Office Suite Software Without the Sticker Shock

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 13, 2005

The first thing many people do with a new PC is not surf the Web, check e-mail, plug in a digital camera or anything else remotely fun. Instead, they install Microsoft Office.

They do that because Office's word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation file formats have become some of computing's universal languages; sharing data with somebody usually requires a copy of Office.

Home-computer manufacturers, however, almost never include Office on new machines, so buyers dissatisfied with such lesser bundleware as Microsoft Works often wind up springing for their own copy of Office. That adds at least $149 to the computer's cost -- the price for the discounted student and teacher edition of Office sold to the general public.

Although $150 is a tidy discount off the usual price of $499, it's still a lot if you'll never use most of the tools in this dense cluster of programs. So is the $100 list price of the main commercial rival to Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect.

Fortunately, there's another choice -- a free one, called 2.0. This open-source release doesn't do much to alleviate the complexity of office-suite software, but it has brought the cost down to a figure most people should like: nothing.

This set of programs (Win 98 or newer or Linux, free at ) is built around its Writer, Calc and Impress components, counterparts to Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint. OpenOffice also throws in database, drawing and math-equation tools -- but it lacks an equivalent to Microsoft's Outlook e-mail/address book/calendar.

(If you still insist on paying, Sun Microsystems sells a version called StarOffice -- $70 as a download or $100 as a box -- that includes a printed manual and "migration tools" to convert large volumes of Office documents. Sun markets this to corporations, and the sales help underwrite development of OpenOffice.)

OpenOffice can do just about anything that Microsoft Office can at home, and with no more difficulty. But that's not enough: OpenOffice, more so than most other programs competing with what comes out of Redmond, has to live in a Microsoft world. It can't just function on its own, but it also has to read and write Microsoft's closed, proprietary formats.

That's a challenge OpenOffice can usually meet. Among dozens of Word, Excel and PowerPoint files fed to OpenOffice, most looked the same as they did in Microsoft Office, down to footnotes, custom bullet points, reviewers' comments and change-tracking marks. A few exhibited only picayune differences, such as lines of text breaking at different points.

In only two cases did OpenOffice miss or mangle any data. An embedded note in a three-year-old Word document failed to surface in Writer, and Calc drastically misinterpreted the vertical scale of the charts in a lengthy Excel spreadsheet, flattening all their trend lines.

OpenOffice isn't always as accurate at saving files in Microsoft formats, especially as they get more complicated. An invitation and a photo-gallery page looked identical in Writer and Word, but a resume laid out with multiple columns of text gained a blank line or two in the wrong places when opened in Word. Similarly, a spreadsheet estimating the costs of three wedding-reception sites looked and functioned properly in Excel -- but first I had to delete the background graphic, which had migrated to the front to hide everything else.

OpenOffice looks its weakest when it tries to produce PowerPoint documents. A slideshow that looked fine in Impress appeared jumbled in Microsoft's format -- some bullet points no longer matched, and a horizontal line at the bottom of each slide gained arrow icons at both ends, instead of just the right.

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