By Jay Garmon
From open-source software to Web-based applications, there are so many free alternatives to Microsoft Office it's a wonder anyone pays hundreds of dollars for a word processor, spreadsheet, or presentation program anymore. But of all the freebie office suites out there, which is most worth the money you don't have to spend? We break down the top five contenders in this buyers guide.
In each of the following categories, the contending applications will be graded as the overall Winner, Pass, or Fail. A rank of Winner will confer two points, a rank of Pass will confer one point, and rank of Fail will confer zero points. The overall points-winner will be crowned the best free alternative to Microsoft Office that money can't buy.
You don't have to use MS Office, but almost everybody else will. Can your app open -- and save to -- a variety of document formats, including all the new and old Office file types?
Winner: OpenOffice 3.1 -- Thanks to some serious third-party and open-source community support, OpenOffice can handle almost any format you throw at it, including Office 2007. More to the point, OpenOffice can save to virtually any format it opens, and it has a top-notch native PDF output option. This versatility extends to both spreadsheets and presentations, too.
Pass: ThinkFree Online Beta -- ThinkFree made an interesting choice to segregate document viewing and sharing from document editing. While that choice cost ThinkFree in other areas, it does mean that you can open almost anything in ThinkFree with minimal format drift. For an online Web app, that's very high praise.
Fail: Google Docs, IBM Lotus Symphony, Zoho -- Symphony falls down in its inability to save to newer Office formats; it can open almost anything, and convert it quite well, but you have almost no choice but to save in Open Document format or old-school Word. Google Docs and Zoho are simply paying the price for being Web-based: They occasionally mangle heavily formatted or graphics-intensive documents, which can be a real pain when it comes to spreadsheet forms or presentations.
EASE OF USE
We've all had years of training and practice at using Microsoft Word. How easy is it to switch to a new layout and set of menus?
Winner: Google Docs -- This is where Google Docs is designed to shine, and it does. Google offers the bare minimum functionality presented in a usable style with plenty of online support to help you along the way. Almost anyone can use it from the word go.
Pass: IBM Lotus Symphony 1.3, OpenOffice 3.1, Zoho -- Zoho is like Google Docs with extra polish and more robust features, but the core simplicity -- dolled up to look like MS Word 2003 -- is still there. Along those same lines, OpenOffice is almost a clone of Word 2003, right down to the submenus. Symphony is somewhere in the middle of Zoho and OpenOffice, but it's just as easy to use.
Fail: ThinkFree Office Online Beta -- ThinkFree had the worst server latency and timeout issues I've ever experienced with a Web app (and I use Twitter daily). Add to that the bizarre scheme that segregates document sharing from document editing and you've got a loser.
Some of us use an office suite as our primary job tool, and we've got a number of tips and tricks to show for it. We don't do occasional tasks in our productivity suites; we perform daily, job-critical functions. How well does an app accommodate those of us that lean heavily on our word processor, spreadsheets, or presentations to get the job done?
Winner: OpenOffice 3.1 -- Frankly OpenOffice is the only contender here that made a veteran MS Office user (and professional writer and speaker) feel at home. It has almost all the same power functions (mail-merge, Web format output) and shortcut keys as Office, and none of the ribbon interface that drives many Office 2007 users crazy.
Pass: IBM Lotus Symphony 1.3 -- Based on the same original source code as OpenOffice, Symphony has most of the same functionality, but with noticeably less polish and third-party support.
Fail: Google Docs, ThinkFree Office Online Beta, Zoho -- Google Docs is stripped to the bone, so much so that basics like format fine-tuning or advanced find/replace tasks are flat-out missing. ThinkFree simply isn't reliable enough for basic users, let alone those of us that depend on an office suite every day. Zoho is Google Docs with a few more bells and whistles, but not enough to be a full-time Office displacer.
What can these apps do that Office can't?
Winner: Zoho -- Zoho has all the online sharing, user-control, and collaboration features that Google Docs brings to bear, but with more features and a nicer interface. If you're working on a collaborative document or group project, Zoho is your first choice, displacing even what MS Office 2010 so far has to offer.
Pass: Google Docs, OpenOffice 3.1 -- Google has extremely solid and extensible online collaboration features, while OpenOffice has the most robust find/replace functionality and third-party template support we've yet seen. Both shine in areas where Office is still getting its feet wet.
Fail: IBM Lotus Symphony 1.3, ThinkFree Office Online Beta -- Symphony could have done well here in its ability to run on Linux, Mac and Windows, but its overall lack of polish and buggy extended features kill it. ThinkFree was simply unusable due to server latency, so we don't have a good idea what features it offers, period. Symphony has some potential here, especially with its integrated Web browser and widgets, but it simply feels half-baked and incomplete.
OVERALL WINNER: OpenOffice 3.1
OpenOffice is the MS Office alternative that has the most support, which explains why it has such a robust feature set and can give MS Office a run for its money in almost every category besides integration with SharePoint or SQL servers (both Microsoft products, naturally). Whether OpenOffice's support keeps pace as MS Office moves into online collaboration -- a la Google Docs or Zoho -- remains to be seen.
Right now, Zoho and Google Docs are light years ahead of everyone when it comes to online collaboration, OpenOffice included, but their feature sets just aren't up to snuff for power users. Until they get there, OpenOffice 3.1 is your top choice for saving hundreds of dollars over MS Office without scrimping on functionality.
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