OpenOffice 2 review

18 Nov 2005

Our pick of the low-cost office suites has had a much-needed overhaul, and now battles Microsoft in terms of features, not just price.

5

We've always been impressed by OpenOffice. Not because it's better than Microsoft Office - it isn't. Not because it's better looking than Microsoft Office, either. Again, it isn't. What's kept us hooked over the last few years, as it's crept to the point where the two are now all but neck and neck on features, is the extraordinary value for money. It's completely free.

OpenOffice runs on Windows, Linux and Solaris, and comprises the usual raft of office applications, with a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc) and presentation module (Impress) at the fore, backed up by database and drawing tools. All can import Microsoft-formatted files to an impressive degree, and can be set to export in Microsoft native formats for use in mixed-suite environments.

This latest release has been a while in the making, so we were keen to see how it compared with the previous edition, which won our last office suites group test, as well as the commercial StarOffice, designed for larger organisations.

writer

Writer, along with Calc, is inevitably what people will use most. To test compatibility, we loaded up a complex Word 2000 marketing document, making full use of Microsoft Word's formatting options, with complex composite images made up from tiled GIFs overlaid by markers, shaded boxes and a wide range of font and paragraph styles. Without exception, Writer picked them all up, perfectly mimicking the Word original and placing them all in line - something we've never seen before. The only difference was the way Writer showed us the edges of image frames, which by default are invisible in Word, and isn't a problem as they won't print.

It didn't do quite so well when we tested more esoteric formatting options in a document of our own creation. A rotated JPEG was straightened, pushing down some of the text that should have appeared beside it, while a vector image had lost its colouring. An embedded chart was properly rendered, though, and our garish sample of WordArt was rendered in the same colours and size in Writer as Word, although the edges of the characters were more jagged in OpenOffice's version.

However, its WordArt equivalent - which it calls Fontwork - is far more accomplished, with a dedicated 3D panel giving you access to a raft of extrusion options, and even control over lighting from any one of eight directions.

What we were most impressed by, though, were the built-in image-editing tools. Certainly, they won't put Photoshop out of work, but when unleashed on a photo they let you set transparency and apply a range of surprisingly sophisticated filters. The former option will be useful if you want to reduce the impact of an image you're setting under text, while the latter lets you sharpen blurred images, blur sharp ones, tweak individual colour channels and even remove noise in badly compressed snaps. And that's before you get into the less tasteful options.

We were pleased to see that OpenOffice has moved the Wordcount option from a subsection of the file menu, where it always looked out of place. Also impressive is the revamped Mail merge, although it still lags behind Microsoft Office for simplicity.

calc

The spreadsheet has been beefed up, now holding twice as many rows as it once did (now 65,536 to match Excel), but its charting tools could still do better. If you're starting graphs from scratch, there's no cause for complaint, but we found that when importing a graph from Excel the most extreme value on the Y axis wasn't high enough to stop it shearing off the top of the highest peak, spoiling an otherwise excellent effort that saw it retain the smooth curves we had set in Excel; lesser suites opt for simple lines at angles to one another.