BOOT CAMP 471 (10/04/07)

Office Software, the Freeware Alternative part 2


If you are in the market for a word processor or a suite of office programs then the obvious choice is Microsoft Word, or Office but there are alternatives. (‘OO.o’ to its many friends) is a free Open Source office suite that includes a spreadsheet, multimedia presentation and database software and an excellent word processor, called Writer, which is the focus of this week’s Boot Camp. But first, as promised, we’ll run through downloading and installation.


The whole suite is contained in a single 100Mb file, which you can download from A download of that size is not something you should attempt on a dial-up connection and it takes a while on a broadband setup but it’s not a problem because you can order a copy on CD for less than £5.00; there’s a list of suppliers on the OpenOffice website.


If you want to go ahead and download the file click on the link, select your operating system and the installation files will be copied to your PC’s desktop. When it has finished click on the shortcut, then Setup.exe and installation begins. Stick with the defaults and keep clicking OK when asked.


At first glance Writer looks remarkably similar to Word. The layout of the menus and toolbars are almost identical, in fact the only obvious difference is a visible text boundary in Print and Web layout views, which Word suppresses by default. If you don’t like it you can switch it off from the View menu.


Some of the icons are different but it’s fairly obvious what most of them are and if you are not sure of something just hover the mouse over it and a ‘Tooltip’ description appears. All of Word’s key features are available in Writer, including templates, tables, spell check, word count, bullet points and numbered lists, headers and footers, index and table of contents, there’s a set of drawing tools and Wizards for creating letters, presentations, web pages and many more, downloadable free from the web.


Delve a little deeper and you’ll notice that some menus are arranged slightly differently and things, which are easily accessible (or you have memorised where to find them) in Word may be harder to find at first. But if you can change or adjust something in Word there’s almost certainly an equivalent facility in Writer, though maybe not where you expect to find it.


However, rather than dwell on the many similarities it is easier to note the differences and one of the most significant ones is Writer’s facility to Save and export documents in portable document format (pdf) and industry-standard XML and HTML formats, as well as Word’s .doc format. This kind of flexibility makes it easy to create and share documents with other users and on the web. (To be fair export to pdf is possible in older versions of Word using a third-party application and there’s a Microsoft add-in for Office 2007).


Writer also does a few things better than Word and one of them is Find and Replace. Word makes heavy weather of this useful function. Writer’s Search options are easier to use and they go several stages further, including allowing you to seek out obscure things like fonts and even font attributes so if you want to find all words in 10pt Arial italic, for example, you can.


Word still has the upper hand in a number of areas. Writer doesn’t have a grammar checker. It’s fair to say the one in Word has its share of idiosyncrasies but it gets it right most of the time and although a third-party add-on is available for Writer, it’s not very good.  Word can also do fancy animated text effects; Writer can only manage a simple blink, though on second thoughts maybe that’s not such a bad thing…


Writer’s Mail Merge facility has a reputation for being a bit clunky and unreliable and it lacks several advanced features included the most recent versions of Word, like Smart Tags, Smart Tables, Outlining, online collaboration and so on. Although Writer can read Word documents it can’t handle Word Macros, which might be a disadvantage for some long-term Word users (Writer has a Macro facility, but it is not as sophisticated or as flexible).


But we’re in danger of getting too picky. Suffice it to say that for everyday use, creating documents of every type, tables, lists, reports, CVs and so on, for printing or publication on the web then Writer is every bit as good as Word, and in some respects even better. It has its shortcomings and it lacks a number of special features that some experienced Word users may rely on and it doesn’t have the broad integration with other Microsoft software and services, which is to be expected, but the bottom line is Writer and its companion office applications are all completely free, there is no catch, and that’s a very convincing reason to give it a try.


Next Week – Privacy and Paranoia





Hypertext Mark-up Language - hidden codes used to develop design and compile text and graphic elements in web pages, emails and documents



Simple programming function in Word (and many other programs) used to automate frequently used commands and functions



Helper program or routine that guides a user through a complex task




Writer is so similar to Word that most newcomers will have no problem getting to grips with it but like Word, it has a few annoying habits and some useful features that are disabled by default, so here’s a few things you might want to switch on, or off. AutoCorrect and Word Completion are Writer’s equivalent of Word’s AutoText and AutoComplete, which change things as you type. You’ll find plenty to tinker with in Tools > AutoCorrect, select the Options and Word Completion tabs.  There’s auto backup and save facilities in Tool > Options > Load/Save > General and the spellchecker’s wavy underline can be switched off by going to Tools > Options > Language Settings > Writing Aids and deselect Check Spelling as you type.


© R. Maybury 2006, 0304

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