Despite the adage "You get what you pay for," free doesn't necessarily equal bad, and OpenOffice 3.0 makes the latest case. This open-source productivity suite lets you create and edit documents, presentations, spreadsheets, databases, and drawings, and even reads Microsoft Office 2007 files. If you can deal with its limited (nay, nonexistent) sharing functionality, this suite offers everything a student or road warrior could want.
Installation and Speed
Although OpenOffice is free, you'll be prompted to make a donation when you download the install file. Downloading the 142MB file to our desktop using an Ethernet connection took 19 minutes and 1 second, and installation took 5 minutes and 54 seconds to install, a rather long wait.
With the previous version of OpenOffice, we were displeased by how slow the Java-based program was in daily use. In our hands-on experience with the current iteration, however, the different components (e.g., Writer, Draw, Impress) took a second to launch on an Intel Centrino 2-powered HP Pavilion dv5t. The program took about a second to open blank documents.
Simple Interface, Made to Customize
OpenOffice has most of the features you'd expect in a desktop office suite, and in contrast to Office 2007's icon-packed Ribbon interface, which new users often find intimidating, they're presented here in a foolproof UI. The task-oriented opening screen has icons for creating text documents, presentations, spreadsheets, drawing, formulas, and databases. There are also icons for choosing templates or opening documents that have already been created. In the lower right corner are smaller icons which let us add features and templates from Openoffice.org.
As with Office 2007, you can customize menus. You can choose which icons to display, as well as their order, and even decide which items appear under hierarchical menus, such as File, and rearrange their sequence. This is a level of customization not available in Microsoft Office.
More important, OpenOffice allows you to switch among the document, spreadsheet, and presentation programs within a single interface. Clicking File > New brings up a fly-away menu showing the different documents you can create. So, if you're in the word processor, you can click New > Spreadsheet, whereas if you were working in Microsoft Word you'd have to launch Excel to begin working on a spreadsheet. Across most of the applications--documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings--users can export their work as PDFs.
For anyone who has ever used Microsoft Office 2003, OpenOffice's document creation interface is a cinch to master. Blank documents (or spreadsheets or presentations) sit atop a dark gray background. The hierarchical menus--including File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Table, Tools, Window, and Help--will look familiar, as will the two rows of icons underneath it, representing common functions, such as spell check. When you roll over an icon with your cursor you'll see a label explaining what it does.
When it comes to formatting text, OpenOffice has more options than its free online counterparts (Google Docs and Acrobat.com), including more text and background colors, and the ability to program macros and insert movies, sound, and objects, such as charts, into the copy. Best of all: it reads Office 2007 files, so if your colleagues send you DOCX files, you can open and edit them in OpenOffice.
OpenOffice's simple two-row kitchen sink of icons is particularly handy with spreadsheets: it highlights the features and shortcuts you're likely to use most, including sorting in ascending or descending order and adjusting the number of decimal places. Like Excel 2007, the formula bar autocompletes (so, if you type "=a", Average will appear as a choice).
The one instance in which you might miss Excel is in OpenOffice's lack of formatting options. For instance, there aren't as many color or customization options when creating charts, whereas the Microsoft Office Suite, including Excel, offers Quick Style, from which users can apply a plethora of different color themes to charts or a whole document.
When you first launch Impress, OpenOffice's version of PowerPoint, you can either open a template (of which there are few), open an existing document, or walk through an on-screen wizard. This optional wizard, which prompts you to choose backgrounds and slide transitions, can be intimidating to users who don't know precisely how they want their presentation to look.
A right-hand panel lets you choose master pages, layouts, table designs, custom animations, and slide transitions. At a glance you can select, say, a vertical bar graph with a title on top. As with PowerPoint, users can also insert pictures, movies, and sounds.
Although these features are helpful, OpenOffice doesn't have any prepackaged templates; just these la carte one-click edits, as well as a slew of backgrounds. To add templates, you'll have to go to OpenOffice's main screen and click the icon to add more templates; you'll be brought to a Web site, which has more than nine pages worth of apps but only three pages of templates.
Sharing--or Lack Thereof
In an age where Acrobat.com, Google Docs, and Zoho Docs all allow users to collaborate on documents online, OpenOffice's biggest weakness is that it has too few sharing options. Even Microsoft Office lets users publish their documents directly to blogs and shared workspaces and store presentations and slides in a Slide library.
Just as OpenOffice allows users to download additional templates and features, it requires them to add collaborative functionality through third-party apps (such as 03spaces.com, which is free for individual users). That's not so bad, but given the trend toward collaboration in productivity software--and given that OpenOffice itself is an open-source project--we wish these tools were baked in.
With the exception of online collaboration, a feature OpenOffice doesn't natively offer, this free productivity suite gets the job done. There's no doubt that its robust feature package not only matches its pricey competitors, but it also trounces other free options, particularly Web-based services such as Google Apps and Acrobat.com. While business users might want to keep Office as their primary tool for its integration with Exchange Server, OpenOffice will do just fine for students--not to mention road warriors who don't have a Microsoft Office license to spare.