updated 03:45 pm EDT, Wed May 14, 2008
F. Look: OpenOffice 3 Beta
Microsoft Office may be the most popular office suite in the world, but not everyone needs or wants to use it. Some people object to its cost, while others feel that it doesn't offer the features they need. If you don't want to use Office on Windows, you can choose from plenty of alternatives, including the free OpenOffice suite. Until recently though, Mac users have had far fewer options, limited to either Microsoft Office 2008 or Apple's iWork. While OpenOffice has been available in some form on the Mac for years, it used to rely on the X11 interface, which made the program look different from other Mac OS X applications. With the latest beta, you can now run OpenOffice as native code on Intel Macs.
Feature-wise, the beta already surpasses the available programs in Microsoft Office, offering a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation program (Impress), a database (Base), and a vector drawing program (Draw). By default the suite relies on the Open Document file format, although you can open and save files in a variety of formats including Word (.doc), Excel (.xls), and PowerPoint (.ppt). For compatibility with Office 2007/Office 2008, the program can open -- but not save -- .docx, .xlsx and .pptx files. Common to all components of the suite is the ability to export files to PDF, or e-mail them directly through a simple Send command.
Unlike other office suites that consist of separate programs, OpenOffice consists of a single entity that lets you open and create different types of documents in separate windows. One window might contain a word processor document, while a second might contain a spreadsheet or presentation. Clicking on each window displays toolbars and pull-down menus unique to that particular file; when you're working with a spreadsheet, for instance, the toolbars and pull-down menus only display Calc's commands.
Nearly every component mimics the features found in Microsoft Office, making the transition to OpenOffice simple and painless. Each program's window typically displays a Standard and Formatting toolbar that you can modify or hide, along with pull-down menus that mimic Office as well. The program's interface does, however, more closely resemble Office 2003 for Windows or Office 2004 for the Mac, rather than Office 2007 or 2008.
If you have a large word processor document, you may want to see how specific pages look compared to neighboring pages, especially if you've embedded graphics on a page. By using a zoom slider, you can display multiple pages as thumbnail images so you can see the layout of your pages without reading the actual text of documents.
If you need to create documents in multiple languages, such as English and Spanish, Writer allows you to specify the language used in each paragraph or section of your document. This makes it easy to edit and spellcheck text in the correct language.
Writer can define different languages in each paragraph
The size of Calc's spreadsheets has been expanded to 1,024 columns, a figure which exceeds both Excel and OpenOffice 2's limit of 256; similarly, spreadsheets can now consist of 32,000 rows, compared to Excel's 65,535. Unless you're working with otherwise ungainly files, your Excel spreadsheets should open just fine in Calc.
More relevant to Mac users may be the program's limited Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) support, used to create macros in spreadsheets or word processor documents. In Office 2008 for the Mac Microsoft left VBA support out, so OpenOffice may be the only way to preserve your Excel files and macros until Microsoft returns VBA support in a future suite.
As might be expected, the Impress program provides PowerPoint-like functionality, so if you're familiar with the latter, learning Impress should be easy. Perhaps the one glaring omission in this regard is the lack of templates, which help simplify the creation of presentations. Office provides dozens of templates, with hundreds more available online; by comparison, OpenOffice provides a bare minimum. As a result, Impress makes creating presentations unnecessarily difficult.
One handy feature in Impress allows the use of dual monitors. That way one monitor can display your slides, while a second monitor can hold your notes. Now you can browse through notes on-screen without fumbling through papers.
Base lets users manually build databases, but also offers a wizard for streamlining the process. Draw, the vector component of the suite, provides only the basics for creating your own drawings for inserting them into a document.
As a beta, you probably shouldn't trust OpenOffice 3 with important material, since crashes are likely. Fortunately, the suite includes a crash recovery feature that can restore projects.
As a free program though, OpenOffice makes a compelling substitute to Microsoft software. If you need VBA support, this suite in fact surpasses Microsoft's efforts. The one catch is that if you enjoy having access to a huge library of templates, you may feel naked.
Due in its final form by September, the beta version is available for download now so you can see if you like it or not. If you're already familiar with the previous generation of Microsoft Office products, you may actually find OpenOffice more compatible and easier to learn than Office 2008.