Tuesday, June 12, 2007

OTHER: Open Office Review

OpenOffice.org is the official name of this well-known open source office suite. It is robust enough to give Microsoft Office a real run for its money, and will certainly more than meet the productivity needs of most users. I downloaded it yesterday, finally, after becoming disillusioned with the increasingly slow performance of MS Office on my aging laptop. Here are my comments:

1) The Good
  • This program is extremely similar to MS Office in look and feel. Transition was easy for me. A few of the commands are in different places, and while some of them took some hunting around, several others were in much more intiutive places.
  • I had absolutely no problems reading my existing MS Office files. I have heard that there can be some issues with extremely complex, formula-laden, footnote-containing hard-core files. But for the general spreadsheet and word processing I tend to need, no problems at all. I can't imagine anyone I know, aside from my very techie sister, having any files this will not read, or needing to create any this will not create.
  • I like the little clipart organizer. It is much faster to access than the MS Clipart Organizer, and it's easy to add your own items and have them be accessible. Once I figured out where it was storing things, I found it simple enough to go and add in my own pictures in a batch.
  • I like the way templates are handled. Again, once you figure out where it's storing them, it is quite easy to add new ones. I found many new ones on-line here and here and here (under the "extensions" section). And remember that Word and Excel documents can be read by it too, so you can download those and just save them in Open Office.
    EDITED TO ADD: I tried this with a few Office Onlien templates, and many of them worked. A few did not: some of the margins did not line up, complex layouts appeared as pictures and not editable objects, and anything with wizard-like 'fields' in it didn't work. But many of the simpler things like lists or calendars worked wonderfully.
  • I like the open formats support. I was surprised to go into my Microsoft folder and find everything in a private format only Microsoft can read! None of that clipart can easily be imported into Open Office (although there are ways if you fiddle a little bit). Open Office in contrast has everything in formats other programs can read.
    EDITED TO ADD: Microsoft clip art in photo format did import with no problems, and windows media files were useable too, but those had to be opened up in another program and then pasted in. An extra step, but if you really want a certain picture, you can have it.
2) The Less Good
  • The Gallery (clip art) is not searchable and does not have a tagging system. I tried to put everything into Picasa, but Picasa made duplicates and messed everything up. It took me some time to get everything right again. I am not sure this is a fatal flaw. I think most people these days do not rely on canned clip art anyway and if they need a graphic for a particular project, they will find it on Flickr or something. I suspect they intend the gallery to be used for frequently used items and not so much as a massive clipart repository. Still...a tag system and search feature wouldn't kill you, you guys :)
  • Menu and toolbar customization is a little bit clunky. It's there, but it takes quite a few steps. And once you add something, you can't take it off. You can de-select it, so it does not appear on the toolbar anymore. But it'll still be on the list when you go into the settings again. A little clunky, as I said :)
    EDITED TO ADD: I stand corrected. You can remove list items with the delete key. I was confused because there was no button, and backspace had no effect. Further research revealed that Open Office treats backspace and delete keys a little differently :) I stand by my assertion that the customization is a little clunky, though :)
  • I did not find the language settings as useful to me as those in Word. I occasionally write in French, and am still looking for a program that will let me painlessly switch back and forth without going into the settings and changing the program preferences. Additionally, I did not find the spell check in French to be as good as that of MS Word. It did catch words which were outright spelled incorrectly, but it did not catch accent mistakes, and that's mostly what I use the French spell-check for in Word: to catch the accent and put it in for me when I am too lazy to access keyboard shortcuts and make one properly. Note to office suite developers: language should not be buried in program settings. One should be able to go back and forth with one menu command! This is the modern era and many people write in more than one language. I can want to write a document in French without wanting the whole program to BE French, you know? Oh, and there's no grammar checker. I don't care, but some people might.
  • Page layout tasks are a little clunky. I had no trouble getting pictures to wrap properly, but I could not get ruled borders to do so. And when I took the borders off my tables, it didn't leave any shadows or guidelines or whatever so I could see that they still were there. It's possible that with some fiddling, I could get these somehow. It just is not very intuitive to me as to how, and I think it is a common enough command that perhaps it should be.
    EDITED TO ADD: Okay, I did the fiddling and I got all the wraps to work, and I got guides on the tables too. I stand by my assertion that it is not intuitive though:) And if the Draw program only had a proper handling of textboxes, suite could handle basic page layout...one can dream :)
  • Okay, this one is a bit petty and shallow, but...I miss being able to colour in the tabs on my spreadsheet files :) If this is do-able in Open Office, I don't see where or how. Again, this falls under intuitive commands. Maybe it's there and I just don't see it. Maybe it isn't there. But I can't find it at this point.
3) Wish List for the Future
  • I would not mind a basic Publisher-style program with a few pre-set templates or wizards for simple tasks like labels or greeting cards. I find the layout controls in Writer a little clunky, and I am not at all sure how Draw works. By "slide" does it mean "page" and are we meant to be using the Draw program for the type of basic page layout work I am talking about? I associate slides with the presentation program, so maybe the terminology is confusing me. But I want to be able to lay out text boxes, graphics etc on a page in a basic capacity. I played around a little with Draw and it will let me put these elements on a page, but it won't let me see the edges on them so I can do actual layout work.
    EDITED TO ADD: All they need to do is have a 'show guides' option on the text fields in order to fix this, so I hope they consider adding this small fix. All I want to do is be able to lay out text and graphics together. They have a text function, but it'd a field and not a text box. You need to be able to see the borders. So, Office Editors, what do you think? Can we have proper text boxes in Draw?
  • I don't want a whole bloated Front Page-style app, but a few site management tools for those doing websites wouldn't hurt. Most of my web page work is just graphics, text and hyperlinks. But it would be nice to have a sorter or organizer for web site stuff built into the program somewhere.
  • As I said, better support for those doing multi-language work. Maybe a pop-up toolbar with common accented symbols on it so we don't need to pull up that huge special character window and hunt through it every time we want to do an accent? And a one-button "switch to my second language" command for swapping spell checks without having to go into the program settings?
4) Overall verdict

I am still playing with it. Right now, it is still a little slow for me because I'm not used to it and don't know where everything is. But performance-wise, it is comparable to MS Office, and I suspect that eventually, I will be fully changed over to it. If I was not so into the open source principle, would I go to the bother I have? To be honest, probably not until I had to. MS Office was working, and why rock the boat? On my next computer though, when I would have had to face buying something to run? Maybe I would have.

For the summer at least, I plan to keep at minimum MS Word still installed on my computer, so I can get continue to get templates from Office Online, and so I can work more easily with my French documents for the course I am taking right now. But I have faith that Open Office is the way to go long-term. They will keep improving it, and I will be there :)

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