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Another Day at the Office

by Alan German

With the release of 2.0, I decided that it was time to break free of the bonds of Word, Excel and PowerPoint and move to an open-source office suite. Now, I should say that Excel has always worked well for me, but Word (that frequently decided it should change the font on paragraphs being cut and pasted) and PowerPoint (that has a mind of its own when it comes to automatically assigning fonts to lines of text) have always been a different story. So, does the OpenOffice suite provide a reasonable replacement? Here are my preliminary views after using the package for a number of weeks.

Certainly one must argue that it's a very cost-effective solution since the open source package is free for the asking. However, even with high-speed Internet access, the investment of a little time is required as the download weighs in at just under 75 MB. Installation is a breeze and I was pleasantly surprised to find the installation wizard offer to associate all my old office data files (DOC, XLS and PPT) with the OpenOffice suite.

I tend to use just three office applications – word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation manager - and so dispensed with OpenOffice's quickstart module in favour of desktop icons for each of Writer, Calc, and Impress. A minor downside to the OpenOffice package is that any given module takes a bit longer to load than its MS Office counterpart. But, once an application is running, there is all the functionality that you would expect – and more.

There are a number of outstanding features of Writer that I have discovered to date. Firstly, when retrieving a file, rather than starting at the top of the document, Writer drops down the page to the point at which the last text entry was being made. This makes it very convenient for adding a new item to a log file of computer maintenance activities in date order, or adding words to your entry for OPCUG's contest for the best newsletter article that you haven't quite finished! By default, Writer saves files as OpenDocument Text (ODT) files, but it will also quite happily read and write DOC files for various versions of MS Word, and correctly handles things like multiple columns and embedded images. So, there's no problem if you want to use OpenOffice at home, but must use MS Word at work. The other good news is that the ODT file format is XML based and file sizes are dramatically smaller than those produced by Word.

Calc, the spreadsheet module, has much in common with MS Excel and can readily process XLS or OpenDocument Spreadsheet (ODS) files. One minor difference in the program's operation is that pressing the delete key doesn't immediately delete the contents of the current cell as would Excel. Instead, a dialogue box pops up providing choices for deleting “all, strings, numbers, date & time, formulas, formats and objects”. No doubt this is very useful functionality, but if does take longer to clean up the odd cell in a spreadsheet. So far, I haven't explored the program's options to see if this behaviour can be customized.

Impress is OpenOffice's presentation manager and hence the equivalent of MS PowerPoint. You won't be surprised to learn that the default file type is OpenDocument Presentation (ODP), nor that the program can readily handle PPT files. The layout of the menus and toolbars is a little different than the Microsoft program, but everything is well labelled and readily at hand. One major difference in normal display mode is that the vertical scroll bars only work on the current slide; they don't allow moving through a group of slides forming a presentation. Fortunately, PgUp and PgDn work as expected and provide an easy method of navigating between different slides. Working on individual slides is a piece of cake with the toolbar menus being context sensitive, for example changing from fonts and attributes when on a line of text, to lines and area fills when a graphic is highlighted.

One outstanding feature of OpenOffice is that support for producing PDF files is built into all modules of the package. Thus, you don't need to purchase a copy of Adobe Acrobat to integrate with your office suite. Some potential users of OpenOffice may also be interested to learn that the package includes drawing and database modules. Personally, I don't do much drawing, and have no real experience with MS Access. Consequently, I haven't tried either Draw or Base and so can't comment on these two modules. One feature that OpenOffice doesn't support is VBA macros; instead it uses its own flavour of Basic programming. But since, for example, most people turn the macro feature off in MS Word to avoid macro-borne viruses, this difference seems inconsequential.

Each module in the suite has a very comprehensive help menu system but, if you are an accomplished Office user, there will be little need to refer to this documentation. As noted above, each module can readily handle files produced by its MS Office equivalent. Interestingly, and especially useful for those who don't wish to move to files in the OpenDocument format, the programs remember the file format last used and in the case of a File-Save command will provide this as the default option. Thus, if you wish to keep reading and writing DOC files, the ODT file option becomes transparent.

Did I mention that OpenOffice is freeware? At this price, I'm sold! I now have one machine that doesn't have MS Office loaded and, so far, I haven't missed any of the latter's applications. OpenOffice is working flawlessly. Members of OPCUG will be extremely glad to hear this since the Treasurer's monthly report to the Board of Directors is based on a Calc spreadsheet! In addition, the annual report printed in the newsletter was initially developed in Writer, and the PowerPoint presentation given at the AGM started off life as an Impress file.

Bottom Line:

Open Office (Freeware)
Version 2.0

Originally published: March, 2006

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