Kicking Microsoft out of the office: 4 alternative suites tested

 Office suites  Software reviews: Lotus SmartSuite 9.8 OpenOffice.

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT


Kicking Microsoft out of the Office: 4 alternative suites tested
Microsoft Office may be the standard, but there are a variety of competitors--old and new--that look like giving it a decent run for its money.

If you were to randomly ask any 10 office workers which office suite they use, odds on at least nine out of the 10 will answer Microsoft Office. Yes Microsoft owns over 90 percent of the market! So what does this mean? Are the alternatives more expensive or pretty lame in the features and functionality department?

Well after looking at this collection of Microsoft Office alternatives, we can safely say the answers to the above questions are a definite no. As a matter of fact some of the packages are very serious and valid competitors to the Microsoft solution. And there is no need to retrain staff who are familiar with MS Office, as the interface and functionality of each package is very similar, and at times identical, to Microsoft.

Editor's note: before you shout at us about Microsoft...
Throughout this review, you will no doubt notice numerous references to Microsoft Office: the Labs not only compare the functionality of each package with that of Office, but they also test each suite's ability to import Office files.

So before you send us hate mail about our Microsoft-centredness, may we recommend you take a look around outside the server room or IT department.

You will most likely find people all over the building using Microsoft Office. And even if your company is one of the few that doesn't, chances are your business partners, suppliers, or customers almost certainly do. Most people don't tend to wonder which office suite you're running before they send out Word documents or Excel spreadsheets. If you come back with "I'm sorry, I can't read Microsoft Word, could you perhaps send a PDF or maybe an RTF document", chances are you will be met with annoyance or a blank stare. No matter what you think of Microsoft, as the de facto standard, you will need to read files in Microsoft's formats.

But that's not all. Office is not only the most popular suite, it's the most feature-rich and arguably the best understood by most users. How many end users really need more than 20 percent of the features Word offers? But is it unfair to criticise another package for not including those features? For those users who need mail merge or table of contents or even more esoteric gimcracks, removing that functionality would seriously impact on their ability to do their jobs.

We eagerly await your opinions: what's your office preference?

Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition V9.8

Creating a map with Lotus 123

Creating a map with Lotus 123

The installation of Lotus SmartSuite (LSS) was one of the simplest and quickest we have seen.

Of the four suites tested, LSS is the closest competitor to MS Office in terms of bundled applications with Lotus Word Pro, Lotus 123, Freelance Graphics (presentation), Lotus Organiser (PIM), and Approach (relational database). It is worth mentioning that while Organiser does a great job of looking after your schedules and contacts with a "Filofax" graphical layout, the e-mail button actually launches Outlook Express if it is present on your system.

In general, the applications in the suite are quite fast. While Lotus Word Pro imports an MS Word document very rapidly--the first page appearing in around four seconds--the whole document was not available for navigation for about 50 seconds. Importing a native Lotus Word Pro document of a similar size and complexity again only required four seconds but we were then able to then access any part of the 76-page document almost immediately.

As far as word processing is concerned, LSS is the most frugal of the suites we tested with Lotus Word Pro requiring just 10.3MB of system memory and with a large 76-page native documents open just 18MB, around half the other suites. Of course loading an MS Word document into the application bloated the memory requirement out to 134.8MB, but hopefully you are in a position to then simply save the document in native format and work on it.

Arguably of the four packages, LSS would be the most difficult for users migrating from Microsoft Office. Quite simply the layout and locations of the button bar and buttons between LSS and its Microsoft Office equivalents differs markedly. The legends on quite a few of the buttons are also not immediately decoded and so navigation, at least initially, is relatively uncertain. There is a button bar just under the menu bar and also some buttons such as Bold and Italic located on the "status" bar at the bottom of the screen.

The pull-down menus are also quite different with very different main menus and locations of functions, as an example "Bullets & Numbers" in Lotus Word Pro are located under the "Text" menu. Admittedly when you stop to think about it, in general the menus and the location of functions are very logical, just that they differ markedly from MS Word.

And once you familiarise yourself with one of the applications the rest will not be a problem as the user interface is consistent throughout the suite.

Lotus Word Pro is not quite as happy loading MS Word documents as say StarOffice or OpenOffice. Not only did Word Pro manage to lose formatting with graphics at times and stack them one atop the other, it also failed to reproduce the table of contents, or so it appeared. However, the TOC was actually present as we found when we tried to insert a new one and were presented with the option of "updating the existing TOC". When we selected this option the original TOC appeared although formatting had run amuck and Word Pro froze and refused to respond--we had to reboot the system. Inexplicably the problem with the application hanging only occurred that one time during testing.

