Dumping Microsoft Office for an alternative suite

Whether you’re using a Macintosh or a Windows computer, Microsoft Office is a staple throughout the world. While that doesn’t mean everybody uses it, it does mean that almost everybody has to find something that works with it. And yet there are several reasons you might not want to get a copy of Microsoft Office itself.

One of those is the price. Few of us can happily afford to shell out $400 for the Standard edition of Office. Even the educational price of $150 is pricey, especially if you’re a student trying to make ends meet.

Perhaps your PC doesn’t have enough resources to handle Office, which is a notorious memory hog. Or maybe you have a second computer that you or other family members use only occasionally for document creation, and you don’t want to shell out for another Office license.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that there are alternatives out there — all cheaper than Microsoft’s standard, and a couple that are even free. We sorted through nine contenders, some for Mac and some for PC (and a couple for both), to find out the best non-Office office suites available. We limited our search to true suites — products with at least two of the three main components of Office: a word processor, a spreadsheet application and a presentation program. We also didn’t bother with online-only office suites; we wanted ones you could install on your own PC. (We have already looked at several online suites in a different review.)

Office alternatives: Mac
by Ryan Faas

In addition to concerns about price, we Mac users face our own unique Office challenges. We often need to wait six months or longer after Office for Windows gets updated before we get a comparable version. (Office 2007 for Windows went on general sale last January, and we won’t get Office 2008 for Mac until sometime this fall.)

And even when it does ship, we get only some of the components. There has never been a Mac version of Access or Publisher, for example. Even the staple three applications of Word, Excel and PowerPoint sometimes lack features found in their Windows counterparts.

In fact, with Microsoft’s new Office 2007 file formats, we can’t even directly open and edit files from the most recent versions of those core applications. Until Office 2008 for Mac comes out, we either have to ask people to save documents in the older format or rely on a converter that is still in beta.

So my search for the best alternative to Office wasn’t just about money. It was about getting access to those applications and features that Mac users don’t get out of Office and about trying to find something that natively supports the new Office 2007 file types. From the outset, I expected I might have to make compromises.

iWork, you work

First on the list of potential Office replacements was Apple’s $79 iWork ‘06 suite, which provides a word processing and page design application called Pages and a presentation app called Keynote. That’s two components, but so far iWork doesn’t offer a replacement for Excel (though rumors have been floating around for quite some time that Apple will add that eventually).

One of the first things you notice about Pages is that it isn’t just a word processor. It also has extensive (and very intuitive) page-layout features, making it a tool that can replace not only the capabilities of Word but also those of Publisher. This is great if you need to make signs or design newsletters, or if you just want to have fun laying out all kinds of richly styled projects filled with graphics. You can make something that looks like it took hours in only a few minutes.

Keynote is a powerful presentation tool that I found easier and more exciting to use than PowerPoint. It includes a wide range of polished templates that make presentations really pop. Since it integrates tightly with Apple’s iTunes and iLife suite of media products, incorporating photos, video and audio into your slides is a breeze.

As impressive as iWork is, I found that it has two Achilles’ heels when it comes to serving as an Office replacement: It doesn’t include a spreadsheet tool (rumors are nice, but they don’t get the job done here and now), and it doesn’t offer complete compatibility with Office documents. I was able to open Word and PowerPoint documents — albeit not from the Office 2007 versions — complete with formatting and inline images. However, neither application can save files directly as Office documents, though both support exporting files in Word or PowerPoint format. There are also some things Word can do that Pages can’t, such as tracking revisions to a document.

Thinking free

Since iWork didn’t quite hit the mark as a true alternative to Office, I kept looking and trying other options. Of those, the next one worth mentioning is ThinkFree Office. Considering its low price ($50), I wasn’t certain if I should expect much. However, ThinkFree Office, which offers alternatives to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, turned out to be a great product.

I was downright shocked at how closely the look and feel is to Office (though it is much more like Office 2003 for Windows than like any Mac release). I was also impressed at its ability to open and save Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents (with the exception of Office 2007 formats) with no compatibility problems. I even discovered excellent support for Office templates and document formatting.

As remarkable as I think ThinkFree Office is, I found it lacking in a couple of areas. For one, it doesn’t include support for Word’s Track Changes feature. This may not be an issue for everyone, but for me, tracking changes is necessary when I’m collaborating on a project with other people.

I also found that a handful of advanced Excel functions aren’t duplicated, such as the ability to create a pivot table. Granted, these are functions that many users, myself included, might not miss or even notice. All things considered, however, these issues were pretty minor, and I could see myself and most people I know being perfectly content with ThinkFree Office

There’s also a Web-based version of ThinkFree Office that can be accessed from any computer. Currently free while in beta form, the online version includes virtually all of the desktop version’s features. For more details, check out our roundup of online office suites, in which ThinkFree came out the winner.

The Neo solution

Since ThinkFree Office turned out to be very good but not quite perfect, I kept searching and found what is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive and inexpensive Office alternative for Mac users in NeoOffice.

This free, open-source suite is a Mac OS X port of the OpenOffice project. NeoOffice offers applications that provide the functionality of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access (which I never thought I’d see on a Mac), plus a basic drawing program that’s still much more capable than Word’s art tools. This makes it the broadest recreation of Office available to Mac users.

Note: OpenOffice is also available for Mac OS X, but it requires the Unix X Window System, a.k.a. X11. X11 is freely downloadable from Apple, but running OpenOffice under X11 doesn’t feel like using a true Mac product — the menus are in the X11 window, for instance, rather than in the top menu bar. Efforts are being made to create a more typical Mac OS X application port of OpenOffice, but have so far achieved only an alpha release that is nowhere near ready for public consumption.

I was delighted to find that NeoOffice also offers full compatibility with all Office document formats, including the Office 2007 formats. This makes it a stellar solution if you work with people who have upgraded to Office 2007 for Windows or who will be upgrading to Office 2008 for Mac. It also fills the major gaps that I found in Think Free Office. It works with Word’s Track Changes feature, as well as the advanced Excel functions ThinkFree couldn’t handle.

A small quibble: Although I was pleased to find a slew of functional, Microsoft-esque wizards for creating new documents, the Apple fan in me was disappointed that they looked more like Windows Office wizards than the assistants in most Mac OS X applications.

It did take me a little while to adapt to NeoOffice. One major difference from Office and most other office suites is that it launches as a single application, from which you select which component to use. Not a problem, but something that takes getting used to. (Users of AppleWorks, if there still are any, may find this a little comforting.)

Also, although much of Office’s functionality is duplicated, the naming and location of some commands is different enough that I occasionally have trouble finding what I need. Fortunately, NeoOffice’s extraordinarily thorough help documentation has helped ease the transition.

So, it’s fully compatible with Office, full-featured (it doesn’t have an e-mail client, but it does have a database) and free. What’s not to like? NeoOffice is the clear alternative to Microsoft Office for the thrifty Mac user.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac OS X and cross-platform network solutions. David Haskin is a freelance writer specializing in mobile, wireless and personal technology; he has been intimately involved with technology since the early 1980s.

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