Let’s face it: not everybody needs to have the full version of Microsoft Office. Sure, from time to time you may need to read or update a Word document, juggle numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, or spruce up a PowerPoint presentation. But thanks to ThinkFree’s self-titled ThinkFree Office 2.0, you don’t have to fork over $450 to perform the occasional tweak. This OS-X native, Java-based application gives you access to Office’s most-used features in a package that won’t leave you wishing you’d spent more money.
Java Won’t Slow You Down
If you’ve ever used a Java-based application, there’s one question you’re sure to ask: Just how slow is this program? And here’s where you’ll encounter ThinkFree’s most surprising feature: it’s pretty zippy, and we don’t mean “for a Java application.” We tested the program on two systems: an 800MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 512MB of RAM, running Mac OS X; and a 366MHz graphite iBook with 128MB of RAM, running OS 9.1. In both cases, ThinkFree was quite responsive, never lagging behind when we typed, added images, and opened or saved files. The only slowdown we noticed was when the application loaded, especially on the iBook, where it took about 30 seconds to open.
No Tricks, No Gimmicks
ThinkFree Office doesn’t pretend to compete with Microsoft Office or even AppleWorks — by the company’s own admission, ThinkFree contains about 50 to 60 percent of Office’s features. Instead, it’s designed to be a “helper” application for users who don’t have immediate access to Office or who can’t justify Office’s hefty price for the occasional work they do with the four-program suite. ThinkFree’s true competitors are programs such as Panergy’s icWord and icExcel, which allow you to read, but not edit or create, Word and Excel files.
ThinkFree consists of three applications, all of which are accessed from ThinkFree’s Taskbar: ThinkFree Write for word processing, ThinkFree Calc for spreadsheets, and ThinkFree Show for presentations. The $50 price includes access to a 20MB Cyberdrive — an optional, expandable iDisk-like storage area on the Web; after the first year, paying a $30 annual subscription fee will entitle you to any ThinkFree updates and continued access to the Cyberdrive, should you choose to renew.
All three ThinkFree applications have a look-and-feel similar to that of Microsoft Office 2001, and they all use the Microsoft Office format for creating and saving files. By default, ThinkFree Write uses the Microsoft Word format, although the program can also save documents in RTF, HTML, text, and ThinkFree’s proprietary format.
The program easily opened our existing Word documents, maintaining formatting — as long as it wasn’t complex. ThinkFree Write had difficulty with Word documents that had the Track Changes option turned on. While the changes we made in ThinkFree Write appeared when we opened the document again in Word, they weren’t highlighted or editable via the Accept Or Reject Changes option in the Track Changes menu. (But ThinkFree always lets you know what formatting you may lose if you save your changes.)
ThinkFree Write lacks support for Word templates, which limits its usefulness for anyone who uses Word regularly, but it does offer a number of other frequently used features including multiple undos, find and replace, bulleting, numbering, and tables, as well as standard paragraph formatting features such as line spacing and paragraph indentation. ThinkFree Write allows you to edit any document as an HTML source file, which you can then publish directly to the Web.
ThinkFree Calc’s resemblance to Excel makes it easy to move between the two programs. Calc offers more than 300 predefined functions — enough for most serious Excel users — and it had no trouble opening a variety of Excel spreadsheets that included complicated calculations and formatting.
When it comes to graphs, Calc is strictly two-dimensional. But fortunately, if your original Excel document has 3-D graphs in it, Calc lets you maintain their 3-D look. However, if you’ve added transparency to any graphs in Excel, the transparency will be lost if you save changes in Calc. Also, like Write and its inability to use Word templates, Calc cannot open Excel templates.
ThinkFree Show is the only program in the ThinkFree suite that lets you use templates, but Show works best when you’re creating or editing very basic PowerPoint presentations that don’t make use of sounds, unusual transitions, or some text animations, such as those that include Microsoft’s WordArt. Like the other two ThinkFree programs, Show doesn’t support three-dimensional objects. This was especially true of text created using WordArt; this text became a two-dimensional square on every slide where it was placed. Other 3-D quirks included text that appeared upside down and drop shadows that were missing altogether.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you use Microsoft Office regularly and you need most or all of its features, then skip ThinkFree and pony up the money for the real deal. But if you’re simply looking for a program with more features than icWord or icExcel, ThinkFree is a best-of-breed program that will exceed your expectations.