For many people, the name Microsoft Word is pretty much synonymous with word processing. It’s the software that’s installed on your office computer, and it often appears as a free trial when you buy a new laptop, so it becomes the default application when you want to type a document. Less tech-savvy users could be forgiven for thinking Word is the only tool that can handle document creation at all.
See also: Office 2013 review.
But there are plenty of other word processing suites available. Unlike the expensive Word, they’re totally free – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re poor imitations. With years of development behind them, these free tools have many of the same powerful features that Microsoft expects you to pay for – and more.
OpenOffice Writer and LibreOffice Writer
We’ll start with the big guns. OpenOffice is a popular open source productivity suite that sprung from Sun’s StarOffice over a decade ago. In 2010 – amid concerns over Oracle’s management of the project – development also forked into the rival LibreOffice, leaving users with the choice of two office suites when going down the free route.
Most popular Linux distros, previously in the OpenOffice camp, promptly jumped ship to the new kid on the block.
What does this mean for the two word-processing applications? Well, they’re both called Writer and they share an awful lot of DNA; at first glance the writing interfaces are practically identical, and the menus are populated with most of the same options in the same order. There are a few cosmetic differences, though. From the glossy splash screen to the more modern icons, LibreOffice has a fresher look and feel, and we quickly came to rely on its extra features such as a permanent word count at the foot of the window.
LibreOffice Writer has had more development love in recent years, and although much of that is under the hood, some of it can be felt in use. Creating documents is a perfectly pleasant process. It might not have the alignment guides and magically smooth cursor of the latest version of Word, but it does nail pretty much all of the tasks that matter. It has dictionaries and autocorrect, table creation, oodles of fonts and styles, and plenty of useful downloadable extensions built by the open source community. In fact, it feels a lot like Word from a few years ago, which is high praise for software that costs nothing.
But – and it's a big but – Word still casts its shadow over all the free word processors here.
Whether you can get by with LibreOffice depends on how often you need to work with people who still use Microsoft's software, as importing documents can be frustrating. Look at the difference between how our test document looks in Word (top) and in Writer (bottom half).
Old Word files tend to be more compatible, but we had big issues with newer DOCX files. Importing a complex 50-page document from Word 2013 to LibreOffice Writer saw images shifted out of line, graphs vanish entirely and tables lose their lines and formatting, leaving just an overlapping mess of text. If that sounds bad, OpenOffice Writer fared even worse: despite repeated attempts to open the file, it would only acknowledge the existence of the first four pages, making the document all but useless.
We had hit and miss experiences with other test documents – more hit than miss, we should point out – and when it works it really is barely distinguishable from Word in a lot of ways. But the compatibility issues are always lurking in the background, so while we can recommend the considerable talents of LibreOffice for most home word processing tasks, just be aware that it’s not quite the easy replacement for a full Microsoft Office suite just yet.
WordPad is built into Windows - you don't need to download it.
At the other end of the spectrum is Windows’ own free tool, and the latest version is actually a rather nice piece of software. It looks and feels like a proper Microsoft product, complete with the Ribbon interface, but it only has two tabs: Home and View.
That’s enough room for the necessities, so it handles text formatting (but alas no styles), as well as inserting pictures, drawings and objects – including Excel worksheets and PowerPoint slides, among others. You don’t get much more than that, which is understandable for a free bundled tool, but for pure text it’s a pleasant and functional place to work.
AbiWord takes the WordPad template, adds a few extra features and strips all that pleasantness from the interface. It has the basics nailed down, with text styles, bullets, mail merge, margins and tables, although that’s about it – don’t expect any fancy formatting beyond the thickness of the lines. There is one novel feature in the AbiCollab service for collaborating with others on documents, although don’t get too excited – you’ll probably struggle to find another AbiWord user.
It’s a perfectly usable piece of basic word processing software, and with a footprint on our hard disk of just 10MB it has some appeal for those with older PCs. But it’s plain to the point of ugliness, and hardly the most inspiring of writing tools.
Jarte is also based on WordPad, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the graphical, almost cartoonish interface. It’s more than just a re-skin. It takes an icon-led approach to menus, keeping the interface minimal next to the main text window.
Multiple documents appear as tabs along the top, like a web browser; it supports favourite files, folders and fonts that can be reorganised and instantly accessed like web bookmarks; and we love its quick-buttons: sat right in the centre of the menu bar, one click can bring up word counts as well as view and tab options.
We did have to turn on icon labels at first just to get to know where everything was, but after an hour or so we were happy to switch them off again.
It gets better. Given the failure of much larger suites at the task, we didn’t expect a little tool like Jarte to handle our complex Word documents, but – after being prompted to download an Office compatibility tool – it amazed us by successfully reproducing colourful graphs and the content of complex tables (albeit without some of the lines).
Okay, many objects had been left-aligned and some lost their text wrapping, but they were readable and pretty easily fixable, which was the best result so far – better in some cases than LibreOffice.
Jarte might lack some of the more advanced drawing and formatting options that a full word processor offers, but for bashing out documents with the odd table and picture, it’s a refreshing and – unusually – rather enjoyable tool to use. Unlike some free suites it feels like a lot of thought and effort has gone into giving Jarte a distinctive and genuinely sensible interface.
Plus, it can be run directly from a USB stick or even a Dropbox folder, making it well worth a try as your lightweight, use-anywhere writing companion.
Also in the lightweight camp is WordGraph, which is a sub-15MB download and doesn’t need Java or .NET installed to run. The interface wouldn’t look out of place in 1995, complete with several badly drawn icons that bear little relation to their function (and the Insert Picture icon looks like something out of a ZX Spectrum strip poker game).
As for opening files, this basic application worked fine with our .txt and .rtf documents, and it can show neat thumbnails of every page alongside the main text for quick reference. Unfortunately, it rendered all of our Word files into total gobbledygook, from the latest DOCX right down to decade-old files, and it also crashed several times during testing. If you stick to knocking out notes in the basic document formats WordGraph is just about usable, but unless your PC belongs in a museum you’re much better off with Jarte or WordPad.
Go to Google Docs
While it’s not quite in the same category as the Jartes of this world, it’s impossible to write seriously about free word processing software without at least including a section on Google Docs. Yes, it’s based online, so you’d be unwise to rely on it to document your travels around Antarctica, but there’s no denying it’s a very good piece of software as long as an internet connection is guaranteed.
It handles the basics with ease, from fonts and styles to the usual bullet lists and alignment options, and you can insert images, drawing and equations. It has a solid table editor, rudimentary page numbering and auto-generated content lists – provided you make good use of the Heading style –and it offers real-time collaboration with anyone who uses Google, which makes it a wonderful tool for generating ideas and lists you couldn’t produce alone. It’s not quite in the same category as the others here, and it’s still not going to do every little thing you’re used to in the full version of Word, but its access-anywhere freedom makes it an obvious browser bookmark.