Google Workspace : Collaboration + productivity apps
There are many different office software suites but Google Workspace formerly known as G Suite remains the original cloud one and one of the best business office suites, offering a huge range of features and functionality that rivals can't match.
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Free office software has come a long way in recent years, and the best free suites can now easily take the place of premium apps for many users.
For most users, Microsoft 365 (formerly known as Office 365) remains the original and best office suite, and it takes matters further with an online version that offers cloud backups and mobile use as required. Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher, Access, Powerpoint, and Outlook still remain key office apps.
However, over the years other companies have released rival office suites to help with productivity, some of which is paid-for and some of which is free - sometimes with the same company offering both.
However, while most offer the ability to work with traditional Microsoft Office documents, do be aware that not all will preserve formatting when exporting from or into Microsoft Office, which can be a problem when sending documents between different programs.
Even still, for home users and new businesses, the idea of being able to create, edit, manage, and organize office documents without incurring costs can be very welcome.
Best free office software - at a glance
Microsoft's desktop software carries a subscription fee, but the company has noticed the threat posed by Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) and created its own set of free online apps.
Microsoft 365 online looks and works just like its desktop equivalent, and although advanced tools like pivot tables are out of reach, but aren’t offered by Google either.
If you generally use Microsoft document formats, Office Online is a brilliant choice. Unlike Google's free office suite, it doesn't need to convert your files before you can work on them, and you can share them easily through your Microsoft OneDrive account. Just log in using your Microsoft account (the same one you use to log into Windows 10) and you're ready to go.
While Google Docs is, thanks to the strength of its brand, probably more widely used, Zoho Workplace is very good in its own right. It's certainly closer to a desktop office package, and it's strong enough to have attracted businesses like the BBC and Nike as regular users.
Zoho's new-look word processor (which ditches the classic Word-style interface in favour of a formatting sidebar) is very well-presented and capable of producing professional-looking docs, and it has a sterling spreadsheet and reasonable presentation package alongside it.
They're just the tip of the iceberg, however – Zoho Workplace includes a powerful site creation tool, a file management solution and many collaborative tools. Some are on the simplistic side, so they'll likely not replace anything you might already have in place, but if you're starting out as a small business Zoho is probably a good jumping-off point.
If you want to signup for the free version of Zoho Workplace you need to search the pricing page for the "Forever free" plan. However, there's no one-click set up or access, and instead you have to go through a sign up process that begins by providing details of an existing business domain.
If you own a Samsung phone, you might already be familiar with the mobile version of Polaris Office. This cross-platform free office software is available for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS, and comes pre-installed on some Samsung handsets. It’s compatible with all Microsoft document formats, and offers a slick ribbon-based interface with some basic customization options.
Take care if you choose to install Windows version, you’ll see various additional pieces of bundled software, which could potentially include a browser extension from McAfee called WebAdvisor, a market research tool called PremierOpinion, and an antivirus suite. You can decline all of these – just keep an eye out.
You’ll then need to sign in with Facebook or Google, or create an account. This is necessary because Polaris Office is a cloud-based service. Your free Polaris account comes with 60MB monthly data transfer, 1GB cloud storage, and can be used across three devices (one desktop and two mobile). If that’s not enough space, you can connect Polaris Office to Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, Microsoft OneDrive and Amazon Cloud Drive – or save work locally to your device.
Upgrading to a premium Polaris account gives you access to extra features including a PDF editor, removes ads, and the ability to search within a document.
LibreOffice is so good, you'll wonder why you ever paid for office software. It's compatible with all Microsoft document formats, and has almost every feature you'll find in the latest versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel.
The suite contains six programs to cover every common office task: Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Math and Base. The last three are tools you won't find in many other free office suites, and are designed for vector diagrams, mathematical functions and databases, respectively. The latter is particularly useful; free alternatives to Microsoft Access are hard to find.
LibreOffice is an open source project maintained by a huge and enthusiastic community of volunteers constantly working to improve stability and add new features. There's a great selection of extensions and templates to make it even more flexible, and it's free for businesses as well as home users.
LibreOffice is a fork of Apache OpenOffice, and the two are extremely similar, but LibreOffice is the better overall product and properly supports file conversion that preserves existing formatting - so your Word .doc files should look the same in LibreOffice as they do in Word, and vice versa.
The latest release of LibreOffice (version 6) adds a huge array of new features and fixes, including more interface customization options, improved file import and export compatibility, and new online help pages.
LibreOffice is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, but there are no official mobile versions available except for a document viewer for Android. It has some editing features, but they're experimental and we wouldn't advise relying on them.
WPS Office Free is a slimmed down version of a premium office suite, but you'd hardly know it. Each of its three programs looks just as slick as the latest versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and is packed with just as many features.
File format support is excellent, and you can save your work in native Microsoft formats for easy sharing with Office users. There's no database software, but WPS Office comes with an excellent free PDF reader that's a great replacement for Windows' built-in app.
There's the occasional ad, but these are few and far between. They certainly won't get in the way of your work, and you'll easily forget that everything in this suite is completely free.
There are versions of WPS Office Free for Windows and Linux systems, as well as apps for Android devices, but Apple device users will need to look elsewhere.
Like WPS Office Free, SoftMaker FreeOffice provides analogs for Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint (TextMaker, PlanMaker and Presentations respectively).
As with all the free office suites in this roundup, there's support for Microsoft file formats from 1997 onwards. It also offers effortless conversion to both PDF and Epub formats, which is a welcome addition.
Unfortunately, some key features are exclusive to the premium version of the software. Some of these (like tabbed browsing) are nice to have but non-essential, but the lack of a thesaurus is a real drawback for anyone who writes on a regular basis.
FreeOffice doesn't look quite as smart as WPS Office, but if you dislike the Microsoft ribbon and find it unintuitive then you'll prefer the slightly more old fashioned approach to navigation.
If you work collaboratively, or switch between a PC and a Mac, Google Docs, Sheets and Slides should be your first port of call.
For anyone who's already deep into the Android/Google ecosystem, this suite will be a natural choice. The three key tools run happily in any web browser, and are available as mobile apps for Apple and Android devices.
Google's free office suite doesn't offer the advanced tools you'll find in desktop software like LibreOffice (there are no pivot tables, for example, and there's no database tool) but everything is laid out in a clear, logical way and all your files will be saved and synced automatically so you don't have to worry about transfers and backups.
The chief disadvantage of Docs, Sheets and Slides is that opening files created using other office software is a cumbersome process and file formatting isn't is always converted properly. This is partly because Google's office tools use web fonts rather than ones stored locally on your device, and partly because Microsoft documents sometimes contain features not supported by Google.
Additionally, there are some quirks with Google Docs that make it less user-friendly than other office software. As free software it does the job fine, but as a paid product it still lags behind the features and functionality of Microsoft Office.
- Read our full Google Docs review.