OpenOffice.org 3 review

OpenOffice.org is a powerful productivity suite with one major additional feature: it’s free. Whether OpenOffice 3 – the first version to run natively on OS X and Intel-based Macs – is right for you essentially comes down to this decision: can you live without the latest features in Microsoft Office 2008?

Most of the tools you need for productivity are here, minus an email client. There’s Writer, a powerful word processor; Calc for spreadsheets; Impress for slideshows; Draw for basic drawing and graphics; and Base to serve as – you guessed it – a database.

Major improvements

OpenOffice 3 is a major upgrade with plenty of new features, native OS support, and all the tools most people would need to get their work done. You begin in a splash screen called the Start Center, with new icons for the different applications you can select (you can’t start the individual apps from the Applications folder). You can share data between apps, and run more than one module at the same time.

There’s another major change in the latest version of the software: OpenOffice 3 supports the OpenDocument 2.1 (ODF) standard, a popular format that’s used around the world, especially by government agencies. Speaking of format support: Writer supports Microsoft Word files, so you can open them and then save them in Word format or as ODF.

However, if you want to save a document in Word format, you must continually choose “Save as” because the program does not natively support Word. In fact, the Save menu is dimmed when you open a Word file. This forces you to make a decision about whether you should start using ODF, a format that is still not supported by Microsoft Word.

Each program updated

So what has changed in each app? For starters, Writer now supports editing notes that run along the side of the screen – something like Word’s comment bubbles. These can be formatted with a different colour for each editor, which facilitates group editing of documents; but it’s a far cry from the extensive comment bubbles, markup, and reviewing pane options in Word 2008, which allow you to track all changes, see the original document and various other views, and highlight changes.

Writer has a new zoom slider on the status bar and a way to view multiple pages on the screen at once. If you’re a former Office user switching to OpenOffice 3, you may be annoyed to find that you can’t hover your mouse over the status bar to see what the features will do – and there’s no pop-up help system. However, there is extensive documentation and loyal users willing to provide forum support.

Calc now includes a Solver wizard that helps you optimise the calculations within cells on a spreadsheet. It works okay, but it’s no deal-closer – no one buys a spreadsheet program for a calculation solver. OpenOffice 3 enhances the chart functionality in Calc, supporting regression equations and correlation co-efficients. Most importantly, a pie chart we made in Calc – from a home budget spreadsheet, which includes 24 workbooks, thousands of calculations, and extensive data sets – rendered quickly on a MacBook Pro.

We also like the new workbook-sharing feature: you can share your data, a co-worker can make changes, and then you can integrate those changes back into the original document. This feature, available in Excel, was sorely lacking in previous versions of OpenOffice. Calc also supports up to 1,024 columns in a spreadsheet as opposed to only 256 in the previous version.

Impress, the slideshow program, can now perform a few extra tricks. You can import a table from Calc and edit it directly – it’s no longer just a static image. Our favourite addition, though, is multi-monitor support. We hooked up our MacBook Pro to a projector and ran slides on one screen and our outline on another. It’s slick, and with native OS X support, it also ran fast and nimbly. Draw has only a few enhancements, including a way to crop images by just grabbing handles and moving them.

Unfortunately, even with these new features, there’s still a lot missing compared to Office 2008. Most critical: the latest Microsoft suite uses elements for documents, charts, tables, and other sections of your document that allow you to quickly format your pages.

When using OpenOffice 3, we really missed Microsoft Office’s snazzy notebook view, noteflags, annotated audio clips you can export to an iPod, multi-page printing, enhanced auto correction features, and advanced document security. OpenOffice.org also doesn’t provide any email or calendaring apps, though this is not a major gripe as there are plenty of open source options available.

OUR VERDICT

The decision here is not whether OpenOffice 3 is worth downloading – it’s free after all – but whether you really need to buy Microsoft Office 2008. Ultimately, Office 2008 is the superior product. You’ll get extensive support, few crashes, and the latest and most advanced features. On the other hand, OpenOffice 3 is one of those 80-20 products. It will do 80 per cent of what most of people need, and it now does it natively on OS X. It’s speedy, feature-rich, and does what it says it will do very well. And if that’s all you need (and you can live without the latest Office features), it’s definitely worth the effort.

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