Free Word or free-er OpenOffice?
February 15, 2007 1:52 PM   Subscribe

So we know that is a better value than MSWord...but is it really BETTER?

I've just started using a brand-new Vista-included (though currently running XP Media Centre) Toshiba laptop. It came with WordPad and OneNote (both useless), so I've been using GoogleDocs for note-taking (I'm a law student). However, it's time to begin writing term papers and other heavy content docs with lots or formatting and footnotes and such, and GoogleDocs won't cut it. Should I upload my old school (but free!) MSWord on my shiny new machine, or can I shrug off the MS-dependency and make the leap to OpenOffice?

FWIW, I'm not very computer-savvy generally, but I am willing to do a little more work/learning to use a better program...
posted by sarahkeebs to Computers & Internet (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you're dealing with papers and bibliography, it wouldn't hurt to look a tutorial for latex and see what it can do. There are front ends which make the writing less painful, and it has ultra-powerful bibliography abilities, which make research papers easier to deal with.
posted by cschneid at 1:55 PM on February 15, 2007

I love LaTeX, but there's definitely a learning curve, and if you have to collaborate with anyone, it pisses them off. I'd suggest that you try Open Office for a bit and see if you like using it. I haven't used the word equivalent, but I've used the Visio equivalent, and it was as easy to use as Visio, although not as shiny-looking.
posted by muddgirl at 1:59 PM on February 15, 2007

OOffice is there, as far as I'm concerned. Sometimes people email me word docs which look "a bit strange" when opened in open office, but I can still read them, so it really doesn't matter. I've not had Word on my desk (either at home or at work) for a few years now. But as cschnied says: if you're writing big papers with lots of references, use latex.
posted by handee at 2:00 PM on February 15, 2007

OpenOffice should be fine for anything Word is useful for, it isn't difficult to install (double click on installation file, click "yes" a couple of times). One feature that you might want to note is File > Export to PDF...if you need a specific document on another computer and aren't sure what format to use, that's usually the way to go, since it will look *exactly* like you have it set up in OO.
posted by anaelith at 2:03 PM on February 15, 2007

FWIW, I've had recent versions of OpenOffice go into a busy-spin -- i.e. use 100% cpu to do absolutely nothing -- when simply asked to open a .doc file that it saved itself; not one from MS Word. The only way to stop it is to kill the process. I've had it do exactly the same thing with an .xls file, also which it had previously created itself. This is in Linux, however, not Windows. To my mind the main reason to use OpenOffice is to share files with MS Office users, and this defect, which has been around forever, completely ruins it for that purpose. It's a pity, because I really do want to like it and I like everything it stands for, but the fact is it's incredibly slow and it's crashy. Your mileage may vary.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:04 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Personally, I like OO. Since making the permanent switch at work to Linux, the only real issues I've had involved some formatting loss and/or other weirdness in going from Word to OO and then back to Word. Of course, OO has its own oddities as well (right now OO Spreadsheet is having issues with crashing and then losing the notes in my cells, but I digress).

But I'm not really a power user, so your milage may vary. All I really know is that the last 10 years of using Word have taught me that I really, truly hate it with a passion.
posted by cgg at 2:06 PM on February 15, 2007

I've been using OO on my home machine now for about a year and have had only one issue with formatting and that was in a spreadsheet.

I say give it a whirl.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:07 PM on February 15, 2007

FWIW, I've had recent versions of OpenOffice go into a busy-spin -- i.e. use 100% cpu to do absolutely nothing -- when simply asked to open a .doc file that it saved itself; not one from MS Word. The only way to stop it is to kill the process. I've had it do exactly the same thing with an .xls file, also which it had previously created itself.

Just guessing, but how up-to-date is your version of Java? I've had other java based apps go into these spins (hello Azureus) and it was because I was because I needed some java updates to run it properly.

I love OO. The excel clone can be a little confusing at first because the menus are a bit different, but I've never run into something that MS Office could do that Open Office couldn't.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 2:11 PM on February 15, 2007

Openoffice works great for me. Does everything a word processor is expected to do, as well as Word, and free. As a piece of software, it actually pre-dates Microsoft Word (the success of third-party word processing programs convinced Microsoft they should get into the business...).

