Office programs are essential for productivity, not only on the job but at home. But not everyone has $400 to throw down for a copy of Microsoft Office, especially if it's for a second or third PC. What do you do if your budget can't handle the price tag? No, you don't install a single copy on multiple systems. There is another way. This month we'll look at a replacement for Microsoft Office's Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access. The best part? It's free!
OpenOffice.org is a free open-source multi-platform suite that includes the core office productivity programs Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentations) and Base (database). Other office applications in the suite are Draw (vector graphics editor) and Math (mathematical equation editor). There are versions of OpenOffice.org for Windows, Mac OS X (through X11), and Linux (for which there is no Microsoft Office version).
The look and feel of Writer is very similar to that of Microsoft Word, with familiar layout, icons and toolbars. You can import a long list of document types including Word, RTF, WordPerfect, MS Word StarOffice and the OpenDocument text format. Your documents can be saved into these formats as well as exported to PDF directly from within Writer. Like other word processors, Writer has a built-in spell checker but it lacks a grammar checker.
Calc is similar to Excel in look and function. It has all the equation and graphing features you're used to, and like Writer, Calc can save spreadsheets to PDF. Calc can open and save .xls files that open without a hitch in Excel. DataPilot is Calc's version of Excel's pivot tables that can sort, count and total a series of data. There is no version of pivot charts yet though.
Creating presentations is a breeze with Impress featuring the same kinds of transitions and effects you'll find in PowerPoint. One thing Impress will do that PowerPoint can't is export a presentation as Adobe Flash (SWF) files that can be played on any computer with the Flash player or embedded into webpages.
Base is the database application in the OpenOffice.org suite with features and interface similar to that of Microsoft Access. The built-in wizards help with tasks such as creating tables, queries, forms and reports. In addition to creating your own local databases, Base can connect to SQL databases with ODBC and JDBC drivers.
Draw is a vector graphics editor that can be used to create simple line drawings to flowcharts to complex 3D artwork. The built-in shapes include flowchart objects with editable “glue points” and “smart connectors” that attach quickly to any shape, making network diagrams, organization charts and process layouts easy. The drawings created in Draw can be used in other applications in the OpenOffice.org suite or exported as one of many standard graphics formats.
Math is a program for creating and editing mathematical formulas and equations similar to Microsoft Equation Editor (which comes with Office). These equations can be embedded into Writer or Impress documents.
OpenOffice.org uses a language called OpenOffice.org Basic for writing macros in Writer and Calc. These macros, like those written in VBA in Office, allow you to automate often used custom tasks.
Can a free program really be that good? What about support? Who do I ask when I have questions? OpenOffice.org has a number of volunteer and full-time developers constantly updating the programs, and with an installed base of millions, there is a large community of users that can answer questions in support forums.
Whether you need to analyze sales figures, create a database, mail merge or simply write a letter, OpenOffice.org is a full-featured office suite that is an excellent replacement for Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org puts the sweet in suite.