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Is it time to look at Open Office more seriously?

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

As you may or may not know, Microsoft is on the verge of releasing the new version of Microsoft Office, Office 2007. It represents the next step in the evolution of Office, and is already getting mixed reviews from people who both love, and hate, the new version.

With street prices for Microsoft Office running between $100 and $500 depending on the edition and upgrade options, it's not surprising that more people are starting to ask about Open Office, the open source alternative with a street price of $0.

Yes, it's a Microsoft Office competitor that's completely free.

I have Open Office installed on my machine. The most recent version, 2.1, includes equivalents for Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and Powerpoint in the forms of Open Office Write, Calc, Base, and Impress, as well as Open Office Draw, which appears somewhat similar to a simple version of Microsoft Visio, and Open Office Math, an equation editor.

But is it any good?

Well, so far, the times I've used it, I'd have to say that "it depends". It depends on what you're doing, and how tied to the Microsoft Office user interface you might be. Now, since that last point appears to be changing in Office 2007 anyway, it might be less of an issue should you be considering an upgrade.

One of the complaints about Microsoft Office is feature bloat - tons of features that most people don't use. My feeling it that if that's you, if you're not really an Office power user and just want the basic features of a powerful office application suite, Open Office may very well meet your needs.

However.

I do have two areas of concern.

The first is possible compatibility issues exchanging documents with Microsoft Office users. In particular, documents that use Microsoft Office features not found in Open Office. It's unclear exactly how Open Office would preserve those features if you edit the documents containing them.

The second is more about how you use Office. If you're a little more than a casual user, you might well find that the one small very cool feature you really really liked in a Microsoft Office application isn't present, or works differently, in Open Office.

It's also worth noting that Open Office does not include an email client equivalent to Microsoft Outlook. You'll need to go grab Mozilla Thunderbird, also free, or some other email client to round out your Office replacement.

With those as caveats, though, I'd actually would recommend you download and give Open Office a test drive. If it turns out to meet your needs, you've just might just save yourself quite a few bucks.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11114 in the go to article number box and leave me a comment. While you're there, search over 1,000 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C2913 - January 28, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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7 Comments
alan lindsey
January 28, 2007 2:35 PM

I've been using OpenOffice Writer alongside MS Word for some while, Calc, Impress and Draw to a lesser extent.
Writer can open most Word documents competently, and on several occasions it has been able to open Word documents that crashed MS Word! Lifesaver there. It has some problems with formatting, particularly with placement of graphics, but can correctly resize a page when Word gives up with a totally unhelpful message that the margins are outside limits - but offers no remedy. Its macro language is almost impenetrable to someone reasonably familiar with VBA, so I haven't been able yet to replicate my various Word 'helpers' in Writer. OpenOffice does PDF out of the box - which is immensely useful to me (although Word plus PDFCreater comes close). Writer has little annoyances like not moving the cursor to the beginning or end of a selection when you press the arrow keys and - infuriatingly - going all the way to the last replacement of a find/replace instead of returning the the previous cursor position - not funny in a 20 page document. Language support is very good (I'm a linguist), allowing spellchecking in all languages (apparently on a word-by-word basis) in a mixed document, and checking spelling as you type doesn't take up 100% CPU (Word 2003 is better than older versions in that area). However, you have to re-install all the dictionaries every time there's an upgrade, which is quite often! Also, importantly, Writer seems not to crash at regular intervals with very complex documents, while Word ... The only really bad experience I had with Writer was when I decided to work on an important document in Writer's native format for a change - and there was a problem with a complex table format (courtesy of an OCR program). Writer crashed for once, with no way to recover the document formatting, and the text had to be dug out of an XML file. Otherwise, Writer is really useful, and I could probably use it exclusively if I didn't have to be sure my files are fully compatible with other Word users.
The same goes really for the rest of OpenOffice. I've used Draw to prepare artwork, and Calc to handle heavy-duty spreadsheets. On the couple of occasions I have used Impress with PowerPoint presentations, it did the job satisfactorily. I am reasonably sure I could turn out a very serviceable set of slides with Impress if I had to start from scratch.
All in all, unless total MS Office compatibility is essential, Open Office does the job, does it well, and leaves enough change out of the price of MS Office to buy a half-way decent computer!

