No matter how much you dislike Bill Gates and his megalithic company, few people actually manage to get by without using some of his excellent products. Microsoft Office is a fantastic suite of applications, offering tons of features and a beautiful implementation of the OS X interface. There is one problem, though: it isn’t cheap. That’s where ThinkFree Office comes in. It has much of the functionality of Microsoft Office, it is almost 100 per cent compatible with Office, but it costs a small fraction of Microsoft Office – just $49.
It isn’t a carbon copy of the other Office, though there are many similarities. However, unlike its expensive sibling, this is a single application, rather than a suite of apps. There are three main components: Write, Calc, and Show. These correspond to Word, Excel and PowerPoint. There is no Entourage equivalent, but there are plenty of free email packages available.
Write has all the basic word-processing features you’d expect – the menus are almost identical to Word. The contents, however, are a little different, with fewer options. You can still place graphics in the document, though there were some screen redraw problems when I tried it. Nothing major, but it’s little things like this that remind you that this is not the Microsoft Office. There are other clues, such as the sluggish startup and the lagged responses to text editing. But if you want to write just a letter, CV, or proposal in a format that is an industry standard, then this is the cheapest way to do it. It’s all very well having a suite of applications that costs over £400, as long as a company is paying for it. If you just want something at home, for general household use, homework, letters and so on, $49 is much more appealing. I’m not saying that MS Office isn’t worth it, but that home users are missing out. Microsoft would be well advised to find a way to offer Office to consumers at a more reasonable price.
ThinkFree Calc offers all the Excel basics, and unlike many other spreadsheets, actually uses the same methods and symbols as Excel to create tables. If you use Excel at work, you could easily email work home, work on it in Calc, and send it back to work again. The compatibility is pretty seamless, except for the more obscure functions. Charts are spookily similar to the Microsoft version, as are most of the features in all the applications. It makes me wonder how they can do it without incurring the wrath of Microsoft.
ThinkFree Show is a PowerPoint wannabe, and as such has the same interface as the original. It’s probably closer to the Office 2001 version than the Office v. X PowerPoint, but it still gets the job done.
ThinkFree Office isn’t just for Microsoft haters; it fills an important gap in the market. Most companies insist that any correspondence is in Word format, and this lets you comply without the expense. Even small businesses that can’t stretch to the official Office can save with ThinkFree. It isn’t as good as the real thing, perhaps only half as good, but at a fraction of the price, it’s certainly great value.