OpenOffice 1.1.4 review
The best all-round office suite is also the cheapest. With excellent Microsoft compatibility, a consistent interface and a good network of ad-hoc support, this is the king of the business tools.
Review Date: 21 Oct 2004
Price when reviewed:
Note that this review originally referred to version 1.1.2
OpenOffice is a little different to all the other suites on offer here. For starters, it's free: you can download it from www.openoffice.org, and we've saved you the trouble by including it on this month's cover disc. The lack of cost is due to the open-source movement, a community of developers willing to work as a team, for free, to improve existing code. And the best thing about OpenOffice is that it had some excellent code to work with in the first place: Sun's StarOffice.
This doesn't mean that it's 'cobbled together by amateurs'. In fact, this is a very forward-looking piece of software. While being fully Microsoft Office-compatible, it also has its own XML-based file format for documents and spreadsheets. This is a significant advance, as it looks to a future when we'll be storing our data on centralised servers and accessing it through all manner of asyet undefined applications.
The one area where it does look amateur is its appearance. Very much the ugly duckling of office suites, OpenOffice (and StarOffice) looks like it was put together five years ago. There's a reason for this: it runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris and the Mac, so adopts a common theme across all editions. However, as the toolbars of each module look the same, when you've got used to one application you'll know how everything else works, too.
Before you get too picky about the look and feel, though, remember one thing: it's free. Installation takes less than two minutes and drops the OpenOffice Quickstarter into your System Tray. This gives you right-click access to new text documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings.
Unlike Microsoft Office, the suite lets you export your documents as an Acrobat PDF and, as with the other suites on test, it has a few quirks all of its own. It's a fan of floating panels - much like Photoshop or old editions of Dreamweaver. In each application, these include the Stylist and the Navigator. While the first controls the look of onscreen elements, such as fonts and pages, the latter is a real time-saver, letting you quickly access specific parts of your document on the basis of content. With just two clicks you should be able to locate a specific table within a financial report, or a particular section in a technical manual. If you work with long documents, it's a must.
Non-typists will welcome the word processor's type-ahead feature. This examines what you've entered so far and then does its best to guess the rest of the word you're typing. It usually gets it right, but if you're writing a list, with a carriage return at the end of each line you could find it adding words you didn't want. 'You', for example, will be translated into 'you'll', at which point you'll probably switch it off.
Microsoft converts will need to spend some time learning a new menu layout. Word count, for example, is hidden away inside the statistics tab of the document properties, which itself is buried in the File menu. We much prefer it to be kept on the Tools menu or, even better, on the toolbar. We'd also like the option to count words in a section of our document, not just the whole thing, although the early development builds of the OpenOffice 2 (currently at 1.9.m51 and not recommended for general use) have put it into the Tools menu. This build also sees the move to a more attractive set of Microsoft-style toolbars.
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