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Review: Open-Source Office Suites Compared

In search of an alternative to Microsoft Office, we test OpenOffice.org, StarOffice from Sun, IBM's Lotus Symphony, KOffice for Linux, and AbiWord.

This story originally appeared Dec. 8, 2008.

Bit by bit, the Microsoft monopoly on office productivity applications is receding -- and one of the most important ways this is happening is through the proliferation of open source productivity suites. The most obvious example is OpenOffice.org, now in a landmark third release, but they're also not the only ones in town anymore.




The big new things in OpenOffice 3.0 are actually a lot of small new things.
(click for image gallery)

In this review I've taken a look at OpenOffice.org's most recent release, along with the commercially-supported StarOffice from Sun, IBM's reworking of OO.o as Lotus Symphony, the KOffice suite for Linux, and the minimal but still useful AbiWord. Talking about how these would entirely replace Microsoft Office would be misleading, since not everyone might be doing that -- so I've looked at each product as far on its own merits as possible.

OpenOffice.org 3
OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org 3 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, step forward from OO.o 2. It doesn't make as radical break from previous editions the way Microsoft Office 2007 was such a total departure from 2003. That should come as a comfort to those already alienated by Office '07. (Disclaimer: I like the ribbon interface, but I'm just as comfortable with plain old dockable toolbars as well.)

The big new things in OO.o 3 are actually a lot of small new things. Mac users, for one, will be happy to know version 3's now a native application. All of the applications in the suite can be summoned through a single unified interface, which can also be brought up from a system-tray launcher, which also doubles as an accelerator for the suite. The overall performance of the 3.0 suite is markedly better than 2.0, even without the app-launch accelerator -- a gimmick I resent on general principles, so I turned it off anyway.

Other new things include an equation solver and workbook-sharing functions for Calc (the spreadsheet app); support for multiple monitors in Impress, the presentation program; and support for VBA macros -- the latter being one of the bigger obstacles towards adoption from professional-level MS Office users.

Those who are already on Office 2007 can open that suite's OOXML-format files directly in OO.o. You cannot save as OOXML, though, and some things still don't seem to translate correctly from existing OOXML documents. One document with character sets from multiple languages on the same line (English and Japanese in this case) had its line spacing mangled when I imported it. The same document's line spacing was fine when I saved it as a Word 2003 document and imported that, however.

One of my longstanding favorite features of OpenOffice has been the ability to export directly to PDF without needing a plugin or virtual printer driver, with advanced things like encryption and form functionality all included. The range of options in OpenOffice.org's PDF exporter is a little broader in 3; the big new addition is PDF/A (archival) support, which insures that the PDF in question has all the properties and elements needed to be read in the future.

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