Monday, January 17, 2011

OpenOffice.org logo

We can quite blatantly make the assumption that all of our readers have used a word processing software more than one time in your lives. Unfortunately, the word processing software that is in widest use today, Microsoft Word, is costly. The cheapest version of Microsoft Office 2010, Office Home and Student 2010, which includes only Word 2010, Excel 2010, Powerpoint 2010 and OneNote 2010 is listed at a discounted price of Rs. 2,999/- at the Microsoft India website (link). The average person, trying to put together anywhere from Rs. 20,000/- to Rs. 30,000/- to assemble a home computer, just does not have the necessary cash to buy such expensive software, especially in addition to purchasing a license for Windows; piracy ends up being the only option. The Indian Geek is against piracy. Piracy is against the law and it costs our software developers money (after all, we do need them to keep bringing us cool software).

Until recently we didn't have much of a choice on what word processing software we could use, as the only one that was powerful enough to use for all professional and casual use was Microsoft's Word. We at The Indian Geek decided to take another look at a long-time competitor for Microsoft Word - Open Office Writer – to see if it can fulfil all the requirements of Microsoft Word. OpenOffice.org (abbreviated as OOo) is Oracle's version of MS Office, and it includes Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw and Base. Writer is the OpenOffice.org’s equivalent for Microsoft Office’s Word. To provide a full, and thorough review of OpenOffice.org Writer, we decided to install it, and try it out for a week. Want to know what we think of OpenOffice.org Writer? Read on to find out.

Note : This was originally meant to be a comparison of OpenOffice.org 3.2 Writer to Microsoft Word 2010. However, our primary contributor for this article had a lot of trouble in installing Microsoft Office 2010 due to compatibility issues and some unknown issues, that cost us days in configuration and hours of sleep. (OpenOffice.org installation was quite easy in that way) We finally settled for a review of OpenOffice.org Writer version 3.2, comparing it to our existing working knowledge of Word.

Download and installation

OpenOffice.org Writer - Installation

First, we’ll brief you on how to get Writer from the web and install it. The entire OpenOffice.org suite is available for Windows, Linux and OS X. We tested it out on Windows Vista 32-bit and Windows 7 64-bit installations. For all Operating Systems, just head over to http://download.openoffice.org/ and click the download link. The entire OpenOffice.org package was around 148 MB, and we were able to get it on a 512 Kbps connection in about 40 minutes, without using any download accelerators (A faster connection got us the download is nine or ten minutes). As noted earlier, installation was pain-free. A double-click on the downloaded file, and we were on our way to Open Source document-editing goodness. A sheer contrast to the many issues that we have had in attempting to install Office 2010 on different PCs over the past six months. It’s always amazing to see open source software work better (at times) with Windows than Microsoft’s own software. The installation (including the unpacking of necessary files from the setup package, removal and configuring of Java components) took about 13 minutes to complete on a Notebook PC with a Core 2 Duo processor and 2 GB RAM. There was no restart required.

Note : Though there is no 64-bit version of OpenOffice.org available, the 32-bit version works fine in a 64-bit Windows environment. However, some issues would definitely arise when attempting to use plugins or dependencies which require key Windows components, since all Windows components would be in native 64-bit.

Looks, speed, reliability and compatibility

OpenOffice.org Writer - Splash screen

When we first opened OpenOffice.org Writer, we felt like we had entered a time warp. There’s no other way to describe this – it felt like we had gone back to the ‘90s, or at the very least – the early 2000s. The single greatest downside we see to using Writer, as of today, is the absence of the Ribbon interface that Microsoft introduced with Office 2007. It was a feature that has been highly debated upon and complained about, but after having used it for four years we feel that it is an awesome way to discover many features of the software. With it, we discovered several new functions that we never knew existed (and that goes a long way in harnessing the full potential of a software). OpenOffice.org Writer may be very powerful, but we just don’t know where to find the functions. Maybe, in a pre-Office 2007 era, we would have been more comfortable in poking through the menus and trying to find the options we need. But in 2011, this is a great letdown. In every other way, Writer performs as expected. It is fast, though there was the occasional hiccough of it being just a tad too slow. Just an occasional tiny bit – nothing too noticeable, or very evident. Writer has not crashed once from the time we installed it. It has not frozen up our systems, nor has it hogged system resources forcing us to restart the computer. We look at this as undue reliability on the part of Writer.