LaTeX is not a word processor; it's a typesetting system. You might (but probably not) find it useful if you have to submit exactly formatted articles to legal journals or the like.
posted by jellicle at 2:16 PM on February 15, 2007

For your use, which includes both note-taking and writing, give serious thought to using a tree-type organizer. Either MyNotesKeeper ($35 registration) or KeyNote (free but no longer developed/supported) would be good candidates. There is nothing like the tree outline to help you keep your notes and papers organized.
posted by yclipse at 2:16 PM on February 15, 2007

I've used Open Office extensively on Linux and Windows.

OO 2 is the equal of MS Office. The spread sheet is actually easier to use for some of the things I've done.

The problem is that it is not 100 % compatible with Word. Formatting will get damaged if you get documents from other people that were created in Word.

But you should download OO and give it a go. It will cost you nothing and there is very little learning curve if you can use MS Office.

But if you have MS Word as well, get that too.
posted by sien at 2:26 PM on February 15, 2007

I find OO fine for basic word processing. Certainly, for writing papers, you shouldn't have any difficulty with using it. I find it more challenging for things like version tracking and change management when working on collaborative documents.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:30 PM on February 15, 2007

For text (OO Writer or MS Word) documents, I have had no problems composing, opening, or saving documents, though I sometimes need to reformat the line-drawings and figures if I am saving a second-generation or older file that has swapped between programs. Regarding presentations and other scholarly applications, I used OO Impress in place of PowerPoint for all the slides of a technical course last semester, with no major problems (embedded video was inconsistent at first, but I resolved it). The only thing that makes me occasionally want to load into MS Word is the suboptimal formatting of "Track Changes" documents in OO
posted by zachxman at 2:34 PM on February 15, 2007

My old computer came with Microsoft Works, which is just a bloody oxymoron, so I've been using Open Office for about two or three years now. I only use it for basic data input in spreadsheet and writing assignments in word, but it's definitely a lot more user-friendly (and even customizeable) than MS Word was.

Some things might take a bit of getting used to, like different features located in different tabs compared with Word or Works or what have you, but that's just two clicks into the Help menu for a really tiny learning curve. I'd definitely rec it over Word
posted by Phire at 3:15 PM on February 15, 2007

Open Office's word processor doesn't seem to do margins very well. Maybe I just haven't figured out how it does margins ... but it damn sure doesn't work as well as Word.
posted by jayder at 3:25 PM on February 15, 2007

I use the portable version of, so I can take my templates, notes, and correspondence everywhere, on a USB-stick. [Which makes it easier to keep my work synchronized as well]

The one thing I did do though, was changing all the built-in shortcuts to the ones used in Microsoft Word. It is impossible to untrain more than ten years of use of the same software.

And another thing I noticed. If you don't use its database, turn off the java-engine in the preferences, and the software will start much quicker. Likewise, boost up its memory allocation.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:30 PM on February 15, 2007

Open Office, do it. My sister just went through grad school with it, I run my business with it. My parents don't seem to have a problem with it (although they still call it Word).
posted by zackola at 3:38 PM on February 15, 2007

Open Office doesn't do "track changes" as nicely as Word does, at least from what I saw. Word provides a list of the comments on the right side of the screen, with dashed lines going to place that your colleague changed the document. OO marks where the changes were made with a little yellow box but you have mouse over them to actually read the comments. Not a huge deal but I found it annoying enough that I just used Word in that situation.

I've got no other real issues with OO. Out of the box, so to speak, it was as annoying as Word is, wanting to do all sorts of things for me.
posted by 6550 at 3:41 PM on February 15, 2007

ljsbrand, thanks for the tip on turning off java. I'm running OO with Ubuntu, on an older laptop, and that made a noticeable difference in how fast it loaded.
posted by 6550 at 3:44 PM on February 15, 2007

FWIW, I've had recent versions of OpenOffice go into a busy-spin -- i.e. use 100% cpu to do absolutely nothing -- when simply asked to open a .doc file that it saved itself; not one from MS Word.

Don't worry; Sometimes Outlook2000 (we're too cheap to upgrade at work) likes to do the same thing when opening a Word attachment.

