Review roundup: Dumping Microsoft Office for an alternative suite

There are alternatives for both Mac and Windows -- even if you need Office compatibility

Whether you're using a Macintosh or a Windows computer, Microsoft Office is a staple throughout the world. While that doesn't mean everybody uses it, it does mean that almost everybody has to find something that works with it. And yet there are several reasons you might not want to get a copy of Microsoft Office itself.

One of those is the price. Few of us can happily afford to shell out $400 for the Standard edition of Office. Even the educational price of $150 is pricey, especially if you're a student trying to make ends meet.

Perhaps your PC doesn't have enough resources to handle Office, which is a notorious memory hog. Or maybe you have a second computer that you or other family members use only occasionally for document creation, and you don't want to shell out for another Office license.

Whatever the reason, it's good to know that there are alternatives out there -- all cheaper than Microsoft's standard, and a couple that are even free. We sorted through nine contenders, some for Mac and some for PC (and a couple for both), to find out the best non-Office office suites available.

We limited our search to true suites -- products with at least two of the three main components of Office: a word processor, a spreadsheet application and a presentation program. We also didn't bother with online-only office suites; we wanted ones you could install on your own PC. (We have already looked at several online suites in a different review.)


Office alternatives: Mac

by Ryan Faas

In addition to concerns about price, we Mac users face our own unique Office challenges. We often need to wait six months or longer after Office for Windows gets updated before we get a comparable version. (Office 2007 for Windows went on general sale last January, and we won't get Office 2008 for Mac until sometime this fall.)

And even when a Mac version does ship, we get only some of the components. There has never been a Mac version of Access or Publisher, for example. Even the staple three applications of Word, Excel and PowerPoint sometimes lack features found in their Windows counterparts.

In fact, with Microsoft's new Office 2007 file formats, we can't even directly open and edit files from the most recent versions of those core applications. Until Office 2008 for Mac comes out, we either have to ask people to save documents in the older format or rely on a converter, which is still in beta.

So my search for the best alternative to Office wasn't just about money. It was about getting access to those applications and features that Mac users don't get out of Office and about trying to find something that natively supports the new Office 2007 file types. From the outset, I expected I might have to make compromises.

iWork, you work

First on the list of potential Office replacements was Apple Inc.'s $79 iWork '06 suite, which provides a word processing and page design application called Pages and a presentation application called Keynote. That's two components, but so far iWork doesn't offer a replacement for Excel (though rumors have been floating around for quite some time that Apple will add that eventually).

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