Creating a new TOC is a bit of a chore, you cannot simply go with a sensible default but must manually select what style headings are to be included, also finding the TOC option in the menu requires a bit of snooping around as it sits under the "Create/Other Document Part" menu.

The first incarnation of Lotus 123 saw light of day well before MS Excel and the maturity of the application certainly showed when we were able to load the XLS format spreadsheet with almost total compatibility. The only difference between the original and Lotus 123's interpretation was that the X-axis labels were vertically aligned rather than slanted but at least they were readable and to format them as slanted is a snap in Lotus 123.

The application has all the functionality you would expect with some perhaps useful additions such as the "Create Map". Using this function you can for example show sales in each state as a particular colour linked to a colour legend as shown in the screen grab above.

Our PowerPoint presentation lost all its transitions and animations when imported into Freelance Graphics, although fonts and formatting were maintained. Since Freelance pretty much supports all the transitions and animations present in the original file it simply looks like no attempt at matching is made and any of these features are simply stripped from the file. We were able to animate our text to fly across the screen and add each of our transitions so the final result matched the original very closely, but this was very time consuming. Naturally if you are creating a presentation from scratch then this is not a concern and the tool set provided to create the presentation is extensive.

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
Product Lotus SmartSuite Millenium Edition 9.8
Price Single user: $476, volume licences negotiable
Vendor IBM
Phone 132 426
Web www.lotus.com/smartsuite
 
Interoperability
½
Runs on Windows only.
Futureproofing
Solid support for a wide range of file standards.
ROI
½
Arguably the most complete collection of applications in the group but a good deal more expensive as well.
Service
12 months support is included as part of software maintenance. Phone, fax, e-mail and Web site is available 24 x 7.
Rating

OpenOffice.org V1.1

A spreadsheet and chart in OpenOffice Calc.

A spreadsheet and chart in OpenOffice Calc.

T&B Editor's choice
OpenOffice (OO) is available as a free download, a 65MB ZIP file, or can be purchased on a CD for a nominal fee. When unzipped, the download includes a Setup Guide in PDF format that is as complete as any of the other applications installation documentation.

Our test system did not have Java preinstalled and when the OO installation reaches this point the option to install Java is inexplicably greyed out. We had to download and install Java then use the Browse button to locate the new Java installation. Other than the Java glitch, the install was almost identical to, and ran as smoothly as, StarOffice (SO).

Some may argue that OpenOffice's support is a minimal but the OpenOffice Web site provides an extensive FAQ and the OpenOffice Forum would be a wealth of information, and one could argue that it may provide better support in some circumstances some vendors.

It is no surprise that OO's suite is identical to SO with a Word Processor (Writer), Spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress) and drawing package (Draw). The only item that appears missing is the database component and of course OO does not include an e-mail program so you will have to supply your own.

Like SO, the applications are tightly integrated and you can load a spreadsheet directly from Writer without any dramas, Writer will simply "become" Calc. The look and feel of the OO suite is nigh identical to SO, the only noticeable difference is that SO uses larger and "prettier" graphics in the buttons and menus. It is also interesting to note that in Windows Task Manager the OO process is named soffice.exe, the same as SO.

Like its almost identical twin, OO is very snappy handling its own file formats, most of the time marginally quicker than SO, for example six seconds to load a 76-page complex document compared to SO's seven seconds to load the same document. OpenOffice also suffers a bout of indigestion when asked to stomach an MS Word format file but it still managed to load the file in 53 seconds compared to SO's 54 seconds. Admittedly the average user will not notice the difference.

We were quite astonished when OO (remember it is free) opened our MS Word format document and maintained the layout without overlapping or dropping graphic images, something SO occasionally botched up.

However, like SO we found that the OO incarnation of Impress sometimes tended to erase portions of background images when manual events were triggered too close together, and the Excel format charts suffered the same loss of X-axis formatting.

In all other aspects OO and SO are like a pair of identical twins but more so, they even behave the same, you can take a user from one package to another and the only difference they will probably find is, as previously mentioned, the button and menu icons.

