Powerful, capable and free, but this office suite still lacks some polish
Did we mention that it’s free?
Runs natively on Intel Macs
Doesn’t feel like a true Mac program
Lacks some useful small features
Doesn’t run on PowerPC Macs
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The old adage that you get what you pay for doesn't always apply to the software market, where the overpriced and the totally free often go head-to-head.
OpenOffice.org won't cost you a penny, yet it's a full-featured office suite that aims to be taken seriously by big corporate users as much as by budget-conscious individuals.
Offering word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database modules, it displays a level of ambition that's way above what you'd normally expect from freeware.
This open source suite has been around and growing steadily for many years now, but so far it has only been available for Windows and Unix machines.
Now, for the first time, we have a version that will run natively on the Mac (Intel-based models only). The official release is expected in September, but this beta version is stable enough for serious appraisal, if not yet for critical business use.
Unlike Microsoft Office, which is a bundle of separate apps, OpenOffice.org launches as a single app with all its modules contained in that. You can have documents of different types open simultaneously and the menus will change to suit the currently active window.
Toolbars are held within each window, so the appropriate ones are always available. By default, OpenOffice.org saves in Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2, but can also handle Office binary formats up to Office 2004 as well as the common generic formats such as RTF or CSV.
It can open, but not save, documents in the new XML format that's used by Office 2007 and Office for Mac 2008.
The word processing module, known as Writer, provides a choice of page-based or window-based views with the ability to display multiple pages on screen.
Formatting relies on a system of styles with all the usual options for controlling character, paragraph and page properties. More advanced options such as indexing, bullet lists, footnotes, tables and columns are all supported.
There are also facilities for revision tracking and for attaching notes to any point in a document. You can embed graphics, spreadsheet tables, text frames and other objects into a page and flow text around them.
In addition, there's a built-in equation editor that enables you to insert mathematical formulas. Though not as heavily orientated towards layout as iWork's Pages, Writer does provide all the layout facilities you might reasonably expect from a word processor.
While there's no shortage of features in Writer, and they're mostly well handled, it's the little things that are missing. There's no equivalent, for example, of Office's Smart Cut & Paste, which will move text with a regard for the adjoining spaces and punctuation.
Anyone who writes for publications will also miss the live word count. Having to open and close a dialog every time is so much slower.
The spreadsheet module, Calc, is a bit more polished. The basic interface and way of working will feel entirely comfortable to Excel users and there's no shortage of spreadsheet real estate.
Sheets can contain up to 1,024 columns by 65,536 rows, and you can have multiple sheets in a tabbed arrangement within one file. There are 371 functions available, including virtually all of those provided by Excel. A Function Wizard can help you build formulas and enables you to check the result of each component function as well as the overall formula.
Numerous formatting options are provided, including conditional formatting and a flexible system for defining custom formats. Like Office, OpenOffice.org has a Format Painter that copies formatting attributes from a selected cell to any others.
The charting options are also good with a wide range of the more commonly used chart types, though there's not as much flexibility as Excel offers.
Power users can create pivot tables and there's a Solver, which can drive a target cell to a maximum, minimum or specified value by altering other cells that it's dependent on.
Unfortunately, this only works for linear equations, which does limit its usefulness. However, with Office for Mac 2008 having dropped the excellent - and non-linear - Solver that it had before, OpenOffice.org currently has the upper hand here.
In principle, it should be possible to import worksheets in either direction between OpenOffice.org and Excel, but we always experienced problems ranging from the trivial to the terminal, such as whole sheets from an Excel workbook failing to load. Presumably this will be fixed with the official release.
For presentations, OpenOffice.org has its Impress module. This is a competent, if not groundbreaking, offering. It produces slides, notes and handouts and makes the whole job easier by providing a wizard to guide you through the initial setup.
A sidebar in the main window provides easy access to layouts, transitions, animations and so on. For occasional use, Impress has almost everything you'll need.
Its biggest weakness is that so few templates are provided, which means your presentations will either end up looking similar or will need considerably more work.
Base is the suite's database module, which takes a fairly traditional approach. However, it's a powerful and effective program. Joins can be set up between tables to create one-to-many relational links, with the related data being displayed in sub-forms within the body of a record form.
There's a graphical interface for designing forms and wizards to help with setting up tables, queries and so on. Unlike the other modules, Base has an extensive set of templates.
A tremendous package
Finally, we come to Draw, the graphics module. Sensibly, this avoids getting involved in painterly effects or photo retouching and concentrates on the sort of diagrammatic work that's more likely to be of use in business. Simple flow charts, line drawings and symbols are its domain and it comes with all the tools you'll need for those.
Overall, OpenOffice.org delivers a tremendous package of features at an unbeatable price. It's not quite up to Office level, but it's breathing down Microsoft's neck.
One area where it does falter, however, is the poor attention to detail in the user interface. This may matter more to some users than to others. Fortunately, it will cost you nothing to find out how you feel about it.
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