How to Switch from Microsoft Office

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You may be ditching Microsoft Office along with Microsoft Windows in its entirety for Mac OS X or Linux. Or perhaps you like Windows but want to break free from Microsoft Office. Then again, you could have simply grown tired of paying Microsoft per year or per license for its suite of Office apps.

With the number of free or low-cost Office alternatives available to you, you have good reason to pause before renewing your Office 365 subscription or purchasing another license for Office 2013. There are better options, and switching is easier than you think.

Office365Before we jump into the alternatives and our recommendations, we should look at Microsoft’s current pricing for comparison’s sake. There are two ways to purchase Office – a subscription to the cloud-based Office 365 or a one-time purchase for a license of Office 2013.

Office 365 Home costs $99.99 a year or $9.99 a month for five installations and includes 1 TB of cloud storage via OneDrive. Office 365 Personal costs $69.99 a year or $6.99 a month for a single installation and 1 TB of cloud storage. Both Office 365 flavors include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher.

If you have enough subscriptions in your life, you can get a stripped down version of Office with no cloud storage. Office Home & Student 2013 costs $139.99 for a single installation and includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Office Home & Business 2013 costs $219.99 for a single license and adds Outlook to the mix.

office-onlineMicrosoft tried to stem the tide of individuals and businesses abandoning Office in favor of low-cost solutions by offering Office Online; essentially a retooling of the old Office Web Apps. The Personal Edition of Office Online is available to individuals free of charge as long as you have a registered Microsoft account. The Enterprise edition of Office Online requires your business to pay for an Office 365 Enterprise subscription. Either way, Office Online is useful as long as you have a connection to the internet.

Each of the alternatives we will discuss cost less than a subscription or license for Microsoft Office, and many are free. All of them let you open, edit, and save Word docs, Excel sheets, and many other Office formats as you would if you were still in Microsoft’s warm embrace.

In testing a handful of alternatives, we found each did an impressive job in making the switch as painless as possible. One potential barrier to would-be switchers, however, is complicated Excel macros. An Office alternative may have trouble replicating giant Excel macros you’ve created, but its success greatly increases with simple Excel formulas as well as Word templates.

Another area that might keep you married to Microsoft is a powerful database program such as Access. Then again, for many users, however, Microsoft Office is overkill. If you use Word and Excel primarily with the occasional PowerPoint session, you can save money by moving to an alternate suite without missing a beat. And you might come to enjoy using the alternative more than Microsoft Office.

driveGoogle Drive

With Google Drive, you replace your Office apps with nothing but your preferred web browser. A cloud-based suite of office apps, Google Drive stores your files on Google’s servers, letting you access them from any of your Internet-connected devices while also delivering sharing and collaboration options. It’s likely the number one destination for those running away from Microsoft Office.

Google offers 15 GB of free storage space with Drive. Paid plans start at $1.99 a month for 100 GB and $9.99 a month for 1 TB. Google Drive features a number of apps, including Docs (word processing app), Sheets (spreadsheet app), and Slides (presentation app).

Google Drive uses its own file formats by default but supports Office formats for Word (.doc and .docx), Excel (.xls and .xlsx), and PowerPoint (.ppt and .pptx). From Drive, you can upload single files or entire folders of Microsoft Office files. You simply need to open Google Drive in your browser, click the red New button, and select either Upload file or Upload folder.

You can edit Microsoft Office files in Google Drive, but you must take the extra step of opening a file in the corresponding Google Drive app. For example, when you open a Word doc that you uploaded to Drive, it opens a read-only preview. To edit it, you will then need to choose Google Docs from the “Open with” menu.

In addition to uploading Microsoft Office files to Google Drive, you can also move the other way and download files you created in Google Drive to your hard drive in a Microsoft Office format. You can download a file from the main Google Drive screen simply by right-clicking on a file in the list and choosing Download. Alternatively, from an open file, go to File > Download as. This maneuver is handy should you like to work with Google Drive, but you need to share files in other formats.

Because the documents you create with Google Drive are stored in the cloud instead of locally, you are able to engage in real-time collaboration by sharing a document with others.. Collaborating on cloud-based documents is more efficient than making changes on various local copies and swapping those back and forth.

One collaboration area where Word is superior to Google Drive, however, is its track changes feature, that shows the edits each person has made to a document. With Google Drive, you can move from Editing mode to Suggesting mode to show changes made to a document, but it’s not as fully featured as Word’s track changes feature.

For times when you lack an Internet connection, you can enable offline mode in Google Drive to view and edit files, though you must operate with a limited feature set. You will also need to use Chrome; Google Drive is compatible with non-Google browsers sans offline mode.

Lastly, Word has many more formatting options than the limited supply you get with Google Docs. Similarly, Google Sheets doesn’t have nearly as many macros that Microsoft Excel provides.

OpenOffice and LibreOffice

We are grouping these two open-source office suites together because they both sprang from the same OpenOffice.org source code.  

libreoffice-logoQuickly, the backstory: Sun Microsystems open sourced its StarOffice suite and named it OpenOffice.org. When Oracle acquired Sun, it tossed the project over to the Apache Foundation, at which point some of the people that had worked on the office suite then started LibreOffice. So today, we are left with two very similar open-source Office suites, Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice.

Both suites are free and work with PCs, Macs, and Linux systems. And both feature the same six applications: a word processor app akin to Word, a spreadsheet app akin to Excel, a presentation app akin to PowerPoint, a database app akin to Access, a vector drawing app, and a mathematical formulas app.