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
Product OpenOffice.org V1.1
Price Free to download
Vendor OpenOffice.org
Phone N/A
Web www.openoffice.org
 
Interoperability
½
Runs on Windows, Linux, and Solaris.
Futureproofing
½
File support limited to Microsoft Office, some generic standards, and “Star suite” file types.
ROI
Powerful and highly integrated office suite--and it's free.
Service
Lack of broad vendor support but the online FAQ and large user forum go a long way to compensate.
Rating
½

StarOffice 7

A presentation in StarOffice Impress.

A presentation in StarOffice Impress.

T&B Editor's choice
The StarOffice 7 suite consists of a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), presentation program (Impress), a graphics program (Draw), and a database component that is accessible from the other applications. The tightly integrated suite unfortunately does not include a mail program so you will have to provide your own.

With the exception of importing Microsoft Office-formatted documents, StarOffice (SO) is quite fast. And while a large Word document took 54 seconds to import, substantially longer than MS Word performing the same file load at just eight seconds, an identical document in SO's native format loaded in a spritely seven seconds.

The look and feel of the various applications are the same, different logical functions notwithstanding, and for the most part are similar to the comparable Microsoft application. Where SO is however smarter is that any of the applications can load any of the compatible files, for example you can attempt to load a spreadsheet from within Writer and without flinching Writer will become Calc.

Each of the applications feature a menu bar and two rows of button bars across the top and a button bar down the left-hand side, each of the button bars are user configurable. They also feature Stylist and Navigator windows that can be turned on or off from the button bar, which we chose to retain as they are very helpful when navigating the open file or manipulating styles.

In the past, Writer's thesaurus has copped some criticism as being too limited. We found the Thesaurus to be quite good and while it may list fewer synonyms than some others, the meaning of each word is very clear. The spellcheck was also very good although when set to "English Australian" it still retained a few Americanisms.

Exporting directly to PDF is pretty neat and while our 76-page test document took 24 seconds to convert, the resulting PDF file was excellent with a near perfect conversion from the original.

Compatibility with Word 2000 is a considerable improvement over version 6. We still see the occasional graphic lost when the formatting is very tight and inadvertently Writer overlays one image on top of another. There are also some very minor problems with line spacing that sometimes resulted in the contents and page number to go out of sync when compared to the original. But to be blunt these problems were minor and we managed to resolve them in a 76-page document in a couple of minutes.

Creating our test document was a doddle: the functionality is so similar to Word that staff would need no additional training. Indeed some items are more logically located, Headers and Footers for example sit under the Insert menu, because of course you would want to insert them, while in Word they reside under the View menu.

Calc has a very similar look and feel to Excel; the obvious difference is the additional buttons bar down the left side of the sheet. Importing XLS files is in general quite good with the exception of the charts. We found that importing charts with diagonal X-axis labels SO tended to convert the labels to a standard horizontal format, this resulted in many of X-axis item labels to be dropped off entirely, and a messy presentation to boot.

When loading PowerPoint presentations into Impress some of the animations do not work properly--some of the animation paths would erase sections of graphics for example, some animations that should have been automatic required a mouse click to start and finally the font sizes a little off so format can be slightly affected. But on the whole MS Office compatibility is surprisingly good.

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
Product StarOffice 7
Price Single user $190, 25 users $3168, 150 users $15,851
Vendor Sun Microsystems
Phone 03 9869 6200
Web www.sun.com.au
 
Interoperability
½
Runs on Windows, Linux, and Solaris.
Futureproofing
½
File support limited to Microsoft Office, some generic standards, and “Star suite” file types.
ROI
Powerful and highly integrated office suite at a very reasonable price. But is the extra support and addition of database functionality worth the cost over free OpenOffice?
Service
½
Extended business hours support with four-hour telephone response for critical problems and next day for lesser problems. Premium support option available.
Rating
½

WordPerfect Office 11

Creating a document in WordPerfect

Creating a document in WordPerfect.

WordPerfect Office (WPO) suite includes three main applications WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, and Presentation; there are also some small but useful utilities such as XML Project Designer but no PIM, e-mail, or database applications.

The supplied documentation includes Quickstart card that covers installation, a keyboard overlay for the function keys, and a large 386-page user's guide.

We attempted to load our large MS Word format test file into WordPerfect, it informed us that it was converting the Word format--this was late on a Friday afternoon. I was quite surprised to find that it was still "converting" the file on Sunday morning. We tried another clean install of the suite but again had the same problem so we downloaded the latest service pack, which upgraded the suite from version 11.0.0.233 to 11.0.0.300. At least this time WordPerfect did not go into limbo for a couple of days, within 15 seconds a non-specific conversion error was reported. We then step-by-step pruned from the document what we thought may be the cause of Wordperfect's failure to load the file such as the table of contents, all the charts, and finally all the tables leaving just the text, headers, footers, page numbers, and JPEG images. This did not alleviate the problem. We also tried one of the supplied utilities, the File Converter, which allows the user to select a swag of say, MS Office files, and covert them as a batch run in the background. This also choked on our document.

