OpenOffice.org 2.4.0 is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft's Office application suite. It is fantastic if you need basic office applications — such as a word processor or spreadsheet — at no cost. However, large organisations and power users may be disappointed by its lack of features and support.
In its original form, OpenOffice.org was a proprietary office suite known as StarOffice and developed by StarDivision, but that all changed when Sun Microsystems bought the company in 1999.
Although Sun still sells StarOffice, the company also released the software's source code and created a new, community-driven project; OpenOffice.org. The suite is now free and is available under the GNU Lesser General Public Licence.
OpenOffice.org runs under Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. The download is 127MB and the install process is quick and painless. We originally reviewed OpenOffice.org 2.0 in 2005, but several revisions later the program has a lot of new features.
Being an open source project, OpenOffice.org has an intuitive interface that you would expect after feedback from a large community. However, you may be a little confused at first if you're used to Microsoft Office — the two are subtly different. OpenOffice.org is closer to Office 2003 and below, and is markedly different in user interface from Office 2007's new "ribbon" style.
You can get free support for the software from the OpenOffice.org forums. We found the help forums to be straightforward, but not comprehensive.
OpenOffice.org has no equivalent to Outlook. However, there are free open source email clients worth checking out, such as Mozilla's Thunderbird 2.
A nice feature of OpenOffice.org is the fact that you can add on extensions, which offer all kinds of unusual add-ons that proprietary vendors wouldn't touch — English to Hindi Dictionary and Thesaurus anyone?
Broadly speaking, you won't have any problems opening Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint files (including Office 2007 files) in OpenOffice.org, and you will be able to save to Microsoft's formats for use with Office. A multitude of other file formats are also supported. Unfortunately, at times a document won't be formatted quite right, but it's usually no problem to work around.
OpenOffice.org goes a little further than Microsoft in some places and allows users to export directly to PDF. It also has its own file format, ODF, which Microsoft has pledged to support.
While OpenOffice.org supports macros, macros written for Microsoft Office won't work in OpenOffice.org, and can't be transferred, which could serve as a major stumbling block for those looking to migrate, depending on how much effort has been placed into writing macros. You'll have to rewrite them all.
Something you might want to consider if you plan to install OpenOffice.org across systems with limited resources is that it's considerably more hungry than Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org launches a "Quickstarter" on boot that will use up 20MB or so of system memory before you even launch an application. We ran Writer and Microsoft Word simultaneously and found Writer consumed around twice the system resources of Word.
OpenOffice.org is considerably more memory hungry than Microsoft Office
Of all the applications available in OpenOffice.org, its strength lies with its word processor, Writer. For those who use only the standard functions in Word or another proprietary office software, Writer is likely to meet your needs, unless you rely on a grammar checker, which is missing from the word processor.
Although the feature-set in OpenOffice.org is smaller than Microsoft Office, the OpenOffice.org development team has obviously worked hard to make some common tasks simple. For example, OpenOffice.org allows you to change the default language for different documents, paragraphs or even sections of text — a useful tool for Web publishing.
Changing the default language is easy in OpenOffice.org
We really enjoyed using Writer's interface. For example, a right click will give you access to commonly used formatting functions. Another useful shortcut is the ability to export directly to PDF with a single click. This function appears across all OpenOffice applications.
In addition, we found Writer's "help suggestions" to be less intrusive than Microsoft's irritatingly perky "Office Assistant", while the help files comprehensively documented the application's functions.
If Writer is the strength of OpenOffice, then Calc is its relative weakness. While Calc is a solid mathematical tool, its capacity to create graphs is inferior — you just can't represent data with the flair of Microsoft Excel, and graphs are one of Excel's most-used features.
Both the type and the customisability of graphs is limited. You're stuck with basic graphs including pie charts, bar graphs and XY scatter graphs. Once you create the graphs, they're basically images, with very little editable dynamic content. If you're in science or finance and need to demonstrate complex equations graphically, or want to create trend lines on your graphs, you may find OpenOffice.org frustrating.
Graphing options are very limited in Calc
One positive aspect about Calc is that it actually offers around 30 per cent more functions than are offered in Excel (roughly 338 in Calc versus 233 in Excel). Combined with Math, this makes OpenOffice a great mathematical tool and a worthy Excel rival. Alas, if only it could create better graphs.
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