While Microsoft's Office continues to dominate the general market, in recent years corporate desktops have begun to adopt either Star Office 8.0 or OpenOffice.

The latter alone accounts for more than 60 million downloads. It's not hard to see the appeal of such alternatives. OpenOffice is, after all, free and has a comprehensive feature set.

Office - the free alternatives

OpenOffice is available only via download. However, it's now up to version 2.2, which offers a bunch of cosmetic changes to the interface.

The core applications of OpenOffice 2.2 are just as you would expect, comprising a word processor, spreadsheet, database, drawing application and a presentation package. Writer, the OpenOffice 2.2 word processor, isn't as snazzy as Microsoft Word 2007, but includes a few elements Microsoft has only just caught up with – such as the ability to save to PDF.

More important to most users is the fact that compatibility and performance have been greatly improved, with OpenOffice Writer capable of opening multiple file formats. OpenOffice can merge documents as emails, but the support for macros in StarOffice doesn't extend to OpenOffice 2.2.

Beyond the basics

The OpenOffice spreadsheet application, Calc, compares well to Excel, providing a range of functions and formulae that'll enable you to perform calculations quickly. Users can create multiple worksheets and analyse data using a DataPilot (the equivalent of Excel's Pivot Tables). The only area in which Calc suffers is in the range of charts and graphs that can be created, but these are more than sufficient for most users.

Impress is a perfectly adequate presentation package. If this is important to you, however, it's best to opt for the StarOffice rather than OpenOffice as more templates are included. These are inferior to those included with PowerPoint, but if you're willing to put in a little extra work then you can still create decent presentation.

More importantly, OpenOffice Impress provides you with plenty of help in terms of structuring your ideas. It can export presentations as Flash files, too.

The database tool, Base, is a complex relational database, which will be fairly forbidding to the casual user but offers sophisticated tools for creating forms and reports that can work with several database engines. The drawing component, Draw, is a charting component (akin to Visio).

OpenOffice also includes Math, with which you can create complex equations for your documents.

Spot the difference

In terms of features, there's little difference between the two applications, but StarOffice includes the Sun Java Runtime Environment. Java is required for both suites, although OpenOffice will run with free Java software and the Sun implementation isn't essential. More important will be support, which is where StarOffice may have the edge.

OpenOffice: Specs

  • Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon
  • Windows 98/Me/2000/XP/Vista/Linux/Mac OS X
  • 128MB RAM (256MB recommended), 320MB hard disk space
  • Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon
  • Windows 98/Me/2000/XP/Vista/Linux/Mac OS X
  • 128MB RAM (256MB recommended), 320MB hard disk space

OUR VERDICT

OpenOffice 2.2 provides a superb, very stable office suite, that offers a challenge to Microsoft Office. Free doesn't mean sub-standard.

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