GB of memory, and found it to be somewhat buggy. For example, I was unable to create a document and save it without crashing -- I had to first create a document in another program, and then open it in OpenOffice; at that point it worked fine. These types of problems should come as no surprise; the final version isn't due until September, and this is a very early beta.

The download comes with six applications: the Writer word processor, Calc spreadsheet, Impress presentations program, Base database program, Math equation editor, and Draw graphics program. Even as a 147.9MB download, though, it's still svelte compared to Microsoft Office.

What's new

If you've already used OpenOffice 2.0, the beta of version 3 will be very recognizable. Little in the overall interface or each individual application has changed. If you're not familiar with OpenOffice, you'll consider the interface either functional and straightforward or old-fashioned and stodgy, depending on your aesthetic inclinations. Toolbar icons, for example, are cartoonish-looking, and you won't find the equivalent of Microsoft Office 2007's Ribbon.

A nice new addition is the Start Centre, which lets you easily create a new document or open an existing one -- just click on the proper icon. The Start Centre appears only if you don't currently have an OpenOffice application opened. Once you've opened an application, you can create or open a document by right-clicking the OpenOffice icon in the system tray and making the appropriate choice.

Particularly important are changes to support for file formats. OpenOffice 3.0 supports the upcoming OpenDocument Format (ODF) 1.2 standard, and will also be able to open documents created in Microsoft Office 2007 and Office 2008 for the Mac, which means that it's about as universally useful as an Office suite can be. It can also export files to PDF. Mac users will be pleased to know that it can now run natively on Mac OS X without having to use X11.

There's also a new zoom control on the status bar, much like the one in Microsoft Office 2007. And there are minor tweaks to each of the separate applications. For example, both Draw and Impress have improved on their cropping features, and Writer can now display multiple pages.


Most people will likely spend the majority of their time in Writer, the OpenOffice word processor. The design is simple and straightforward -- a menu atop two toolbars, one for formatting, and one called Standard, which has the usual functions you would expect: opening and closing files, spell-checking, redo and undo, search, and so on. There are a wide variety of other toolbars you can add from the View menu, such as for drawing and creating bullets.

You'll find all the tools you need for performing almost all word processing functions, whether it be simple ones such as formatting and creating tables, or more sophisticated ones, such as comparing documents and doing mail merges. In fact, for well over 90 per cent of what most people do with their word processor, there's no real difference between Writer and Microsoft Word. How important that other 10 per cent is to you will determine whether you're willing to pay for Office or instead use the free OpenOffice.

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For example, Writer doesn't include Word's smart paste feature that lets you decide, when pasting text into a document, whether to use the text's original formatting or your document's formatting. And it doesn't include other features, such as Word's Quick Parts (formerly known as AutoText) that lets you create complex building blocks of text, formatting, and graphics that you easily organize and reuse. In addition, it doesn't come with nearly as many prebuilt templates as does Word.


Calc, like Writer, will handle over 90 per cent of what you use a spreadsheet for. In addition, one of Calc's new features is nice: the ability to collaborate with others via workbook sharing.

In my tests, Calc imported Excel spreadsheets without problems, and created them in Excel format as well. It saves files in an impressive array of formats, including ODF and OpenOffice formats, numerous Excel formats, HTML files, .csv files, dbase files, and others. Like Writer, it can also export files to PDF.

It includes all the spreadsheet functions you would expect, as well as charting features, although here again it falls short compared to Excel 2007. You won't find as many chart types and designs, and you can't customize charts to the same degree, either.

I found one problem: I was unable to edit charts created in Excel 2007; when I imported them into Calc, they turned into graphics.


This presentation program is particularly useful for those who don't create a lot of presentations, because by default it starts with a wizard-based interface. The wizard walks you through creating a basic presentation: choosing a template, background, transition effects, types of slides, and so on. Fill in the content, create new slides or delete existing ones, edit what you've got, and you're done. It's all exceedingly simple. If you don't like using wizards, you can simply turn it off.

Editing the presentation and individual slides is simple as well. A set of "tasks" appears on the right-hand side of the screen, including those for slide layouts, table design, and animation effects. Fill in the form for the task, and you're done.

As with other components of OpenOffice, Impress falls short when it comes to templates and backgrounds. You get very few of them, and the ones you get won't exactly impress your audience. So if you're someone who frequently creates presentations, and constantly needs new templates and backgrounds, you may be in trouble.

Other components

The remaining components of the suite include the Base database program, Math equation editor, and Draw graphics program. You won't mistake Draw for a fully featured photo editor or illustration tool, but that's not what it's been designed to do. It has a far richer set of tools than the Paint program that ships with Windows, so if Paint doesn't offer you what you want, and you don't want to spend the time or money learning a more complex program, you may want to give Draw a try.

Base has been designed for people who don't normally create databases, which means most of us. Like Impress, it starts out with a wizard interface, so you don't have to know much about databases, and you can still create one in a few minutes.

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OpenOffice vs. Microsoft Office

For most of what you use an office suite for, you'll find that OpenOffice 3.0 will more than fill your needs. Whether you're creating documents, spreadsheets, or presentations, the suite offers all the basics and much more. There are excellent formatting tools, mail merge, macros, solid charting tools, and the ability to easily create presentations.

If you're thinking of switching to OpenOffice from Microsoft Office, expect practically no learning curve. Many keyboard shortcuts are exactly the same, as are many menus and toolbar choices. You'll be able to import your existing Office documents, and create them in Office formats as well.

OpenOffice also comes with a nice set of wizards for accomplishing a wide variety of tasks. Want to create a formula in Excel, or create a new presentation in Impress? You'll find a wizard for the task.

However, OpenOffice 3.0 does have some shortcomings compared to Microsoft Office. Start with the interface. There's no way around it -- while functional, the OpenOffice interface is dull and stodgy. You may feel as if you're back in the 1990s when you use it. The issue is more than simply aesthetic -- the Office 2007 Ribbon puts far more tools and features at your fingertips, and in a simpler and more elegant way than does OpenOffice 3.0. (Of course, if you're one of those Office users who dislike Microsoft's new interface, you may find OpenOffice's more traditional look to be an advantage.)

There are other shortcomings as well. OpenOffice doesn't have some of Office's more interesting and higher-end features, such as Quick Parts. In addition, you won't find as many templates, backgrounds, or layouts. OpenOffice 3.0 only has the bare minimum (of course, this is a beta release, so this may change).

That shouldn't surprise anyone, considering that OpenOffice is free and without the backing of a multibillion-dollar company. Still, keep that in mind when deciding which you'd rather use.

The bottom line

Who should use OpenOffice? Anyone who needs an office suite but doesn't require the more sophisticated features of Microsoft Office. It's ideally suited for home users, students, and small businesses who don't want to pay the hefty fee for Microsoft Office. If you plan on purchasing an ultra-low-cost portable such as the Asus Eee PC, the suite is ideal -- it's free, doesn't require an excess amount of RAM, runs on a variety of operating systems (including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux), and won't take all of your precious hard disk space. Even on a normal PC, it's a great alternative to Microsoft Office.

Enterprises, though, may have already standardized on Office. And even if they haven't, there simply aren't the support tools and support ecosystem for OpenOffice as there is for Microsoft Office.

All in all, OpenOffice 3.0 shows that you don't have to pay a bundle for a great office suite -- in fact, you don't even have to pay a penny.