By Jay Garmon
ThinkFree Office Online is a web-based productivity suite that goes the extra mile in trying to imitate Microsoft Office. Is this free web-app really the next best thing to Microsoft's standard-setting app suite, or is ThinkFree just another Web 2.0 pretender? We sort it out in this review.
ThinkFree makes a set of applications designed to compete with Microsoft Office, but its application model is somewhat unusual. ThinkFree offers a conventional application suite that you can buy, but it replicates almost all the functions of its Write word processor, Calc spreadsheet, and Show presentation program online, for free. In and of itself, that model isn't extraordinary these days. What makes ThinkFree different is that it segregates document sharing and document editing. You can store, share, and view documents on ThinkFree with all the same granular controls found in Google Docs or Zoho. Beyond that, you can generate embeddable widgets so you can publish self-updating documents on other Web sites. All of these functions are separate and distinct from ThinkFree's online editing capabilities, a point made abundantly clear on ThinkFree's home page, where there is almost no mention made of online editing.
As an ad-hoc format converter, online document storehouse, or Web publishing service, ThinkFree is very solid. But the second you click the Edit button, the experience deteriorates rapidly. ThinkFree Online uses a Java Virtual Machine to handle editing, and you must download the JVM to edit your online documents. That wouldn't be a problem except that the JVM download isn't small and ThinkFree's server nearly always times out. It took me a dozen attempt over four days to get the JVM installed. Once I finally overcame that hurdle, I found the JVM had equal trouble syncing with my online documents -- again, server lag kept the documents from loading -- such that editing was almost impossible. Despite repeated e-mail exchanges with ThinkFree's customer service, I couldn't resolve the issue.
ThinkFree Write has all the core functions of Microsoft Word down pat, including a very serviceable spellchecker and an ability to display diacritical marks. Like every other web-based word processor we've tested, ThinkFree still couldn't handle a find-replace of formatting data or offer a grammar-check option, nor did it have the robust mail-merge and picture-insert features of Zoho. Despite these limitations, ThinkFree Write was still more full-featured than Google Docs and provided an interface that was comfortably familiar for MS Word users. The PDF export was very clean and simple. The main problem with virtually all of these functions is that every one of them made the web-app lock up, as the server connection was painfully slow. PDF export took in excess of ten minutes, and I often had to wait two or three minutes switching from text editing to menu functions. After a week of testing, I had barely any actual word-processing to show for my efforts.
In all honesty, I couldn't adequately evaluate ThinkFree Calc as I couldn't get the web-based editor to load. ThinkFree couldn't open our test spreadsheet, a notoriously complicated Dungeons & Dragons character sheet I use for extreme spreadsheet crash-testing. If a spreadsheet app can handle this D&D sheet -- with its multiple interrelated formulas, embedded graphics, and hefty Macros -- it can handle anything. Thus, there's little surprise that ThinkFree couldn't edit the D&D sheet, and that even when it simply displayed the document, the formatting was mangled. What isn't forgivable is that ThinkFree couldn't open a blank spreadsheet. Specifically, I couldn't create a spreadsheet with Calc. The spreadsheet editor simply wouldn't load.
ThinkFree Show handled our test presentation with middling skill. It converted the PowerPoint 2007 graphics and text with no formatting drift, but complex background images and graphs didn't survive the import process. It had a basic selection of transitions and fonts, though not quite the array of backgrounds found in Zoho. Overall, Show was solid but not spectacular. Unfortunately, it too suffered from the server timeout issues that plagued Write and Calc, and in a way this was more of a problem for Show. While you could view presentations in Show without invoking the full editor, you couldn't view them in true fullscreen outside of the edit mode. If I'm going to base my presentation in Thinkfree, I'm not going to make my audience wait for an edit window to load.
Ultimately, ThinkFree seems like it could be a solid product, but the pervasive slowness and lockups that marred my test experience make the product totally untrustworthy. While ThinkFree is a moderately useful document viewer and sharing platform, as a full-fledged document creator and editor, it is unreliable to the point of uselessness. Moreover, ThinkFree seemed unwilling to acknowledge the problem was on their end, despite evidence to the contrary. Until they get their apparent server timeout issues resolved, I recommend you steer clear of ThinkFree.