The longest-standing free alternative to MS Office is OpenOffice 2.1, a product that has its roots in StarOffice (download it from www.openoffice.org).
The 93MB file comprises six applications: a database (Base), spreadsheet (Calc), graphics package (Draw), presentation software (Impress), mathematics editor (Math) and word processor (Writer). We will concentrate on Writer and Calc.
Anyone familiar with previous versions of Office will have little problem getting to grips with the interface. For the occasional esoteric command you will have to hunt around a little, but otherwise everything is where you would expect it to be.
Features and compatibility
The fact that Writer is free does not mean it is underpowered - anything but. If you need to create complex documents which require an index or contents page, for example, all the required tools are easily available. Plus, Writer boasts features unavailable in previous versions of Microsoft Office - most notably the ability to save to PDF, although this feature has been added to Office 2007.
Similarly, the search-and-replace dialog box is superb, allowing you to hunt for text according to its format. And the latest version of OpenOffice has been dramatically improved with regards to performance.
Release 1.1 could be slow at times and compatibility with other - notably Microsoft - formats was not always perfect. Writer now handles a number of complex Word documents and, with OpenOffice providing software for Linux and Mac operating systems as well, the suite has the edge when it comes to cross-platform compatibility. If you encounter an obscure file format, there is more chance that you will be able to open it in Writer than in Word.
Are there any down sides to Writer? The few minor irritations are more a question of personal preference than anything else. If you hated the animated Microsoft Office paperclip, OpenOffice's help system is more discreet but tends to demand your attention.
Similarly, predictive text may be great for SMS messages, but will irritate the experienced typist. However, these are niggles that can be turned off, providing you take the time to hunt through the options.
More significant omissions include lack of grammar checking and collaborative editing tools. Most users wouldn't miss the latter, but for some it's a reason not to replace Office. Plus, more recent versions of Office have included some excellent research tools.
For nearly everyone else, however, OpenOffice's Writer is an extremely effective piece of software that compares impressively well with Word. Documentation is good, performance is excellent, compatibility is superb, and the price second to none.