Review: Free OpenOffice.org Writer surpasses Microsoft Word under the hood
The era of the typewriter ended long ago, and typing speed is considered by many people to be more important than good penmanship.
For over a decade, the king of word processing has been Microsoft Word, perhaps the most well known and widely used component of Microsoft Office.
Microsoft Word is everywhere: on library workstations, on school/college machines, and in workplaces large and small. New computers built by major manufacturers like Dell or Hewlett Packard (HP) often come bundled with Microsoft Works Suite, a cheaper version of Office that includes Word.
Most installations of Word can be found on machines running Windows, but the software is also available for Mac. (Word is not offered for Linux, though it is possible to install and run it on Linux using Wine).
Like millions of other users, I have the latest version of Microsoft Office running on my computer, and while I like the interface, I've become more and more dissatisfied with Word's performance.
This weekend, I was preparing a thank-you card to send to a friend who has long been a source of inspiration and strength for myself and the rest of the Northwest Progressive Institute team.
The card, which I created in Word, included several lines of text on the front, plus a photograph taken by an NPI staff member and a high resolution SVG I had illustrated in Inkscape and exported to PNG.
When I printed the document, I was annoyed to see that the photograph was fuzzy and the lines on the graphics rough.
I knew that Word's image compression must be to blame, because I can get sharp and beautiful photo prints using Adobe software.
I could have sent the card anyway, but it just wasn't crisp enough for me.
I exported the document to portable document format using Microsoft's Save As PDF Add-In for Office. Then I tried to print it from Adobe Reader to see if the quality would be any better. The graphic came out more smoothly, but predictably, the photograph looked even worse.
Frustrated, I wondered how another word processor would compare to Microsoft's. So I fired up OpenOffice.org's Writer and recreated my thank-you card there.
OpenOffice.org is a free suite of productivity tools developed by Sun Microsystems with assistance from the open source community. OpenOffice.org can be installed on all major operating systems, including Linux, Mac, and Windows, but also FreeBSD, Irix, and Sun's own Solaris. It's truly multiplatform.
OpenOffice's user interface is not as sleek as Microsoft Word's. From my perspective, Word 2007's intuitive ribbon and glitzy appearance take first prize in the design category, but that's almost where the superiority ends. When it comes to performance and quality, OpenOffice.org beats Word, hands down.
My first test of OpenOffice was printing that thank-you card. I ran it off, unsure of what to expect. When I picked it up from the printer tray, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did the photograph on my card look much better, but the graphic did, too. (The text looked identical to the Word printout).
Pleased, I authored a handwritten note on my card, put it inside an envelope, stamped it, and set it aside to be mailed.
Next, I wondered how OpenOffice.org would fare against Microsoft's Save As PDF Add-In. I often need to export documents to PDF, and I've noticed that Word tends to produce PDFs that are considerably large in size.
So I created a two page document as a test. The first page was a fake memo with several paragraphs of Wall Street gibberish (corporate mumbo jumbo) generated using David Powers' fabulous Lorum Ipsum extension.
The second page contained a table. The table shows the outcome of Washington gubernatorial races from 1998-2008. It lists the year, Democratic candidate, and the Republican opponent who was defeated.
The PDF produced by Word was about 196 kilobytes in size. The PDF produced by Writer was about 45 kilobytes in size.
Not only was the Writer PDF four times more compact, but it correctly exported the table on the second page, whereas Word somehow messed up the table borders. (The border widths in the PDF produced by Word are not all the same, but they're supposed to be. The PDF produced by Writer has a flawless table).
Compared to Word, Writer also seems to use slightly less memory. Since I started comparing Writer and Word, I've pulled up Task Manager in Windows to check memory use at regular intervals. For example, while I was writing this post, Winword.exe clocked in at around 104,500 K, while soffice.bin (Writer) clocked in at 99,100 K. Each processor had the same three documents open simaltaneously.
How does Writer compare to Word with other features that I often use? Pretty well. I found that creating documents for Avery label templates was a snap, and Writer's mail merge was easy to use. Writer doesn't yet have as many built in wizards for document types as Word does, but there are a few basics available - letters, faxes, and agendas, for example. Writer also lacks Word 2007's SmartArt, but drawings and graphics can be easily inserted from other programs.
I use bullets and numbering frequently in my documents, and I've long had trouble changing my lists in Word. The 2007 version improved Word's handling of lists, but Writer gives me absolutely no trouble when I want to make changes. Writer's autocorrect functionality is also far less intrusive and annoying than Word's.
What about crash recovery? I purposely terminated OpenOffice.org to see what would happen to a document if the program was suddenly shut down. To my delight, all the data I had entered was promptly recovered when I restarted Writer.
Perhaps the best thing about Writer, though, is that it doesn't default to proprietary file formats. Documents are saved in .ODF (Open Document Format). ODF files can be opened with online collaboration tools like Google Docs or Zoho, as well as the latest version of Corel WordPerfect and IBM Lotus Symphony. (Symphony is based in part on OpenOffice.org).
Microsoft has announced it will add ODF support to Office 2007 in the first half of this year with Office Service Pack 2. When that occurs, Word 2007 users will be able to save and open ODF files and even make ODF the default file format.
Saving in ODF is a really good idea because it allows for ultimate portability. An ODF file can be opened by different word processors on any major operating system, whereas support for proprietary Microsoft formats is more limited.
Just a few months ago, however, Microsoft succeeding in getting the Office 2007 file formats approved as an open standard. Naturally, Microsoft would prefer that its own file format be the dominant worldwide standard, as opposed to ODF, which is vendor neutral, but that doesn't mean we all have to do what Microsoft wants.
As Edward Macnaghten explains:
Standards exist for interoperability, and office document format standards should not be different. The goal is that someone in country A working for company B using product C can interchange documents with someone in country D working for company E using product D without any thought as to what precisely A, B, C, D, E or any other letter actually is. It simply works. There is no need to worry if any single vendor would continue in the office suite business or not, as any other vendor could be used.Interoperability and standards are a key part of NPI's position on technology policy. Without standards, we're all stuck using proprietary formats that serve as barriers to the free exchange of information.
ODF was created using existing standards with this interoperability in mind, using long public consultation and design periods to achieve this. The benefits of this are evident when examining the resulting formats themselves.
It has been implemented by a large number of office products and the list is growing.
OOXML was designed by a single vendor, Microsoft, with no extensive public consultation or design input. It was largely designed to co-exist with their legacy formats using their own products.
Imagine if web pages were offered in proprietary formats. We all might have to buy browsers with various support for different formats. It would be a disaster - the Internet simply wouldn't be the accessible medium that it is.
OpenOffice.org is a terrific product that should be considered a must-have for Windows and Mac users. (It's already included by default with many Linux distributions, like Ubuntu). OpenOffice.org is free, completely interoperable, and its Writer word processor beats Microsoft Word where it really counts.