Minot Isok
January 28, 2007 8:23 PM

I had a copy of MS Word back in 1998 and realized then that just for typing letters and general info I didn't need MS Word or the price. Later, I heard about OpenOffice and faithfully download each version/update on my dialup connection - about 4.5 hours. OpenOffice worked good for me but it still was more than I needed. Today, I have Office XP - not installed and the latest version of OpenOffice - installed. But I don't use either. I heard about Atlantis Word Processor about five years ago and have been using it daily. It is not bloated like MS Office or OpenOffice and does most of what I need. It doesn't handled the really complicated stuff that the big boys do but for us mere mortals it works great. Atlantis costs @ $30 but there is a freeware little brother that may be of use to most people. Most computer get caught up in the idea that MS Word is the end all of computer programs. It is good but unless you are in a business and you need to exchange documents or are a student and must have the latest and greatest you don't need those extra functions. Just find you a good word processor and keep OpenOffice on the side when you need something more.

Ben
February 3, 2007 11:29 AM

I have been using open office for awhile but just made the switch back to Microsoft office. The main reason is the incompatibility of some features of Microsoft Office with Open Office. Open office is fine for writing a document, or doing a simple slide show, but it lacks many of the features that the average consumer of Microsoft Office will miss.

Michael Steele
February 3, 2007 3:50 PM

I work for an attorney nearing retirement, in a small town in Texas. My office computer was originally a 32MB PC running Windows 98SE, with Office95 installed. Last year, I bought a Mac mini, which I set up on top of this boat anchor so I could do my office work on it...but, not being a Microsoft fan, I wasn't about to spend hundreds of dollars on M$Office; so I installed OpenOffice, and later, NeoOffice, on my Mac.

I have M$ Word 5.1 for the Mac, and enjoyed it for well over a decade (it came out years before Windows did). It does more than any word processor needs to, including automatic index and table of contents generation...but it doesn't run on Intel Macs. :) I use BBEdit for typing now, and Open Office for formatted documents. I develop database software in M$ FoxPro 3.1 on the Mac. But at the law office, I had to be able to access thousands of Word and Excel documents, and had databases in M$ Access.

So here are the problems I encountered:

OpenOffice does not (did not?) have Access compatibility; I gave up my Access databases rather than re-develop them, and put the essentials into spreadsheets.

Formatting is not perfectly preserved, and is sometimes lost completely. That is, line thicknesses and fonts might be different, and italics and underscores were sometimes lost or incompletely read. Whole-paragraph underscores were lost when the file was saved in Rich-Text Format.

Sometimes these differences didn't show on-screen, only becoming visible when printed. (M$ can thank themselves for losing a potential sale by not allowing the demo version of M$ Office included with my Mac mini to print at all, thereby preventing me from evaluating it!)

It's a bit of a CPU-sucker and RAM-hog, but then, so is M$ Office.

Overall, I was very well satisfied by the performance of OpenOffice.org's suite, although it was slow to open the first time. I didn't stress the software by trying to find features it didn't support, but it did very well with calculations in Excel spreadsheets. I did NO macro or VB coding in OpenOffice, so I can't speak of whether these features are well-supported.

On the Mac, there are many inexpensive and free programs that read M$ formats with a smaller footprint, but OpenOffice has been an invaluable tool for me. Still, I agree with Minot Isok and others who reserve it for when it's truly needed.

Thank goodness my boss upgraded to a newer PC, so I could take my Mac home! :)

Dan Holmes
February 4, 2007 12:03 PM

Hi Leo,

I have started using Open Office on a PC I built just to putter around with. I am a fairly experienced user of MS Office and WordPerfect. Although the interface is still a bit dicey to me my only real personal concern are the dictionnairies, spell check gramtik etc. They are weak. If like me you have to use a second language such as French you are left even farther out in the boonies. The dictionnaities exist but are limited and not the easiest to install. Regional versions are fine if You use US English or French from France (I don't think so Tim).

All said and done though the price certainly is right.

Dan

James A. Scamardo
May 3, 2010 5:12 AM

Open Office crashed my computer. I had to do a system restore several times to get it working, but now it is so slow that it hardly works. Please help. Thank You.

Emiel
February 14, 2011 9:15 AM

I find OpenOffice suits all my Word processing and spreadsheet needs. But we are now 2011, not 2007, when this article was written, so perhaps OO has improved.
For me, Word was just an enhanced typewriter, and that can very well be done in OO Writer. In recent years, I haven't experienced any compatibilty issues between OO en MS Office, but of course, I haven't used any advanced features. And OO accepts the new .docx Word files as well.

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