A Penny for Your Apps -- Open-Source Alternatives

Susie Ochs's picture

A Penny for Your Apps -- Open-Source Alternatives


Office Suites That Won’t Cost A Whole Paycheck


Microsoft Office is kinda like the phone company—everyone uses it, but no one seems to like it. Apple’s iWork ($79, www.apple.com) is a more elegant and user-friendly option, and you can export your work into Microsoft Office formats. But if $79 is still more than you want to spend, once again it’s open-source software to the rescue.


OpenOffice runs over X11, although an Aqua version is being developed. The suite’s robust help offerings resemble Microsoft Office’s, and most of the tricks you use in Office will also work here.


OpenOffice. OpenOffice.org is an open-source office suite for Linux, Windows, Solaris, FreeBSD, and Mac OS X. A full office suite, it includes Writer, Impress (presentations), Calc (spreadsheets), Math (function writer), Draw, and Base (database). Of these, Writer and Calc are the closest to their Microsoft Office counterparts, while Impress’s ugly interface and bare-bones template offerings make the “you get what you pay for” adage spring to mind—and make Keynote, part of iWork ’08, seem like a welcome expense.


OpenOffice also runs on X11, with all the menus contained in the single-window interface instead of in your menubar (no palettes anywhere, either). Writer’s menus closely resemble Word’s, and the same keyboard shortcuts are here too, although you have to substitute Control for Command (Ctrl-S to save, for example)—recent Windows switchers will feel right at home. The interface resembles a Windows version, but it’s easy to get used to once you realize all the familiar functionality is here, including macros, footnotes, autocorrect, spell check, export as PDF, and more. You can customize all the menus, toolbars, and keyboard shortcuts too. Calc works just like Excel, and the function wizard can help you build over 200 functions. Even the help menus look like the ones in Microsoft Office.


OpenOffice’s native file format is called Open Document, with extensions like .odt for Open Document Text, .ods for Open Document Spreadsheet, .odp for Open Document Presentation, and so on. OpenOffice can read and write Microsoft Office formats like DOC, XLS, and PPT, but doesn’t support Apple’s iWork formats (which are named after the iWork apps: Pages uses PAGES, Numbers has NUMBERS, and Keynote uses KEY). OpenOffice writer can read and write the XML format used by Microsoft 2007 for Windows, but we couldn’t check compatibility with Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac, which wasn’t available at press time. (Since OpenOffice is a cross-platform app, and Microsoft intends XLS to be the new cross-platform standard, it should work.)


This Guitar Hero review was created in Microsoft Word, but NeoOffice opened it without a hitch and recognized all the character and paragraph styles from our Word template.


You can download a DMG of OpenOffice, which comes in Intel and PowerPC flavors for Tiger and Leopard, and also for Panther (Mac OS 10.3) and Jaguar (Mac OS 10.2). Besides the extensive built-in help, a handy wiki is available at wiki.services.openoffice.org. The next major update, version 2.4, is planned for March 2008, including improvements to Base, the database app, more chart options in Chart, better Find/Replace in Writer, and more. An Aqua version is also being developed, which won’t require X11 to run. You can download a very early version of OpenOffice.org Aqua now, but the site warns that the builds are for testing purposes only and could crash at any time.


NeoOffice. NeoOffice is another open-source office suite, similar to OpenOffice.org, but you don’t need X11—it uses Cocoa and Java to run as a native Macintosh app. The result is that NeoOffice looks more like a Mac app (but not as much like Microsoft Office) than OpenOffice.org. The NeoOffice suite includes Writer, Calc, Impress (presentations), Draw, and Base (database). You can download a disk image of NeoOffice 2.2.2 (based on OpenOffice 2.2.1) from www.neooffice.org. Make sure you also grab the latest patch.


Other than not needing X11, NeoOffice works very similarly to OpenOffice. The database wizard in NeoOffice’s Base app is easier to use, and can get you up and running in no time even if you have no experience. You won’t find as many buttons on the toolbars throughout the suite, and the menus don’t exactly match Microsoft Office’s, but the functions are all here, and you can customize the menus, shortcuts, and toolbars to your liking. The help menus are almost identical to OpenOffice’s, and you can also peruse the thorough wiki at neowiki.neooffice.org. NeoOffice handles the same file formats as OpenOffice, and has that app’s export-to-PDF ability as well.


NeoOffice’s Calc spreadsheet app can save in a variety of formats, and export directly to PDF.




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This feature strikes me as well-meaning but singularly misguided.

First of all, free ist not automatically synonymous with open-source, and viceversa.

Second, there are lots of excellent, invaluable, free Mac apps; most of them utilities. But when it comes to free Office or Adobe Suites equivalents, let's face it: you'd be better off with a cheap Linux box. Gimp, OpenOffice and their siblings are functional, but not yet terribly polished ports from Linux, and relative resource hogs at that.

Under Linux, they shine. Though if you direly need free OS X Office software, chances are your Mac may be getting on a bit, too. The two factors combined make for a less-than-thrilling experience on older PPC Macs.

Consider a simpler approach: identify your precise needs, see if there is a native Cocoa freeware or a solid X11-less Java port, and get shareware classics just for the remnant. (If you have a fairly recent PPC or Intel Mac and at least 1 GB RAM, get iWorks '08. Period.)
So let us see how far just a hard nose and a little money will take us:
- iPhoto + imageJ + Raw Photo Processor: FREE;
- TextEdit + TextWrangler + Smultron: FREE;
- DrawIt Lite: as of now, FREE.
This covers the basics; now a few GREAT but cheap little apps that really can compete if used wisely:
- NisusWriter (Express or Pro), Mellel, or Scrivener;
- Tables;
- GraphicConverter or Pixelmator;
- LineForm or Intaglio.
Many of the above - old mainstays or instant classics - were favorably, even glowingly reviewed on this site and are every now and then promoted at bargain prices.

Gimp, NeoOffice & Co. are noble efforts; they deserve every encouragement (including donations! NeoOffice especially shows how much a couple of dedicated folks on no budget at all can achieve.) But on the Mac, they're not quite there yet.



I have two words to add here: GIMP SUCKS!!!



When I first made the swith to Mac (and never going back) I found www.opensourcemac.org an invaluable resource.



If you're into MATLAB (a Math/Science/Engineering tool) then try out FreeMat. It has a long way to go before its as comprehensive as matlab, but in the meantime its free.



www.thriftmac.com is an excellent source as well



www.freemacware.com is also a great source for mac freeware.

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