Finally in desperation we attempted to import a document that was simply text with various style headings, to our relief the document was imported without a hitch. However, we are concerned that WordPerfect failed to import an MS Word document that the other three Suites found quite acceptable.

As a consequence we have no definitive load times, although WordPerfect seemed at least average when compared to the other suites when loading moderately complex documents. And, while the application memory footprint is quite small at 14.7MB, only Lotus SmartSuite is more frugal.

We did manage to load our Excel and PowerPoint files into Quattro Pro and Presentations respectively. The conversion of the Excel file was performed quite well with the formula substitutions appearing to be spot on but, in common with the other packages tested, the charts often had the fonts and legends misconverted.

Unfortunately when the PowerPoint presentation was loading into Presentations, the conversion lost all our complex animations, which StarOffice and OpenOffice managed to bring across. Some of the simple slide-to-slide transitions did not turn out as we had expected and some fonts became quite large and upset the formatting, but these problems were quite simple to address.

In addition to its own native file formats, as well as supporting quite a few other vendors' file formats, every application in WPO can also publish in XML.

Anyone familiar with MS Office should have few problems when presented with the WPO user interface. At a casual glance you would be forgiven for thinking WordPerfect was MS Word as menu and button locations as well as icons are close enough to MS Office applications that navigation is very easy indeed. Although we could not help but chuckle when we found under Tools/Settings and the display settings dialog box the option to run in "Classic Mode WP 5.1" and were presented with the old blue-and-white DOS screen format and lo and behold the old keyboard shortcuts. WPO does help ease the learning curve by including a feature called PerfectExpert, essentially a context sensitive wizard that resides in a small window at the left of the display and provides how-to advice.

In WordPerfect a useful tool is the Document Map. This provides a tree structure of the document down the left side of the screen and to jump to a particular point in a documents, say a heading or chapter, you simply click on the relevant point in the tree and the selected portion appears.

Like StarOffice and OpenOffice, WPO allows the user to publish to a PDF file in addition to XML and HTML.

Anyone familiar with Excel should find Quattro Pro pretty easy to drive, particularly for basic functions such as building a spreadsheet and creating a few charts. There are some handy features that can potentially save some time such as the QuickFormat button that copies and pastes formats only without overwriting the contents of the relevant cells.

While exploring Presentation we soon discovered why our animated text slides in the PowerPoint test file did not function as expected, quite simply WPO does not support general text animation. It does however support "bullet list" animations and general object animation, both of which are very easy to implement. What was a tad annoying was that in the slide sorter view some of objects in the slide miniatures were not rendered, even though they were quite large. The package is in general very easy to use and includes enough features to keep the average user very happy.

WordPerfect Office version 12 is due out next month.

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
Product WordPerfect Office 11
Price Single user $229, volume pricing not provided
Vendor Corel
Phone 02 9006 1100
Web www.corel.com
 
Interoperability
½
Runs on Windows only.
Futureproofing
Astonishingly wide support for other file standards, admittedly many old legacy standards, but impressive nevertheless.
ROI
½
A solid suite of office applications and utilities at a very reasonable price although we did experience some compatibility issues with MS Word files.
Service
½
Phone support is available during business hours for 30 days after registration.
Rating

