SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Free web-based productivity suites come in handy--when you're online. Otherwise, you're out of luck. That's not the case with ThinkFree.com Corp.'s Office: It has the requisite Web component but also includes a downloadable counterpart that works offline. Better yet, its three apps are file-compatible with Microsoft Office, and the company sets aside 20MB of online storage space where you can park files.
Downloading the Java-based suite (about 2.5MB) from ThinkFree's Web site took me about 17 minutes with a 56-kbps connection; you must also download the individual applications--Write (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), and Show (presentations). Each download takes about 5 minutes over a 56-kbps modem. The good news: The lengthy setup time is the product's main drawback. My Word 2000 documents easily opened in ThinkFree Write--and vice versa--with only formatting losses. Saving documents was slightly trickier: I could save to my Web space or C: drive effortlessly, but I had some difficulty navigating to local subdirectories.
Unlike other online suites, ThinkFree performed acceptably over a 56-kbps connection. I noticed a slight slowdown when using ThinkFree's word processor online, but I experienced almost no delay with Calc--even when I was employing the Chart Wizard.
ThinkFree offers a good alternative to shrink-wrapped apps and makes files conveniently available anywhere you have a Net connection.
Thinkfree's suite has an interface much like the one in Microsoft Office, so there's nothing new to learn before you start working.
PRO: Free, works online or off, file-compatible with Microsoft Office.
CON: Full download takes about 30 minutes over 56-kbps connection.
VALUE: Convenient, free tool.