With the rise of online collaboration tools and open-source office suites, more and more computer users are gravitating toward free or low-cost alternatives to Microsoft Office. That ubiquitous software package easily runs several hundred dollars if you need the complete set of advanced tools, including Excel's pivot tables or PowerPoint's animated diagrams. Open-source suites, by contrast, are free to download directly onto a hard drive and have no expiration date. Web-based tools such as Google Docs are also gratis and come with an array of document-editing and collaboration features.
We researched two of the most popular open-source suites, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, which are both available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. We also examined the pros and cons of two web-based suites, Google Docs and Zoho Docs.
Apache OpenOffice.Apache OpenOffice includes six applications: Writer (for text documents), Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (presentations), Draw (illustrations), Base (databases), and Math (equations/formulas). OpenOffice has been around for nearly 15 years and was one of the first open-source rivals of Microsoft Office. It now boasts more than 92 million downloads. Developer Apache continually updates OpenOffice with new features, such as annotation capabilities and interactive crop utilities.
Most open-source suites will look familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft Office, and adjusting to the layout, formatting, and navigation of OpenOffice should be a snap. In a review of OpenOffice, TechSoup equates the transition from Microsoft Office 2003 to OpenOffice 3 to upgrading from the 2000 version of Office to the one delivered three years later: small differences, same concepts.
That said, the online education site Udemy asserts that OpenOffice gets the job done if you need only the basics for a text document, spreadsheet, or presentation. Smooth transitions for slides, easy tracking of shared editing, or quick analysis of thousands of data cells are best accomplished with Microsoft Office, the review notes.
LibreOffice.Users keen on a modern look can check out LibreOffice, an OpenOffice spawn. LibreOffice offers the same six applications as OpenOffice, adheres to a similar mission, and works off the same code base.
LibreOffice comes as the pre-installed suite on many new Linux devices and follows a regular release schedule for new features and bug fixes. It's distinguished from OpenOffice by certain features, such as word and character count, which appear at the bottom of the Writer window; OpenOffice users must navigate to, and open, the word-count tool.
PC World is keen on LibreOffice. Its review says this open-source suite delivers a more attractive interface and faster user experience than OpenOffice, as well as tighter security, more customization options, and a better fit with the larger software ecosystem. Document Foundation provides a detailed side-by-side comparison of LibreOffice and Microsoft Office.
Important Note: Open-source newbies might need to adjust to converting Microsoft Office documents to a compatible file format in order to open and save them. A variety of secure online converters, such as Zamzar, facilitate the process. Remember, though, that embedded charts, images, tables, and the like may not show up correctly after conversion. This is especially true for advanced features, such as pivot tables created in Microsoft Excel or slide transitions created in PowerPoint, which don't exist in open-source programs.
Google Drive.Gmail users are surely aware of Google's impressive collection of web-based apps for personal or business purposes. Google Drive documents can be opened with Docs (for text documents), Sheets (spreadsheets), Slides (presentations), Drawings (charts, diagrams, designs, etc), and Forms (surveys/data collection). One of the best features of Google Drive is the real-time group collaboration: Share a document from Drive and several people can edit it simultaneously and even chat.
Another Google advantage is the massive array of productivity apps, Chrome extensions, and plug-ins. Although Google Drive may lack some formatting and styling options available in the full-feature suites, but there's likely to be an app for that. Need a definition? Get the Dictionary.com app. Need to open a PDF file in Docs? Try the Docs PDF/PowerPoint Viewer extension for Chrome.
The downfall of Google Drive: The formatting and styling features are lackluster compared with Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, as The Wall Street Journal points out. And without Internet access, users have to rely on their offline cache and a limited set of tools that function offline. Apps that will work offline can be found in Google's app store.
Google Drive is free for anyone with a Google account, and storage plans are quite cheap when stacked against the cost of a Microsoft Office license. Exceeding the allotted 15GB of storage space costs $1.99 per month for 100GB or $9.99 for 1TB.
Zoho Docs.Fans of Google Drive and group collaboration who nonetheless despair of Drive's shortcomings (e.g., limited admin control, file organization, user permissions, and revision history) can try Zoho Docs. This web-based productivity suite offers a word processor, spreadsheet app, presentation app, and the same features as Google Drive. One customer review at the company site extols Zoho Docs' comparative virtues, including a detailed interface, increased functionality, and intuitive folder organization. This platform also features document tagging for easy filtering and searching, two-way desktop syncing for an improved offline experience, task management, and bulk uploading of files.
The review by TechJotter identifies the strengths of Zoho Docs as its more advanced functions, which are similar to those available with Microsoft Office, and its weakness as slower performance compared with other web-based office suites. Digital Trends likes the secure sharing feature but considers it cumbersome.
Zoho offers a free subscription for any number of users who share 5GB of storage. Additional storage space and features, such as task management, password-protected sharing, and user-permission management, require an upgrade to a standard subscription for $5 a month per user.