Having using both OO and Office a fair amount, Word's capabilities, especially in conjunction with the rest of the Office Suite, is superior to OO. I find OO's powerpoint program clunky at best though passable. I highly suggest Office 2007. It simply rocks. Too bad 2007 is damn pricey for home use (however, one thing I do love about MS: they give deep discounts to schools)

HOWEVER, I can think of very few people who actually need to use the full potential of Office for home use. I would venture that OO is more than sufficient for, oh, 99.9% of home users.
As far as compability goes, I used OO exclusively during college for home use, and never had a problem using Word at campus because I saved everything as rich text format (rtf). If you plan on transferring files to school, I would highly suggest getting in this habit or your will forget to convert that one time you really need to open your document on campus but it's saved in native OO format.
posted by jmd82 at 4:05 PM on February 15, 2007

Openoffice Writer still can't put the page you're working on in the center of the screen (it always goes on the left). I find this incredibly annoying and so do not use it. They say they will finally have a kludgey fix for this in the 2.3 release, at which point I may look at it again.
posted by washburn at 4:23 PM on February 15, 2007

I really, really would like to love Open Office Writer. I don't. I find text & page formatting to be downright annoying.

I'm going to wind up having to shell out $ for MS Word. Sigh.
posted by desuetude at 4:31 PM on February 15, 2007

Best answer: Open Office isn't bad. But as a student, can't you get MS Office for really cheap? When I was in grad school several years ago, I got the full Office suite for $5 per CD, or $25 total. If I were you, I'd load up on the "real" MS stuff at student prices - at least for the future when you have to worry about your documents being compatible with what they use at the office. (I've had compatibity issues with O.O.; i.e., saving a document as a Word doc in Open Office, then bringing it to work and opening it in Word to find fonts and formatting are a bit jumbled.)
posted by misskaz at 4:45 PM on February 15, 2007

Open Office can co-exist with MS Office, and even with different versions of itself. I recommend tossing Open Office on any and every PC.

If you have a (legit) copy of MS Office, toss that on too.
posted by krisjohn at 4:59 PM on February 15, 2007

I've been telling my students to get OO for several years now when they ask me how much Office costs.

Currently running two computers at work - my Windows laptop with Office 2003 and my work desktop running Ubuntu Edgy with OO (Ubuntu installed by me, because the damn IT people had locked down the machine to the point that it was largely unusable - so I ditched Windows. How do you run a university where you don't trust the professors to have password access to their own personal computers? Morons.)

I transfer files back and forth quite a bit. The only issues I've noticed are that (a) you will have font problems if a doc is opened by OO on a machine that does not contain the Windows core font set, and (b) the margins get screwy. Printed from Word a doc may be 6.5 pages, but when printed by OO on the same printer it comes to exactly 7 pages, and the indentation on bulleted/numbered lists is a little different. Can't say why. Hard page and column breaks might give you some problems, but the rest seems pretty solid.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:09 PM on February 15, 2007

I've used OO since I got to Grad School. I wrote my master's thesis on it. It can handle term papers without any trouble.

If you, like me, will be turning hard copy and not electronic files, there won't even be a need to use the .DOC format. ODS, OO's native format, is better for all sorts of reasons.
posted by oddman at 5:25 PM on February 15, 2007

The spreadsheet functionality is a lot better. It doesn't preserve random formatting in infuriating ways.

Latex is a huge PIA. I say this as someone who gets off on bogus open source hacking required wares.
posted by shownomercy at 5:37 PM on February 15, 2007

Back when I worked as a programmer for a law firm, they used MS Word and I looked into switching them over to OpenOffice v1.

Eventually I concluded it just wasn't feasible, mainly because OpenOffice had poor support for doing things like document cross-references, which were used extensively by the firm.

Maybe the situation has changed with OOv2; I haven't looked into it recently. I would imagine that cross-references might be something that you'd need if you were writing term papers.
posted by Ritchie at 5:47 PM on February 15, 2007

Open Office is great for word processing, but the spreadsheet program is not nearly as versatile as Excel. The plotting function is useless for all but the most basic graphs, and while it graphs fits decently it won't give you the formula for the curve automatically. Yes, you can do it based on your data, but the reason I am using a spreadsheet program is to do analyze and present data quickly and easily.
posted by Loto at 7:30 PM on February 15, 2007

I don't like OO. If you write a thesis then TeX/LaTex is the way to go. If you need an editor then use jedit . I liked Abiword for small things (letter etc.) since it is not as big and slow as OO.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:30 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am dealing with an OpenOffice issue right now. As other people have noted, it seems to screw up some formatting when you open up Word documents, particularly tables and sometimes tabs. So, if you'll be electronically exchanging this document with someone using Word, I'd say use Word. If you'll just print it out, try OO.
posted by aliasless at 7:40 PM on February 15, 2007

I've tried to use OO for quick one-off writing and sign-making, when I've been too lazy to use LaTeX's poster-making capabilities. I've always been disappointed by the whole experience and flee back to LaTeX pretty quickly. That said, whenever I have to use a windows box and have to use Word, I spend a lot of time grinding my teeth.

