How Suite It Is
It may surprise you to learn that there are a number of free or low cost office suites available.
Most are completely compatible with Microsoft Office and can even read and write in the Office format. Of course some are better than others, but all are worth mentioning. Here are the ones I've found:
EasyOffice for Windows from www.e-press.com offers a freeware version of ten applications for personal use, or you can register the full version of 14 components for $39.95. Unique features include Adobe PDF file creation and a text to speech program. EasyOffice requires that Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 or higher be installed on your computer. You don't have to use IE as your browser, but it must be present since many of the software routines called by EasyOffice are kept within IE.
All of the cornerstone programs (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.) are included with the free version, but fax transmittal, thesaurus, grammar checker, envelope and mailing-label print formats, the calculator within EasyWord, and a few other minor programs are not.
EasyWord can save Zip-compressed files and directly read and generate *.doc and *.rtf files that are 100% compatible with Microsoft Word. EasyWord has only one level of undo, and doesn't search and replace spaces and punctuation. EasySpreadsheet can generate *.xls files compatible with Microsoft Excel, but not every Excel feature, particularly Excel graphics, can be exported from EasySpreadsheet. EasySpreadsheet2 has better Microsoft Excel compatibility, and can read and produce Excel-compatible graphics, but doesn't run as fast or include the 'easy mode' of EasySpreadsheet. Both programs are included on the CD-ROM, but only EasySpreadsheet is contained in the downloadable file.
The Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer (found only on the CD version) is integrated into EasyPresentation, allowing EasyOffice users to view and print PowerPoint files. Files can only be saved in HTML/XML, along with a copy of the EasyPresentationViewer to allow any user without EasyOffice to view an EasyPresentation file.
This is the only suite reviewed here that plans to offer any database function. EasyDatabase will be released soon with a FoxPro native file format and some limited compatibility with Access files is expected in 2004. If Microsoft Outlook is present, EasyOffice programs can use it to send documents and spreadsheets as e-mails. Otherwise, Microsoft Outlook Express will be installed. EasySpeller provides spell checking in Outlook Express.
The EasyContactManager can import contacts, schedules, task lists, and appointments from Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. Regardless of what browser is used, EasyOffice requires access to the files in a recent copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer. If Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher is not present, then EasyOffice will automatically install Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5. Components of EasyOffice can produce HTML, PDF and Zip compressed files, and support hyperlinks; but there is no Linux or Mac version available.
The 'Tiny Version' includes only EasyWord and EasyContactManager, resulting in a small (few MB) installation file. The 500 MB CD includes additional files for Windows95 upgrade files (Internet Explorer, shell32.dll, etc), a full set of English voice recognition and voice synthesis files, EasyBarCoder, Clipart for EasyWord, animation art for EasyPresentation, EasyMode of EasyWebPage Creator, and a 1000-page printable EasyOffice user manual. A single license EasyOffice that turns the downloaded/demo version into a full commercial version is $28, while a license with the latest CD is $39 + postage.
Open Office, from www.openoffice.org, is a completely free open source Office Suite for Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and Solaris based on code for StarOffice 5.2. This package includes a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, presentation manager, equation writing program and more. It's currently available for Windows, Linux, and Solaris, and a beta version for Mac OS X has just been released.
The user interface and feature set are similar to other office suites, and OpenOffice.org also works transparently with the file formats of Microsoft Office. It can save files as .pdf (portable document format used by Adobe Acrobat).
OpenOffice is written in C++ with localizations available in 27 languages. Users are encouraged to file bug reports at www.kegel.com/openoffice to improve support. Additional templates are posted on the web site.
602 Pro PC Suite
Software602 (www.602pro.com/products/pcs) offers a free MS Office-compatible 602Pro PC Suite for Windows only. You need to register the software, but registration is free. Compatible with Word and Excel files, the suite is composed of four full-featured applications: a word processor, spreadsheet, graphics editor and digital photo organizer. You won't be able to use the 602 Album at all without registering. Once you receive the License ID via e-mail, you must input the ID number into the software to complete the registration process. A $29.95 payment activates all the Plus features (thesaurus and hyphenation, web photo album, mail merge with database support, RTF and XML export, bar code support and more) and also provides priority e-mail support. A few accessories that are available include the Print Pack PDF conversion tool for $19.95 (30-day free trial) and a free 5-user LAN Pack that includes a secure POP3 e-mail server with antivirus, SPAM protection, fax and Internet sharing. I liked the "statistics" toolbar that displayed page and word counts, but 602Text couldn't search and replace spaces or punctuation, either. (That's important to me, so I look for it everywhere.)
Think Free Office
Think Free Office for Windows or Mac OS has a free 30-day trial and costs $39.95 to register a single license or $99.95 for the Family Edition (www.thinkfree.com). Think Free is an Internet-linked, subscription-based, alternative to Microsoft Office that can run on all platforms (Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and UNIX), and is compatible to most office-ware products. ($50 per year)
This suite of word processing (Write), spreadsheet (Calc), and presentation graphics (Show) applications can open, edit, and save directly to the corresponding Microsoft Office file formats of .doc, .xls, and .ppt.
