If you think that you always get what you pay for, the just-released beta of OpenOffice 3.0 should convince you otherwise. This free, open source software suite provides most of what anyone could want in an office suite, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, database, drawing tools, and math equation editor.
Although it doesn't include all of the high-end features and the slick user interface of Microsoft Office 2007 (for the PC) and Microsoft Office 2008 (for the Mac), it will handle just about any job you need done. If you're not working in an enterprise that has standardized on Microsoft Office, you should think twice before paying full freight for Office, and give serious consideration to this free alternative when the final version is released.
Keep in mind that OpenOffice 3.0 is in beta and should be used for evaluation purposes only. I tested the Windows version on a 1.83GHz Core Duo PC with 1 GB of memory, and found it to be somewhat buggy. For example, I was unable to create a document and save it without crashing -- I had to first create a document in another program, and then open it in OpenOffice; at that point it worked fine. These types of problems should come as no surprise; the final version isn't due until September, and this is a very early beta.
The download comes with six applications: the Writer word processor, Calc spreadsheet, Impress presentations program, Base database program, Math equation editor, and Draw graphics program. Even as a 147.9MB download, though, it's still svelte compared to Microsoft Office.
If you've already used OpenOffice 2.0, the beta of version 3 will be very recognizable. Little in the overall interface or each individual application has changed. If you're not familiar with OpenOffice, you'll consider the interface either functional and straightforward or old-fashioned and stodgy, depending on your aesthetic inclinations. Toolbar icons, for example, are cartoonish-looking, and you won't find the equivalent of Microsoft Office 2007's Ribbon.
A nice new addition is the Start Centre, which lets you easily create a new document or open an existing one -- just click on the proper icon. The Start Centre appears only if you don't currently have an OpenOffice application opened. Once you've opened an application, you can create or open a document by right-clicking the OpenOffice icon in the system tray and making the appropriate choice.
Particularly important are changes to support for file formats. OpenOffice 3.0 supports the upcoming OpenDocument Format (ODF) 1.2 standard, and will also be able to open documents created in Microsoft Office 2007 and Office 2008 for the Mac, which means that it's about as universally useful as an Office suite can be. It can also export files to PDF. Mac users will be pleased to know that it can now run natively on Mac OS X without having to use X11.
There's also a new zoom control on the status bar, much like the one in Microsoft Office 2007. And there are minor tweaks to each of the separate applications. For example, both Draw and Impress have improved on their cropping features, and Writer can now display multiple pages.
Most people will likely spend the majority of their time in Writer, the OpenOffice word processor. The design is simple and straightforward -- a menu atop two toolbars, one for formatting, and one called Standard, which has the usual functions you would expect: opening and closing files, spell-checking, redo and undo, search, and so on. There are a wide variety of other toolbars you can add from the View menu, such as for drawing and creating bullets.
You'll find all the tools you need for performing almost all word processing functions, whether it be simple ones such as formatting and creating tables, or more sophisticated ones, such as comparing documents and doing mail merges. In fact, for well over 90 per cent of what most people do with their word processor, there's no real difference between Writer and Microsoft Word. How important that other 10 per cent is to you will determine whether you're willing to pay for Office or instead use the free OpenOffice.