OpenOffice.org Writer - New Document

The default New Document screen in OpenOffice.org Writer (Click to open full-size image in a new window)

Microsoft Word 2007 - New document

The default New Document screen in Microsoft Word 2007 (Click to open full-size image in a new window)

Writer is compatible with a variety of formats, and can easily open and edit Word’s .doc and .docx format documents. Writer’s native format for saving documents is the OpenDocument Text format, with the extension .odt. Writer can also save files in the .doc, .rtf, .txt, .html, .xml formats. It cannot save/export documents to the .docx format, although we had no issues in opening a heavily formatted .docx Word 2010 document in Writer, and experiencing no changes or weird issues. As far as compatibility and reliability are concerned, Writer scores a huge plus.

Features and everyday use

We are happy to report that Writer handled every shortcut key-combination that we threw at it with comfortable ease (and we almost took this for granted). All the shortcuts that we have got accustomed to with Word over the years come in handy here – Ctrl+S for Save, Alt+F and then A for “Save As...”, Ctrl + C for Copy, Ctrl + V for Paste and so on. The icons take some getting used to – obviously, Word’s proprietary set of icons cannot be used in an open source software package, so Writer uses it’s own set of icons for the various functions and features. It’s not impossible – we could definitely get used to it and become very comfortable with it as well; but that takes time. Writer is quite basic, when compared to Word. It has the standard features that you would need to get by writing and editing a document. We could define Writer as a “less frills” word processing software. But considering that it’s free and open-sourced, we’re not complaining!

A cool function of Writer is the Compare Document option. You can compare a document with another one and Writer will show you what's different in each of them. Very helpful when you save various versions of your document and don't know which one you need. Check out the screenshots below.

Comparison - Original

Comparison - Edited

Comparison - Dialog box

Writer, can export to the .PDF format. So for those of you itching to find a free means to save a document as an Adobe .PDF file, here’s your itch-solver – OpenOffice.org Writer.

So far so good. This word processing software seemed to have every feature of MS Word. Let’s look into the formatting part of it. You can pretty much do everything you can do with Word - bold, italics, underlined, justify, indent, etc. You can even record the changes that you make while editing, highlight text and add comments. This comes in handy when you are proof-reading what someone else has written. You can enter your comments to different sections of the document. You can also add various backgrounds to your document, use different kinds of bullets and add audio to your document. Now, that doesn't seem to be very advantageous, does it? Well, we guess that backgrounds and audio are more for web designers than for writers (though we used the background feature while making party invitations). It even has a wizard to add hyperlinks, which convinced us that Writer is more than just a basic word processing software.

OpenOffice.org Writer - Inserting audio

OpenOffice.org Writer - Table

The table function seems to have most of the features as the one in Word (even to add values automatically), except for the table templates that Word offers, and Writer does not; but none of us use those templates really, so Writer works fine for us here. Several other features of Word are present and accounted for here - Macros, Mail Merge, Header, Footer, Page numbers, Drawings, pretty much anything that we would need for creating and editing text-based documents in normal circumstances.

There were a few functions of Word that were sorely missed. There are no built-in templates, as these templates need to be downloaded and installed as separate extensions from the OpenOffice.org website. We have a similar gripe with the provided clipart and images – they are sorely lacking. We also found that the “spelling and grammar” check, and the automatic capitalisation features on Writer are not as efficient as the ones in Word. They seem to have a mind of their own, and we don’t mean that in a good way. Writer decides to capitalise words/sentences at certain times and ignores necessary capitalisation at other times.