You’d be hard pressed to choose one open-source suite over the other because the differences are so slight. You’d have an easier time choosing which Williams sister is the better tennis player. In the word processing apps, for example, OpenOffice displays a formatting sidebar by default, but such a sidebar can be enabled in LibreOffice. And LibreOffice’s word processing app features a live word count at the bottom, while OpenOffice forces you to click through Tools > Word count to find such information.

The LibreOffice interface is familiar to Microsoft Office users even if it isn't identical.

The LibreOffice interface is familiar to Microsoft Office users even if it isn’t identical.

On the whole, we found the apps for both open-source suites to look less appealing than Microsoft’s apps, but that is purely an aesthetic judgment. Between the two, we prefer the look of LibreOffice, which features a monochrome color scheme and larger menu icons to the distractingly colorful and tiny icons of OpenOffice. Users of Microsoft Office should quickly adapt, however, to the design and features of either suite.

Both OpenOffice and LibreOffice save documents in the Open Document Format, but you can also set them up to save documents by default in Microsoft formats. OpenOffice’s word processor app can save documents as .doc files while LibreOffice can save docs as .doc and .docx. Although it can’t save to the .docx and .xlsx formats, OpenOffice can open files previously saved in those formats.

As with Google Drive, you might not find the right templates and macros in the open-source suite. Unlike Google Drive, OpenOffice and LibreOffice aren’t cloud-based. You save documents locally with each, which may be of comfort to you if you’ve spent decades with such a workflow. And it may be of particular comfort as well if you have sensitive work information you are loathe to upload to the cloud.

iWork

Apple's creation of iWork for iCloud opens Apple's productivity suite to all new users.

Apple’s creation of iWork for iCloud opens Apple’s productivity suite to all new users.

Apple’s iWork productivity trio of the Pages word processor app, the Numbers spreadsheet app, and the Keynote presentation app has seen two major changes in recent years. For starters, Apple adjusted its pricing structure so that the apps are free to existing iWork users and owners of new Macs and iOS devices. In addition, Apple got iWork talking to iCloud, which allows for such things as real-time collaboration and access to your files from any of your Macs or iOS devices.

In the process of making iWork work for both OS X and iOS, some features were lost along the way. If you use only a small percentage of the wealth of features available in Word and Excel, for example, then Pages and Numbers may suffice and be even easier to use with their simplified design.

Plus, Apple is adding features back to its iWork suite after an outcry from the iWork faithful who upgraded to the latest version only to find familiar and favorite features missing. Take a look at this Apple Support page [https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202879] of the features that have been returned to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

WPS Office

wpsFormerly labeled Kingsoft Office, WPS Office is the new and improved version of this popular office suite from Chinese software company Kingsoft. WPS Office includes three apps — Writer, Spreadsheets, and Presentation — and boasts cross-platform support, with versions for Windows, Linux, Android, and iOS. It is compatible with a variety of Microsoft formats, from Microsoft Office 97 to Office 2010.

To our eyes, WPS Office more closely resembles Microsoft Office than either OpenOffice or LibreOffice, and it brings a few unique features to the (conference room) table. For one, it steals a page from modern web browsers and offers a tabbed interface, which lets you work with multiple files in a single window. Additionally, the Writer app supports drag-and-drop editing, where you can highlight a selection of text and drop it in a new spot, which for mouse-centric people eliminates the step of first copying the selection to the clipboard and then pasting it. Lastly, WPS Office offers cloud computing, which it dubs File Roaming. With the feature enabled, you can access your documents from different devices.

The basic version of WPS Office is free, and there are two paid plans. WPS Office Home Premium costs $2.99 a month, or $30 a year and adds the ability to save files as PDFs, auto-save, encrypt files, and collaborate tools with track changes. WPS Office Business Edition costs $4.99 a month or $50 a year and adds macros to the mix for serious spreadsheet builders.

Conclusion

NoOfficeIn the end, whether you ditch Microsoft Office depends on what you need on a daily basis. And if you do make a switch, the alternative you settle on also depends on your particular workflow.

With that disclaimer out of the way, we think many Microsoft Office users would be well served by taking a combination approach. That is, using a cloud-based service for the majority of your word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation endeavors, with another suite of apps in reserve for time when you need additional templates, formats, or formulas.

We recommend Google Drive for its speed, efficiency, and support for multiple platforms. Google Drive loads quickly in your browser in a fraction of the time it takes a locally hosted program to load. And we trust the stability of Google servers more than the hard drive in your laptop or desktop (or ours, for that matter), making your data more secure no matter how religious you are about performing regular backups of your computer.

As a cloud-based product, Google Drive lets you access your files from a variety of devices, from your PC at work to your Mac at home to your Android tablet or iPhone on the go. Its flexible, real-time collaboration features could be a boon for your business, and it should come as no surprise that a Google product boasts fast and accurate search capabilities, making it quick and easy to find your files.

Google Drive is impressively compatible with Microsoft formats, but you may want to keep a secondary office suite on your computer just in case. For those times, we recommend WPS Office for its attractive design that mimics the look and feel of Microsoft Office and forward-thinking features such as its tabbed interface.

WPS Office lacks support for OS X, so we’d steer Mac users to LibreOffice, whose apps feels lighter and more responsive than iWorks’ with more of the familiar tools and features of Microsoft Office.

 

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