OpenOffice 3.0 beta: Can it finally replace Microsoft Office?

A new beta of the open-source office suite brings a new Start Centre and some added features

If you think that you always get what you pay for, the just-released beta of OpenOffice 3.0 should convince you otherwise. This free, open-source software suite provides most of what anyone could want in an office suite, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, database, drawing tools and math equation editor.

Although it doesn't include all of the high-end features and the slick user interface of Microsoft Office 2007 (for the PC) and Microsoft Office 2008 (for the Mac), it will handle just about any job you need done. If you're not working in an enterprise that has standardized on Microsoft Office, you should think twice before paying full freight for Office, and give serious consideration to this free alternative when the final version is released.

Keep in mind that OpenOffice 3.0 is in beta and should be used for evaluation purposes only. I tested the Windows version on a 1.83-GHz Core Duo PC with 1GB of memory and found it to be somewhat buggy. For example, I was unable to create a document and save it without crashing. First, I had to create a document in another program and then open it in OpenOffice. At that point, it worked fine. These types of problems should come as no surprise; the final version isn't due until September, and this is a very early beta.

The download comes with six applications: the Writer word processor, Calc spreadsheet, Impress presentations program, Base database program, Math equation editor and Draw graphics program. Even as a 147.9MB download, though, it's still svelte compared to Microsoft Office.

What's new

If you've already used OpenOffice 2.0, the beta of Version 3 will be very recognizable. Little in the overall interface or each individual application has changed. If you're not familiar with OpenOffice, you'll consider the interface either functional and straightforward or old-fashioned and stodgy, depending on your aesthetic inclinations. Toolbar icons, for example, are cartoonish-looking, and you won't find the equivalent of Microsoft Office 2007's Ribbon.

The Start Centre lets you easily create a new document or open an existing one.

A nice new addition is the Start Centre, which lets you easily create a new document or open an existing one -- just click on the proper icon. The Start Centre appears only if you don't currently have an OpenOffice application opened. Once you've opened an application, you can create or open a document by right-clicking the OpenOffice icon in the system tray and making the appropriate choice.

Particularly important are changes to support for file formats. OpenOffice 3.0 supports the upcoming Version 1.2 of the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or ODF, and will also be able to open documents created in Microsoft Office 2007 and Office 2008 for the Mac, which means that it's about as universally useful as an Office suite can be. It can also export files to a PDF. Mac users will be pleased to know that it can now run natively on Mac OS X without having to use X11.

There's also a new zoom control on the status bar, much like the one in Microsoft Office 2007. And there are minor tweaks to each of the separate applications. For example, both Draw and Impress have improved on their cropping features, and Writer can now display multiple pages.

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