Microsoft Office has been the productivity suite of choice for a number of years and it’s not hard to see why. Each of the included applications is bursting at the seams with everything you could ever need and much more besides. But how many of those features actually get used? Given the fairly substantial outlay Office users are expected to pay, isn’t it a bit of a waste if much of the functionality goes untouched? Added to that the recent court case shenanigans and you may be wondering about alternatives. We’re here to help.
Not only are there numerous alternatives to Microsoft Office which offer much the same functionality but there are also those which are completely free to use. That’s right, free! You can enjoy as much word processing as your overworked digits could possibly manage, spreadsheet your way to Utopian bliss and show slides to your heart’s content – all without spending as much as a penny.
Open Up to Free Apps
Let’s take a look at five examples of this too-good-to-be-true gratis craziness. In no particular order and trying to satisfy different flavors of computer user and the offline and online document junkies alike, we start with OpenOffice.
The multi-platform OpenOffice is a collection of five applications created and brought together in an open source package (which means that the code used to write the program is open and available for just about anyone to tweak). Each of the applications (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation creator, database and vector-drawing program) is feature-rich and powerful and should satisfy even the most ardent Microsoft fan. Although files are saved to the Open Document Format by default, OpenOffice can read and write to a number of other formats, including Office 2007’s docx format. Currently at public release version 3.1.1, the suite is being updated and added to all the time so always remains fresh and useful.
A couple of things to note before you rush in though – by far the easiest way to get OpenOffice is to download and install. If you have a slow internet connection, be warned that the installation file is currently just shy of 150Mb so it could take a while to reach your desktop. Download complete and fully installed, hopefully your experience will be trouble-free but if you do need help you may find yourself having to turn to a forum-based, FAQ or online documentation support structure.
Personally I have found this suite a little slow to start but once it’s up and running, it offers an easy to use, powerful and warmly familiar working environment with lots and lots of useful features.
The Freedom to Think
Next up is an online suite in the shape of ThinkFree. Familiarity and compatibility are central to the success of this suite of three applications (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator). Those who simply can’t do without the Microsoft layout will find a happy home in ThinkFree. There is a paid-for version of the suite available for download but the online version is free to use and if you can overcome the initial confusing interface (it’s not made clear that online document manipulation is freely available but “you can even edit your online documents directly from your web browser; no Office program is necessary”), slow connectivity and occasional file conversion problems, the benefits of being in familiar Office territory could just outweigh the minor gripes.
Not Just for Music
If you were of the opinion that symphonies were just about music then think again. Lotus Symphony from IBM is based on the Open Document Format which means the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator support a variety of file formats, are in constant development and don’t tie anyone into ongoing software licensing and royalty fees. Like OpenOffice, the suite is quite a size but I found it quicker to start and easier to use. One thing I did find difficult to master was macros – the suite does not facilitate the import of embedded macros from Office documents and any created within Symphony, stay in Symphony. Otherwise, a very positive experience but one which might require a modest amount of self-learning to benefit fully from the suite.
Back online now with a familiar name, Google. Google Docs offers the big three productivity applications, a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation creator. In essence, the suite is a fat-free version of an offline computer-based processing suite – many of the basic creation, editing and formatting features are here but experienced Office power users may find working in this suite a little limiting. That said, ease of use, collaboration opportunities and the option of online storage or offline download make this package a very useful and attractive one.
One for the Peepel
Staying online for the last of our five Office alternatives and it’s one that might just take the boredom out of document creation and re-inject some much-needed fun back into the process. With Peepel you get a word processor and a spreadsheet application, together with a few other bits and pieces like a media gallery and contacts manager. The WebMap also allows you to track friends and colleagues on an interactive map. With Peepel you can create, edit, store and download files as well as collaborate and share. Although I haven’t used Peepel that much, when I have I’ve found it quick and easy to use, and the interface makes the experience most enjoyable.
There are so many free Office alternatives available that I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface with the five on offer here. Do you use an Office alternative? Is it listed here or can you recommend something else?