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by Franki

As a long time user of OpenOffice.org back to the days when it was called StarOffice 5.2, I watched the development process with great interest over the years. As soon as the beta for 2.0 became available I grabbed it eagerly. Since then I’ve downloaded several updates and kept more or less up to date with the latest releases. Here are my findings.

The Good.
The new OpenOffice.org office suite looks far more modern then it’s 1.x predecessor, in fact you’re hard pressed to tell it apart from MS Office 2003 in some respects. The updated Icons and menu’s look great and everything is more or less where you’d expect it to be. It also integrates much better with the Operating System on which it is running. I only tested it in Windows XP and Linux (KDE) but in both cases it integrated with the parent OS much better then previous versions. In short, it looks great.

There are more improvements under the hood. For the first time ever I’ve been able to remove the MS Excel viewer from my machines and still read my PC hardware wholesaler price lists. Most of the price lists are full of simple macros, and are password protected and with OpenOffice 1.x I was never able to either open the file at all or use it properly if it did open. OpenOffice 2.0 changed all that and although the spreadsheets were not exactly the same (appearance wise) as they were in Excel, they are close enough to not be a problem.

Not being an Office power user, I can’t testify to advanced features, but since the majority of possible users are in the same boat as myself, I can tell you that if you can use MS Office, you can use OpenOffice.org, be it for the word processor (OOo Writer), the spreadsheet (OOo Calc) or the presentation software (OOo Impress). The new database application (OOo Base) is a bit unwieldy, but I always hated MS Access for the same reason so it’s not that big a deal. The fact that you can use it to open all manner of different data formats like LDAP, JDBC, MySQL and Outlook and Mozilla address books is a definite benefit. OOo Base also has some handy wizards to help with table creation and other such tasks.

As with previous versions, the ability to save documents in PDF formats is a fantastic feature and has become my standard format for sending out electronic invoices and quotes. Since it’s unlikely that Microsoft will ever go out of their way to support OpenOffice.orgs native file formats, using PDF’s ensures that my documents can be viewed by anybody on any OS, and that I don’t need to use closed proprietary data formats to do so.

The Bad.
Speed. In short, it’s slow to load, really slow. I tested OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta on a variety of machines, ranging from a PII233 with 128MB of ram to an AMD 64 3700+ laptop with 1024MB ram and an 80gig 8mb cache 7200 SATA hard drive, and in all cases the applications loaded much slower then I’d hoped. Even with the preloader application running in the background it still took considerably longer to load then MS Office or even OOo 1.x. However, once you’ve started one of the OpenOffice applications, the others tend to load much faster. Still, this is a area that could definitely use improvement. There is some talk that this is mostly because there is much more Java code in OOo 2.0 then there was in previous versions, and Java simply cannot compare to native C or C++ for speed. The upside of using Java is that it is easier to port the office suite to run on different platforms. Having said that, if the performance doesn’t improve somewhat, it is likely to limit the number of people willing to convert from MS Office. However being a beta version, it’s likely I’m running debug code that won’t be in final versions and it’s possible that the final 2.0 release will be considerably faster. Time will tell.
Stability. A couple of Powerpoint presentations I was sent caused OOo Impress to lock-up and often even when it didn’t lock-up, it sometimes didn’t provide the experience the author had intended. For ordinary non interactive slideshows, Impress worked great, but for macro based interactive presentations there were often problems. Since most of those were jokes or games sent to me by clients I don’t consider it much of a loss.

Conclusion.
In nearly every respect OOo 2.0 is a drastic improvement over previous efforts. It looks better, has more features, better integration and MS Office compatibility and is more pleasant to use then ever before. For the first time it’s a real challenger to Microsoft Office for moderate tasks. There is still room for improvements in loading speed and memory usage. I opened a 1MB XLS spreadsheet and OpenOffice used 70MB of ram to display it in Calc. (66MB was used just to open a blank spreadsheet). But with the rapid increases in hardware performance, speed and memory usage are less important then they once were. Still, I miss the days when Office 95 came on about a dozen floppy disks and performed most of the same tasks.

OpenOffice.org also lacks an E-mail/Groupware equivalent to MS Outlook. This can be supplemented in Linux via Evolution, and in Windows when the porting of Evolution to Win32 is complete. In the mean time, Thunderbird makes a reasonable cross platform choice for E-mail although it lacks the calendering features of Outlook. (many of which you can get by installing Sunbird.)

The only way to tell if OpenOffice.org is a possibility for you, is to try it and see. Since it’s a free download, it isn’t such a big deal and you have nothing to lose by trying. If it does everything you need, then you stand to save a great deal of money that would otherwise end up in Microsoft’s pocket for MS Office licenses. I give the current OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta a 7 out of 10 and I expect to add a point to that for the final version if the expected improvements are in place. It also gets a 10/10 for value for money, which puts it considerably ahead of the opposition in the value stakes. It has become my default office suite and I’ve started recommending it to clients with simple needs who would otherwise have purchased Microsoft Office. My USB key has a copy stored away and I’ve installed that copy onto about a dozen client’s PCs for evaluation. More then half of them have decided they don’t need anything else.








One Response to “Product review, OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta.”

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