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PERSONAL TECH | MICHELLE JOHNSON

A free, easy alternative to Office

Hoping to get some work done on a recent train trip to New York, I kicked back, opened my laptop, and clicked on Microsoft Excel. Up popped a prompt asking for the original program disk. Same thing with Word and PowerPoint. Nothing would run.

Who the heck travels with their original program disks? I was dead in the water, left with nothing to do but play solitaire.

That evening, I went online from my hotel room and did a quick search for ''alternatives to Microsoft Office" that turned up an interesting option: OpenOffice. And it was free.

Most of us are so wedded to the idea that we have to use MS Office to be compatible with the rest of the world that we may be overlooking some interesting alternatives. If you're strapped for cash and don't use all of the high-end features available in MS Office, check out the alternatives.

Being out of the Office turned out to be a less painful experience than I'd imagined. OpenOffice, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and draw program, performed like a champ. It opened my half-finished PowerPoint file and Excel and Word docs without a problem.

OpenOffice's components -- Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation), and Draw (illustration) -- were a breeze to use. Writer had all of my favorite features: automatic spell check, autocomplete, save to pdf and html.

Initially, it took a little getting used to, since the program's toolbars aren't exactly like that other office suite's, but it's easy enough to roll your cursor over a button to get a pop-up description of what it does. I also liked the vertical toolbar that appears along the left side of the screen, which offers access to functions such as search. The program offers to save files in its own proprietary format, but will save in MS Office-compatible formats.

OpenOffice has its roots in the Open Source software movement, a community of programmers and users who share information as they develop the product. There's a paid version of the program called StarOffice 7.0, a good deal at $79.99.

OpenOffice is available at openoffice.org. There are versions that run under Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, among other platforms. It's available in more than 42 languages, from Arabic to Zulu. The download is free, or you can purchase a CD from various companies and organizations (prices vary).

Another free download, EasyOffice, offers the usual lineup, plus e-mail, contact management, a pdf creator, backup and ZIP utilities, database, and a lot more. The paid premium edition adds an even longer list of features, including voice recognition, instant messaging, and a file cleaner. The program, at www.e-press.com, claims to be compatible with MS Word, Excel, and Adobe PDF files.

A single user license for the premium version will set you back $29 for a download, $44 or $79 for CD delivery. The download is 94MB, so start it and go have a cup of coffee. You'll have to put up with a nag screen every time you launch the free version.

You may be wondering whether you need to uninstall MS Office to run these other programs. The answer is no. They'll coexist, but be aware that OpenOffice will change your file associations so that, for instance, when you double-click on a file with a .doc extension it will launch OpenOffice Writer, not Word.

After installation, I was astonished to see that the program dumped 42 icons into its Startup folder, including a bunch of shortcuts to setup files. When I clicked on one I discovered that the program had not downloaded all of its components to keep the download at 94MB. To get at the others (18, including a password manager, a web capture utility, and a graphics suite), you'll need to spend additional time downloading.

Commonly used components were there: word processor, presentation, spreadsheet. If you have a slow connection or don't want to spend the time downloading all of the program's components, order a CD.

Using EasyWord was, well, easy. I preferred EasyWord's attractive interface over OpenOffice's more utilitarian look. It's intuitive, and the toolbars are nicely organized. Creating a page from a template is pretty zippy. Click a button on the toolbar and choose budget, calendar, flier, and so on.

Text formatting options (bold, center, etc.) are where you'd expect them to be. Be aware that some features, such as the thesaurus and mail merge, are disabled in the freebie edition. The program did a nice job of EasyWord documents as pdfs, but required installation of a filter to work.

I was less impressed with EasyPresentation. When you start the program, a wizard steps you through creating a slide, adding text, graphics, and animations along the way. Advanced PowerPoint users won't be happy with EasyPresentation's rudimentary features.

I was unable to get the program to open a PowerPoint file. That feature required a separate download which crashed repeatedly.

Like EasyWord, EasySpreadsheet ran well and bears a passing resemblance to the higher-priced Microsoft product. It opened existing Excel files and was easy to use.

The bottom line: OpenOffice is a fine substitute for Microsoft Office if you're not a power user. While the suite is not as jam-packed as EasyOffice, it's stable and works as advertised.

Michelle Johnson is a freelance writer. She can be reached at mijohn@mail-me.com. 

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