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Out of the Office

Alternatives to Microsoft Office can save a ton of dough without sacrificing productivity.

Few people know that low-cost or even free alternatives to Microsoft Office actually exist. And not only are they easily available, but most are completely compatible with Microsoft Office and can even read and write in the Office format.

For this review, we’ll concentrate on two of the best such programs: Open Office and Easy Office. Open Office 1.0, from CollabNet, is essentially a freeware version of Star Office, an office product that was free until Sun Microsystems purchased Star Division, maker of Star Office, and decided to charge for it. Confused? Actually, it isn’t really all that confusing. Open Office 1.0 is essentially equal to Star Office 5.2, while lacking all the newer features that come with Star Office 6.0.

The EasyOffice 2001 Suite, from E-Press, comes in two flavors: a freeware version and a premium version, which costs a paltry $50. All of the cornerstone programs (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.) are included with the free version, but fax transmittal, thesaurus, grammar checker, envelope and mailing-label print formats, the calculator within EasyWord, and a few other minor programs are not.

One caveat: Neither of the two free office suites include an Outlook equivalent e-mail program. There are, however, so many free e-mail programs (such as Eudora) and browsers (Mozilla, Netscape) that come with e-mail programs, that unless you’re married to the idea of using Outlook, finding a replacement shouldn’t be a problem. If all else fails and you aren’t trying to completely avoid Bill Gates’ software, Outlook Express is a free download from Microsoft.

Open Office 1.0

Sun Microsystems purchased Star Office (and began beefing it up) to compete on the desktop front with Microsoft, but wanted to continue to provide the open-source community with a freeware version of the product. Thus, Open Office was born. And while it isn’t quite up to speed with Star Office 6.0, it is, hands down, the best completely free office suite available today.

Open Office’s word processing program (the programs in the suite don’t have unique names) can easily withstand comparison with Microsoft Word, and even beat it on a couple of key features. Most notably, the program loads faster than Word, and the files it creates (if saved in Open Office format) are considerably smaller than the equivalent Word files. Moreover, Open Office can read “complicated” Word documents that contain things such as tables, images, custom word wraps, and paragraph breaks. And if, for example, you use Word at the office and want to be able to transfer files back and forth, you can even configure Open Office to save files in the Word format by default.

Lest you think you won’t know the difference between Open Office and MS Word, think again. You can do pretty much anything in Open Office that you can in Microsoft Office, but the commands won’t necessarily be found in the same places. For example, in Word, Mail Merge is located under Tools, while that function is located under Files in Open Office. That said, many of the commands seem more logically (and intuitively) placed in Open Office’s word processor than they ever did in Microsoft Word.

Open Office can also handle Microsoft Excel documents, but the compatibility isn’t quite as complete as it is with MS Word. Just about every spreadsheet will have to be changed around a bit due to the way that Open Office handles documents, but there aren’t any insurmountable problems. And when you’re working with files that you created with Open Office, the spreadsheet part of the suites works quickly and without a hitch. In terms of formulas and calculations, I was able to do just about anything that I could also do in Excel, and, in some cases, do it easier and faster.

While Open Office gets huge points in the word processing and spreadsheet realm, it’s missing one very important piece in the office toolkit: the database component. That’s right: Open Office doesn’t offer a database program. Why? Because the program was originally designed for Linux, and if you’re a Linux user you’re more than likely already using either MySQL or PostgreSQL, both of which are open-source and completely free.

So what are we poor Windows users to do? Maybe we should go the route of Linux users and give MySQL a try. Yep, the database program is available for Windows, even if it’s almost a version behind (3.23 vs. 4.0) its Linux cousin. The program runs on Windows 95/98/NT/2000/XP and is available at the MySQL site.

The suite also includes software for presentations (a la PowerPoint,) drawings, data charting, formula editing, and file conversion facilities (including those for Microsoft Office formats). Open Office can be downloaded from the Open Office site.

EasyOffice 2001

EasyOffice includes a number of Microsoft-equivalent programs, including SimpleWord, EasyWord, EasyPresentation, EasySpreadsheet, EasyBookkeeper, EasyCalculator, EasyContactManager, EasyZip, EasySpeaker, and EasyHelper. At installation, you have a choice of a minimal, full, or custom install. The full install weighs in at 84 MB, which sounds large but is still considerably smaller than any version of Microsoft Office.

EasyWord, the word processing part of the suite, is both very powerful and easy to use, and can even read and write both Microsoft Word and PDF files. EasyWord Premium, contained in the pay version of EasyOffice, also boasts mail merge, label and envelope printing, word count, automatic backup, and very thorough spell check dictionaries in American English, Canadian French, and European French. You can even add words to the user dictionary, something that other free dictionary programs do not normally allow. A full English dictionary and a thesaurus that contains both synonyms and antonyms are also included with the program.

Much as EasyWord supports Word files, EasySpeadsheet supports Microsoft Excel files as well as the standard comma-delimited and other common file types. Powerful and easy to use, it stands up to Excel in just about every area except for the help files. If you’re familiar with spreadsheets in general that shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re new to the program you’ll find the tutorials and help programs lacking when compared to Microsoft.

EasyDatabase, E-Press’s version of Microsoft’s Access, is an extremely simple yet powerful database. The program can run in stand-alone, file-sharing, or client-server mode, and can support up to 38,000 clients simultaneously accessing the database. Best of all, the program is compatible with Access, FoxPro (dBase and XBase,) and can import/export PDF, HTML, DOC, XLS, TXT, ZIP, TAR, and CSV files.

If you’re familiar with Access, you’ll find EasyDatabase easier to use than Access itself. Like most of the programs in the EasyOffice Suite, EasyDatabase is very intuitive and logically laid out. In fact, I’ve yet to find something that Access can do that this program can’t do just as well or, in some cases, better.

The suite also includes a decent stand-alone image editor called EasyImage, a PowerPoint equivalent named EasyPresentation, and several other programs, including speech recognition, contact manager, calendar, bookkeeping, and HTML creator programs. All of these programs are easy to use and work well, but space considerations prevent us from including them in this review. If you’re interested in them, download the free version and check it out for yourself.

Save big money

If you don’t want to use any more Microsoft programs than you have to, either of these office suites will more than fit the bill. And, best of all, they’re free. You probably won’t get the support that comes with purchasing a program, but if you’re familiar with office suites you should be able to get by without much support. (Both programs do offer free support forums.) And if you like, say, EasyWord, but prefer Open Office’s spreadsheet program, or even Microsoft’s Access, there’s no rule that you can’t mix and match. Because most of the programs support files that can be imported and exported between each other, there’s no reason to pick one and stick with it. Examine all your options and use whatever works best for you.

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