OpenOffice is the name-brand freeware alternative to Microsoft Office. Is this no-cost productivity suite really a viable replacement for MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, or is that just more open source hyperbole? We break open the other Office to find out in this review.
OpenOffice is the open-source version of Sun MicroSystems' StarOffice productivity suite, but you'll be forgiven for thinking it looks an awful lot like Microsoft Office 2003. In fact, OpenOffice may feel more like the MS Office you're used to than Office 2007, as the former has chosen not to emulate the controversial ribbon interface that defines the latest incarnations of MS Office. OpenOffice's pitch is that it can do virtually anything that MS Office does, open any MS Office file (including the docx 2007 versions), and export to any MS Office file type -- but for the best of all possible price points.
Open Office 3.1 includes the Write word processor, the Calc spreadsheet, the Impress presentation creator, the Base database program,and the Draw graphics application. This review will focus on the first three, as that's where most users' office application works is centered, and it's where most MS Office alternatives compete for your software dollars -- even if many of the competitors are available for free.
INSTALLATION & SETUP
OpenOffice 3.1 is available from OpenOffice.org, and is included in a somewhat bulky 148 MB download.
Time spent on the download is time saved on the installation as the entire install process, including the initially persistent requests to register and promote your use of OpenOffice, required barely a minute on our Windows XP machine. In all, a straightforward and painless process.
Below is the first open screen that will greet your every OpenOffice session.
You have your selection of the five main applications, as well as a formula composer for writing the OpenOffice version of Macros and extended calculations. It's worth noting at this point that, for all its versatility at importing any MS Office file type (and more, in fact), OpenOffice will not preserve many MS Office Macros during import. Given the notorious security risks associated with Office Macros, especially in older versions of Office, this may not be a bad thing.
Along with the application list on the main OpenOffice screen, you'll note icons for Templates and Extensions. Templates are quite similar to MS Office templates; they are preformatted layouts and designs for various files, offering everything from basic resume outlines in Write to advanced budget amortization calculators in Calc. You can download new templates directly into OpenOffice from OpenOffice.org, and clicking this icon will take you to the appropriate -- and quite user-friendly -- directory on the Web site.
For anyone who has used Firefox extensions, OpenOffice extensions will seem very familiar. Extensions are software components that add functionality to OpenOffice applications. For example, OpenOffice is rightfully lauded for its out-of-the-box PDF export capability, but Write can't natively import and edit PDF documents. No worries, there is an Extension for that, which allows you to perform line-by-line edits of PDF files from Write. Again, clicking the main screen icon will ferry you to the Extension directory at OpenOffice.org.
WRITE WORD PROCESSOR
At first blush, Write looks and feels just like Microsoft Word 2003. The menu layout, toolbar options, and overall functionality are almost eerily familiar. That said, there are some notable differences that MS Word veterans will notice.
Word power users will almost immediately notice that many of their familiar keyboard shortcuts are missing or perform different functions. For example, Find (CRTL+F in Word) and Find & Replace (CRTL+H in Word) are now a single function that is prompted by the former's hotkey. Moreover, the find-and-replace functionality in Write has an almost stupefying number of options, some of them more robust than even current versions of MS Word.
You can search based on font, style, color, and alter these same attributes en masse. And if that isn't powerful enough, you can compose a complex search query from a list of regular expressions to (for example) convert all tabbed indentations to double-carriage returns. Those used to the two-levels-deep quirks of Word -- and the shortcuts such knowledge made possible -- will have a slightly steeper learning curve than the average user.
Write also has a decent Web page publisher built in, though its a bit clumsy in its output formatting. Nonetheless, the fact that such functionality is lurking under the hood should assure you OpenOffice isn't some half-baked Word clone, but an actual piece of commercial-grade software.
This, however, hints at why Microsoft went to the ribbon interface: Simplicity. While OpenOffice saves you the trouble of (significantly) relearning your word processing program, it still holds the same problem old-school MS Word had: So many options you can get lost in the layered menus and still never tap five percent of what the software can do.
OpenOffice addresses some of this information overload with some very robust wizards (found in the File menu), but there are sadly too few of these usage aids. Also, for unexplained reasons, you can access Calc and Impress wizards from Write, and vice versa, so you may find yourself writing a spreadsheet from within your word-processor if you don't pay close attention.
