Review roundup: Dumping Microsoft Office for an alternative suite

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

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As remarkable as I think ThinkFree Office is, I found it lacking in a couple of areas. For one, it doesn't include support for Word's Track Changes feature. This may not be an issue for everyone, but for me, tracking changes is necessary when I'm collaborating on a project with other people.

I also found that a handful of advanced Excel functions aren't duplicated, such as the ability to create a pivot table. Granted, these are functions that many users, myself included, might not miss or even notice. All things considered, however, these issues were pretty minor, and I could see myself and most people I know being perfectly content with ThinkFree Office

There's also a Web-based version of ThinkFree Office that can be accessed from any computer. Currently free while in beta form, the online version includes virtually all of the desktop version's features. For more details, check out our roundup of online office suites, in which ThinkFree came out the winner.

The Neo solution

Since ThinkFree Office turned out to be very good but not quite perfect, I kept searching and found what is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive and inexpensive Office alternative for Mac users in NeoOffice.

This free, open-source suite is a Mac OS X port of the OpenOffice project. NeoOffice offers applications that provide the functionality of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access (which I never thought I'd see on a Mac), plus a basic drawing program that's still much more capable than Word's art tools. This makes it the broadest re-creation of Office available to Mac users.

Note: OpenOffice is also available for Mac OS X, but it requires the Unix X Window System, a.k.a. X11. X11 is freely downloadable from Apple, but running OpenOffice under X11 doesn't feel like using a true Mac product -- the menus are in the X11 window, for instance, rather than in the top menu bar. Efforts are being made to create a more typical Mac OS X application port of OpenOffice, but have so far achieved only an alpha release that is nowhere near ready for public consumption.

I was delighted to find that NeoOffice also offers full compatibility with all Office document formats, including the Office 2007 formats. This makes it a stellar solution if you work with people who have upgraded to Office 2007 for Windows or who will be upgrading to Office 2008 for Mac. It also fills the major gaps that I found in Think Free Office. It works with Word's Track Changes feature, as well as the advanced Excel functions ThinkFree couldn't handle.

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NeoOffice provides a familiar writing environment (left) and handles advanced Excel functions (right). ()

A small quibble: Although I was pleased to find a slew of functional, Microsoft-esque wizards for creating new documents, the Apple fan in me was disappointed that they looked more like Windows Office wizards than the assistants in most Mac OS X applications.

It did take me a little while to adapt to NeoOffice. One major difference from Office and most other office suites is that it launches as a single application, from which you select which component to use. Not a problem, but something that takes getting used to. (Users of AppleWorks, if there still are any, may find this a little comforting.)

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