After a 30-day free trial, a $49.95 payment entitles you to free online upgrades and a unique one-year subscription for online file storage and web services on a personal Cyberdrive. The ThinkFree Office Family Edition is $99.90 and includes a single-residence, five-user ThinkFree Office license package, as well as five Cyber drive accounts.
Think Free doesn't read apostrophes or smart quotes correctly from Word documents, and text must be highlighted in order to get a word count. There is only one level of "undo," the search and replace option doesn't work with spaces or symbols, graphics files must be downloaded from the company's website, and the program only saves files in the same format as opened.
Open Source Programs
SOT Office 2002 is another free open source productivity suite for Windows and Linux, based on OpenOffice.org. This software suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, and drawing program that are fully compatible with other major office applications. You can open and save .doc, .xls and all the usual file formats. The installation file is very large (70.3MB) and includes a printable user guide, but may take several hours to download from download.com.com/3000-2031-10109324.html?tag=lst-0-1
Gnome Office (www.gnome.org) is a grouping of applications in various stages of development; and Koffice (koffice.kde.org) is an integrated Office Suite with 8 applications. Both are free and written for the Unix platform.
Atlantis Word Processor for Windows (www.rssol.com/en) offers hot keys, good integration with a calculator and sound schemes, wheel mouse support, and a Clippy Bank (a special cumulative data storage similar to the Windows clipboard). You can choose to download the main version, Atlantis Ocean Mind, or the freeware version, Atlantis Nova. Free add-on spellcheckers and other companion tools like a sound scheme editor, toolbar image editor, document templates, and sample letters are available in the on-line resource center for Atlantis Ocean Mind. Special brushes apply format templates, color, and highlighting to documents. Documents can be saved as HTML pages, and there is AutoCorrect and internal zip compression. Unfortunately, the Clippy Bank of Atlantis cannot be accessed by other applications. If you find the background sounds for most of the events annoying, they can be easily disabled. The application can be minimized to the system tray.
Atlantis supports newsletter columns, hyperlinks, bookmarks, headers and footers, and advanced printing options in 13 languages, with 9 other dictionary additions. After a 30-day free trial, registration is only $35.
AbiWord (www.abisource.com/download) is free word processing program for Windows and Linux, suitable for typing papers, letters, reports, memos, and so forth. It has many levels of undo, and supports 60 languages and 5 operating systems. This word processor starts up in about three seconds on a decent system and takes about 5MB of memory for a blank document. AbiWord can open basic Microsoft Word documents well, but does not work as well if the document has complicated tables, or embedded spreadsheets. AbiWord was created by a worldwide group of volunteers, and they are continuing to develop better MS Word filters. If you find a Word document that fails to load properly in AbiWord, you're encouraged to submit the document so the importer can be improved. With continued support, this program has potential to be quite useful.
Ragtime Solo is the free version of a business publishing program that does with a single application more than most office suites can do. You can download versions for Windows or Mac OS from www.ragtime-online.com. This frame-oriented application combines typical features from office programs with the rich layout capabilities of DTP programs to design documents containing elements of text, tables, drawings, pictures and graphs. It has a unique inventory window, an organized overview of all the components and aids that have been used in the document.
Each object in this window can be edited by double-clicking its name in the list or, by using Drag & Drop components, they can be duplicated or moved to or from documents or to the desktop. You can use it to write a quick note and or print an informal fax.
All common file formats can be imported directly into RagTime in a true page layout view. RagTime supports every possible output, from Internet to color inkjet and laser printers to output on a professional image setter for four-color printing.
The icWord and icExcel at www.panergy-software.com are Mac utilities, with PC versions under development. They're priced at $19.95 each or $29.95 for the bundle of both, and they can access and convert any Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, AppleWorks or ClarisWorks file without having to install any of those applications. The utilities save text in RTF (Rich Text Format), preserving all the text attributes, like font, line spacing, styles, tabs, etc., in order to export text to other word processing programs. Since all versions of Microsoft Word understand RTF files, this is a good format to use when you want to send a document to Word users.
The current version 3.0 of icWord provides the ability to open and view PowerPoint presentations. It offers support of fields and large tables, viewing of RTF documents, font substitution, and enhanced WordArt rendering. The latest version 2.0 of icExcel version has the ability to show and save spreadsheets in Excel XML format, and can display Excel text boxes, Word Art, and various other elements.
How Suite Is It?
Some of these suites have limited feature sets, lack integration, or have a fairly challenging learning curve with limited third-party training and support. None of them offered macro support, but in light of Microsoft's vulnerability with macro viruses, that may actually be a blessing. But they are able to coexist on the same system, so you can mix and match to get a good combination of applications. Since the programs support files that can be imported and exported between them, there's no reason that you have to pick only one suite. File associations can easily be adjusted to set whether Microsoft Word or another compatible application automatically opens a double-clicked *.doc file. Determine your needs and select the applications that work best for you. You should give them a try, at least the price is right.
Beverly Rosenbaum, a HAL-PC member, is a 1999 and 2000 Houston Press Club “Excellence in Journalism” award winner. She can be reached at email@example.com.