Bottom line, for 80 percent of users, you could replace MS Word 2003 with OpenOffice Write 3.1 and they might not notice for a few days, and probably wouldn't care once they figured it out.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, Open Office Calc 3.1 is strikingly similar to MS Office Excel 2003.
Again, many of the familiar keyboard shortcuts don't perform the same -- or any -- functions, and OpenOffice's general lack of functional hotkeys will likely prove more noticeable to spreadsheet users. Moreover, the lack of VBA Macros support will render your complex, script-based excel calculators near to useless in Calc, which will prove a problem for those of you who have built complex custom reports in Excel.
That said, basic formula functions and -- even more impressively -- layout and graphics support do carryover from excel to Calc quite well. Trust us when we say there is no greater test of complex spreadsheet interoperability than a custom-made interactive Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Devoted game geeks construct incredibly complex, graphics and formula-heavy Excel spreadsheets that automatically calculate all the arcane, self-referencing statistic needed to play a game of D&D. If an MS Excel alternative can handle one of these monstrosity without breaking every formula and blowing up the layout, it can likely convert most any conventional spreadsheet you throw at it.
We took this Excel 2007 Fourth Edition D&D character sheet from RPGSheets.com and fed it to Calc 3.1, and it held up remarkably well.
Calc preserved the links to the separate reference files and maintained all the formulas. Only a few display tweaks crept in (note the hashmarks in some value fields, indicating a broken Macro value).
Bottom line: If you're building spreadsheets from scratch or importing Macro-free spreadsheets from Excel, Calc will do almost everything that Excel 2003 could. It just may take more steps thanks to the keyboard shortcut absence, which Excel veterans will feels with particular sensitivity. If you're Macro junky, Calc will require you to not insignificantly update or rebuild your legacy documents, which may make the free price tag feel more than a little expensive.
IMPRESS PRESENTATION CREATOR
While Write and Calc are strikingly similar to their Microsoft counterparts, the Impress presentation software feels a little lightweight compared to MS PowerPoint. Granted, most of the multimedia options and dependencies in MS PowerPoint often lead to overloaded, unintelligible presentations, so Impress could theoretically benefit from addition by subtraction. That said, Impress did an adequate but not impressive job of converting old PowerPoint files into an OpenOffice format.
We used a sample Office 2007 PowerPoint deck from IASTED.org to test Impress's conversion abilities, and it spit the bit in some places. In the image below, note how some elements are stacked atop one another, indicating some positioning drift during conversion. Not a hard thing to fix, but it will require you to look over your converted decks carefully before throwing them in front of an audience. The same problems did not come up when the same deck was converted from Office 2003 PowerPoint file, indicating that Impress may only experience these problems with the very latest version of Ms PowerPoint.
So far as building a presentation deck from scratch, Impress has everything you could need, including a rather nice outline interface that breaks down each slide into its bare text components.
Toggling between slides and doing bulk text replacements was rather easy, and Impress handled images passably well. As with all such additions, multimedia files were a hit-or-miss affair, but that's as true in PowerPoint as it is in OpenOffice.
Bottom line: You'll be able to assemble and edit solid presentations with Impress, but for those of you who like to push the envelope with glitzy layouts or audio/video flourishes may not by satisfied with the OpenOffice selection of bells and whistles. Those of us who have to sit through these overdone decks may come to appreciate Impress for its simplicity of options, but PowerPoint power users may not be so happy.
We've said it before but it bears repeating: For the vast majority of users, OpenOffice 3.1 will prove utterly interchangeable with Microsoft Office 2003. Only power users -- particularly those of us who build slick custom Macros or who have memorized every keyboard shortcut -- will be hindered by OpenOffice's particulars.
If you absolutely cannot stand the new MS Office ribbon interface but need a new productivity suite, OpenOffice 3.1 will feel more familiar than MS Office 2007 or 2010. If absolutely cannot stand paying hundreds of dollars for the Microsoft brand name but want near-equivalent MS Office functionality, OpenOffice 3.1 is definitely your software of choice.
Feels like classic MS Office
Awesome file import/export
Breaks MS Word Macros
Import may alter formatting
No ribbon interface
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