The first free and major competitor to Microsoft Word is OpenOffice. It was originally managed by Sun Microsystems, but Oracle purchased Sun and is now running the project. To be clear OpenOffice is totally free and contains not just a Word processing program but also a spreadsheet (like Excel), a simple drawing program, a presentation program (like PowerPoint), a database program (like Access), and an equation editor. That is a whole lot of productivity in a free download huh? This post, I’ll be focusing on the word processing part and how it stacks up to the reigning champ Microsoft Word. Read on past the break to see how it may work for you.
So what am I looking for here? What makes it worth while to download? What makes it worth while that I don’t hit up my neighborhood Best Buy and slap down $120 for Microsoft Office 2010? I am looking for a program that will let me work quickly and efficiently. That means I need to find what I want to do quickly and easily. If I want to add a table, then I should be able to do it without too much looking around and without too many clicks of the mouse. If I have to dig deep too much and too deep, then that is a bad sign. A word processing program should allow you to do just that. It should allow you to work freely and without too much interruption. The program itself needs to get out of its own way and let you do what you need to do.
The first time I opened up OpenOffice and started working on a document, I was pleasantly surprised. It was pretty clean and polished looking. It reminded me of Word 2003 with its two rows of keyboards at the top and the icons were a good size, easy to see what each did, and basically was pretty easy to navigate as the layout of the buttons on the keyboard were in similar positions as in Microsoft Word 2003. Take a look for your self.
Here is the OpenOffice toolbar
Here is the Word 2003 toolbar
As you can see, there are more than a few similarities between the two. This is a good thing. In OpenOffice, it is easy to find what you’re looking for (at least for the basics) and the tool bar is quick and responsive. The icons are clear and there is no confusion about what they do. The toolbars are easy to configure and can be moved around the workspace to meet your work flow needs. All in all the workspace is very similar to the older versions of Word. So if someone were to be transitioning from Word to OpenOffice this will make the transition very easy.
It is just as easy to add images to a document. You simply click on the icon or you go through the menu. Either way you find the image and select OK. After that, you can easily move the image anywhere you’d like to. This is particularly handy when making your own worksheets, study guides, etc. for your class. Adding a table is pretty easy as well. Even deleting and adding rows is very simple.
OpenOffice also supports many different formats. If you’re opening a document from Office 2007 or 2010, you’ll be OK. As long as the formatting is not too crazy (multiple columns, text boxes, etc.), then it should be fine. By default, OpenOffice saves your documents in an .ODT file. This file type is supported by many programs including Word, NeoOffice, and I’m pretty sure Google Docs.
One thing that OpenOffice does that I’m not super keen on, is when you add something to the document (image, table, bullet points, etc.) a new toolbar will pop up as long as you are interacting with that feature. The problem with this is the toolbar is floating around the document. Take a look at the picture below as I have added a table.
The toolbar options are wonderful, but the fact that it appears on the document itself is kind of a problem. You can dock it with the standard toolbars, but then it disappears when you are not interacting with that particular feature. It is not a deal breaker, but it can becomes a distraction; especially if you are clicking back and forth between regular text and other features like tables, bullet points, images, etc.
Another thing I do not like is the little light bulb (see picture below).
Whenever an automatic feature is activated like autocorrect for commonly mistyped words (teh instead of the), this little guy pops up. At first, I thought WOW! This will let me customize this feature. Sadly no, this just opens up the help file and lets me read up on this feature. I guess it’s nice but once again, it is a distraction. It is not really necessary and is just a minor inconvenience.
Another problem, and this really isn’t a problem, is that there is no way to send your document to the cloud. If you’re not sure what the cloud is, read my post here. That would be a nice way to backup documents and access them.
Overall, one must consider what they’re getting into. You’re getting a pretty solid word processing program that is free. It will save you a good $120 and it will meet most, if not all, of your word processing needs. If you’re a teacher on a budget, then this maybe your answer. If you’ve got the money to pay for Microsoft Word, try this first. I mean it’s free and couldn’t you spend your hard earned money on something else? Sure there are some small imperfections, but little distractions aside, it is quite powerful and Open Source projects like this need to be encouraged. Read our friend Tony’s post on that here concerning how one can do that.
Just an FYI. I mentioned that OpenOffice was managed by Sun and that Sun was recently purchased by Oracle. There is a rumor going around that Oracle is going to stop supporting OpenOffice and start their own, but don’t worry. The beauty of open source is that the code is out and there are a lot of people involved already. It will certainly go on, so don’t worry about grabbing a copy before it disappears.