If you aren't typesetting a lot of math, I think one of the LaTeX front ends would be smashing. I've liked my experiences with Lyx, even though I'm more of a command-line and vi kind of girl.
posted by janell at 9:23 PM on February 15, 2007

Someone bought me the new MS Office 2007 and I love it. It's so easy to use. The navigation is so much simpler and intuitive. Very pleased with it. However, it's worth, like, $600. Definitely a steep price. The great thing about MS Office is how easily all the constituent programs integrate with one another. Still, I really don't think that it's worth the price tag. If you're worried about minor formatting issues with OO, just think about whether it's worth hundreds of dollars to eliminate the glitch. If you have the money to blow, blow it!
posted by HotPatatta at 9:25 PM on February 15, 2007

Is OO better than Word? No. But is it good enough? Probably.

When my wife started her business I put OO on her laptop and told her we could buy MSOffice if she decided she needed it, but to try OO out for a while. She writes a lot of reports and letters, plus does a little bit of spreadsheet work, and hasn't looked back.

Now of course you might find that for what you do some part of it doesn't work well enough for you, but hell, it's free to try so you might as well give it a whirl for a few weeks. MSOffice will still be there if you decide you need it.
posted by markr at 10:48 PM on February 15, 2007

I use OpenOffice on PC and Linux and NeoOffice (an aquanative port) on Mac, and they both do everything that I need and more. If you just need lightweight word-processing, one option is AbiWord.

Curious that you found OneNote 'useless' - it's pretty much the only MS app that I've found to be really useful - I used it for everything in my last job.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:25 AM on February 16, 2007

You are a law student ... So was I a few years ago.

OO is good ... but the tool of your future trade will be recent versions of MS Word. Now is the time to learn how to use it - Properly. Learn how to use styles, automatic numbering, TOC creation, reviewing functions, etc. in word. Also learn to touch type (trust me ... a most valuable skill for a lawyer).

just my 2c

posted by jannw at 3:47 AM on February 16, 2007

my roommate uses oo and honestly works fine for him.

I use office 2007 and is a very good upgrade to previous versions. For word it has a bibliography integrated right there, dynamically updated toc etc

i could go on.. but i think office 2007 is a better value
posted by radsqd at 8:14 AM on February 16, 2007

OpenOffice is the equal of MS Office versions up to 2003, but MS Office 2007 is just a world easier than any of those other applications. Buying Word 2007 standalone is probably less than $200 as an upgrade, and is more than worth the massive increase in productivity.
posted by anildash at 10:18 AM on February 16, 2007

I agree with jannw about getting to know Word. It may not be perfect (far from it), but it IS the standard office s/w, so you might as well start getting familiar with it now. Nowadays, with docs flying back and forth among collaborators, OO might foul up formatting now and then. (That's been my experience, anyway)

fwiw, Software Outlet frequently discounts older (legal) versions of Word and Office suites (and Corel if you're so inclined). In fact as I write this, Word 2000 is selling for $19.95 US, reg. 29.95.
Office 2007 (Student) is going for $199.
posted by wordwhiz at 4:04 PM on February 16, 2007

Actually, the Home and Student (non-commercial use) version of Office 2007 is going for well under $200 (I paid under Cdn$170). It includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
posted by evilcolonel at 4:11 PM on February 19, 2007

I really like the fact that OO standardizes the styles throughout a document. I do a lot of outlines, and a lot of times I may have to go back and edit an outline days or weeks later. I find that sometimes MS Word would screw up the formatting, so I would have to use the ruler to get all the margins and the various bullets lined up properly. No such problems with OO.

I also think it's much easier to customize bullets in OO than in Word. For example, if I have a numbered, nested list in Word, changing the bullets can oftentimes mean a screw up of the formatting for that section of my outline. With OO I simply highlight the sections, and change the numbering to whatever I want with no such problems.

There is definitely a slight learning curve with OO, but nothing that you can't get over in a couple of hours. I had to learn about how to auto-insert date and time in a document and how to

I think if you are a power user or you have to collaborate and send documents back to forth to a group, MS Word is the way to go. For people with basic word processing and outlining OO is the best hands down.
posted by reenum at 9:07 AM on March 6, 2007

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