Specifications

Product Lotus SmartSuite Millenium Edition 9.8 OpenOffice.org V1.1 StarOffice 7 WordPerfect Office 11 (Standard Edition)
RRP (inc GST) Single user $476, volume licenses negotiable Free Single user $190, 25 users $3168, 150 users $15851 Single user $229, volume priving not provided
Vendor IBM OpenOffice.org Sun Microsystems Corel
Phone 132 426 N/A 02 9844 5000 02 9006 1100
Web www.lotus.com/smartsuite www.openoffice.org www.sun.com.au www.corel.com
Minimum/recommended memory Windows 95, 98, ME: 16MB
Windows NT 4.0: 48MB
Windows 2000: 64MB
Windows XP: 128MB
Windows: 64MB
Linux: 64MB
Solaris (Sparc): 128MB
Windows: 64MB
Linux: 128MB
Solaris: 128MB
64MB
Minimum/recommended hard drive space 293MB Windows: 250MB
Linux: 300MB
Solaris (Sparc): 300MB
300MB 370MB
OS Windows 95, 98, ME, NT 4.0, 2000, XP Windows 98, Me, NT (SP6+), 2000, XP; Solaris 8 or higher and Xserver (with Gnome 2.0); Linux with glibc2 2.2.0 or higher and Xserver (with Gnome2.2). Windows 98, Me, NT (SP6+), 2000, XP; Solaris 8 or higher and Xserver (with OpenWindows, CDE or Gnome 2.0+); Linux with Kernel 2.2.13 or higher and glibc2 2.2.0 or higher and Xserver with Gnome 2.0 or higher. Windows 2000 SP3, NT 4.0 SP6a, XP, 98SE, ME
Minimim/recommended Processor Pentium Pentium Pentium Pentium 166MHz
Applications included in bundle Word Processor (Word Pro), spreadsheet (Lotus 1-2-3), presentation (Freelance Graphics), database (Approach), organiser (Lotus Organiser), intranet publisher (FastSite) Word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress), drawing (Draw) Word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress), drawing (Draw), database (Adabas D12) Word processor (WordPerfect), spreadsheet (Quattro Pro), presentation (Presentation), XML project designer, PerfectScript, batch conversion utility

How we tested

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
Each of the four packages were tested on identical 2.6GHz Pentium 4 computer an with 80GB hard drive, 256MB of DDR memory, and Windows XP Pro with the latest patches from Microsoft.

For each package we loaded a large and relatively complex MS Word 2000 document that included: 76 pages, 18,454 words, table of contents, 44 headings, 86 JPEG images, 8 charts, and 10 tables.

We timed how long the load and conversion process required for each suite and then compared the load times of the same file but in the word processor's native format. We also kept tabs on the amount of memory consumed by the word processor with the MS Word format file and native format file loaded.

Why bother testing the suites' compatibility with Microsoft file formats you may ask? The answer is quite obvious, with the majority of the planet using MS Word, you will no doubt need to import files provided by clients, business partners, and other contacts that are in Microsoft format. Microsoft's pervasiveness is just too far reaching to ignore.

We then moved on to loading Microsoft format files into each of the suite's spreadsheet and presentation packages to check compatibility, but the files in this instance were of less relative complexity than the word processor test file.

Finally we created a representative subset of each of the documents, spreadsheet, and presentation test files using the suite's native applications to compare and contrast usability.

Interoperability
What operating systems will the office suite run on?

Futureproofing
What file formats can the office suite read and write? Can you open documents you receive from others?

ROI
Does the suite provide for your complete needs, or will you need to supplement with other applications?

Service
What support is provided as standard and how much will ongoing support end up costing you?

Sample scenario

Company: OGC Communications. This company is is looking to upgrade its office software, but is fed up with Microsoft's licensing schemes and is looking for alternatives.

Approximate budget: Open, as long as it saves money compared to Microsoft Office.

Requires: An office suite with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software.

Concerns: Staff are familiar with Microsoft Office, so the company wants to avoid a steep learning curve for the new package. The company wants staff to be able to load up old documents (in Office format) and documents from customers with a minimum of fuss.

Best solution: StarOffice or OpenOffice would do the trick here, and the best choice of the two would depend on the company's desire to save money balanced against the IT department's ability to provide support to its end user community.

T&B Editor's choice
Editor's choice

StarOffice and OpenOffice

StarOffice and OpenOffice have the best integration of any suite we have tested to date, and both proved to be robust and very simple to drive, and the features set was pretty darn good, too.

If you are a stickler for a pretty box, manuals, and vendor-provided phone support--and don't mind paying for it--then stick with StarOffice 7, it also offers limited database support, something not provided with OpenOffice.

On the other hand, if your IT support guys are up to speed on OpenOffice, you can download a copy absolutely free. While OpenOffice may be cheap, it is certainly not nasty: the applications were robust and in general were just as feature rich as any of the other suites tested. We can well imagine OpenOffice putting the wind up Microsoft in much the same was as Linux has been doing for the last couple of years.

About RMIT IT Test Labs

 Office suites

 Software reviews:

 
Lotus SmartSuite 9.8
 
OpenOffice.org 1.1
 
StarOffice 7
 
WordPerfect Office 11

 Specifications
 How we tested
 Sample scenario
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
RMIT IT Test Labs
RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies. In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own--only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey.

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