OpenOffice.org Writer - Spellcheck

With a spell-checker like this, we’d be extra cautious

There is also no built-in Thesaurus to locate synonyms; so if you frequently use this feature, then you might want to hunt for a possible extension before deciding if you want to use Writer. Our primary contributor for this article had to resort to using her Blackberry to find alternates for a word. Another niggling problem is that versions of Word prior to Word 2010 cannot open the OpenDocument Text (.odt) format files that Writer uses to save documents. This can be easily circumvented by saving the files as Word documents (*.doc), or by asking your friends and family to upgrade to Word 2010 (but this could be a possible issue for some). (On a related note, the Gmail app on Android 2.2.1 was able to preview and download the .ODT file to an Android-based mobile phone). We’d like to reiterate that one of the toughest things to get used to in Writer is the lack of the Office Ribbon. It is quite difficult to locate and use features, especially after being used to the simple and easy-to-use Ribbon UI in Office 2007 and Office 2010.

Little bits we like

Now, the coolest thing about Writer (for the geeks) is that it is Open Source. This means that you can contribute to the whole OpenOffice.org project. Editing the source code to add functionality may be too much of a stretch for most people (though some of you may be hardcore geeks who love to do that), but there are several other ways in which you can contribute. The OpenOffice.org website flatly states that they prefer users to contribute time and effort, rather than money or finances. If you don’t know hard-core coding, you can still get involved in testing, helping to write up the documentation, FAQs, design graphics, and a host of other things. Be sure to check out the site – http://contributing.openoffice.org/ (the least you should be able to do is volunteer to burn discs for the installation software from .ISO files to ship to people who can’t easily install the software themselves).

The openness of the entire OpenOffice.org suite also leads to a huge community that supports the suite – so you have a wealth of extensions available for OpenOffice.org Writer. Anybody who has used extensions in any software (Hello Chrome extensions!) will know the variety of functionality that could be added via these extensions. You can browse through and download these extensions on: http://extensions.services.openoffice.org/.

Another feature that we liked, was the ease with which we could switch between the various applications which comprise the OpenOffice.org suite. When you access the File > New menu option, you get a list of options to create a new document or spreadsheet or presentation – and so on. It may not be very useful in the long run, but it is a thoughtful touch.

To finish off the tiny “bits” which OpenOffice.org Writer made us really like, we’d like to mention the “Export to PDF”. Yes, Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010 have this feature, but are they available for free?

OpenOffice.org Writer - Export as PDF option

Final Thoughts

If you’re the kind of person who’s looking for The Indian Geek’s final word on OpenOffice.org Writer – then we’d have to say, that given the necessary cash, we’d happily go out and buy a full copy of Microsoft Office 2010, and keep buying future versions as and when they are released. However, if we are strapped for cash, and do not want to pirate software (you do know that software piracy is illegal, right?), then we would be more than happy to download this 148 MB package, for free, and use it comfortably.

OpenOffice.org Writer does not offer the visually appealing interface that Word 2010 offers; but if you can live without that, and without a “Microsoft” software, then OpenOffice.org Writer is for you. Remember – this can be used on a Mac, as well. You really don’t need to shell out money for iWork, or Office for Mac. You can use the OpenOffice.org suite. OpenOffice.org Writer cannot, and does not beat Microsoft Word. However, it does provide an appreciably powerful, and comparable, free, open-source alternative.

3 comments:

Ta'fxkz said...

Hola Geeks and quite thrilled about your antipiracy stance. When i moved from office 2007 to open office it took me 2 years of hating it to start loving it.

The best part that works for me is the PDF converter - office 2007's pdf converter has a problem of not showing the strange fonts i use on a system that does not have the same fonts installed. Open Office has never given me that problem.

Hey Dan, i am proud of you!

i even clicked on the disqus sell-your-soul button to post this comment

The Indian Geek said...

Hello Ta'fxkz,

Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. It's lovely to see someone out there who's been sticking to OpenOffice.org's productivity suite for a few years.

Thank you also for pointing out the "advantage" that OpenOffice.org has over Microsoft Office when exporting to .PDF. We're sure it would help our readers.

Thanks, again.

Daniel Divyakumar H. said...

Ha ha... Thanks, Anna.

All possible by a team of dedicated and capable Geeks.

:)

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