What is the best alternative to Microsoft Office?

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October 20, 2014

Icons for file extensions doc, xls, ppt, mdb

Microsoft’s Windows may no longer be the dominant force it once was, but Microsoft Office is still the undisputable leader. Perhaps it’s due to convenience rather than anything else–sticking to Microsoft Office ensures you can open every Office document, presentation or spreadsheet the way it was meant to be made.

That being said, perhaps there are viable alternatives out there. Certain regional governments have even taken the brave step to embrace alternatives, mostly due to cost reasons.

So, are the alternatives really viable to handle all your Office needs?

Let’s take a look at some of the alternatives I’ve been exploring for the past few weeks.

WPS Office

Formerly known as Kingsoft Office, WPS Office has a long lineage dating back from 1988. If you’ve been using a recent version of Microsoft Office (perhaps at work or in school), you will feel completely at home with WPS Office. It makes use of the Ribbon interface, and most of the things you’ll find in Microsoft Office will be there in roughly the same places in WPS Office.

Furthermore, WPS Office has a tabbed user interface, so opening numerous documents or presentations at once is a breeze. That’s one-up over Microsoft Office.

I tried opening a few existing Word documents and PowerPoint presentations with it, and compatibility seems pretty good. Font spacing seems a little off sometimes, but those are minor issues at most. Most of the PowerPoint effects work fine, though the Wipe transition that was present in one of my presentations was a little slow.

I had a few gripes with WPS Office though. The first is that when you drag the scrollbar to scroll down a document, there’s no real-time updating. The page you were on continues to show, and the page you have scrolled to shows up only after you let go of the scrollbar. So it might get pretty annoying browsing through long documents unless you use the scroll wheel, in which case everything shows up as per normal. Next, the File Open and Close dialog is still the old, Windows XP-style dialog, instead of the modern version whereby your Libraries, Favourites and hard drives are listed conveniently on the left.

Still, for the price of free and without advertisements, those are really tiny gripes. There’s also a paid version of WPS Office which offers VBA macro support. It costs only $70 for a lifetime license (up to 3 computers), far cheaper than any version of Microsoft Office.

And for those of you using OS X, iOS, Android or Linux, the good news is that WPS Office supports all of these platforms. For Linux users in particular, WPS Office may just be the best native office suite out there.

LibreOffice/OpenOffice

OpenOffice was once championed as the best free and open source alternative to Microsoft Office. Once owned by Sun Microsystems, it later belonged to Oracle (after acquiring Sun) who later stopped development on the project due to some disputes. Thanks to its open-sourced nature, the community forked a version of OpenOffice and continued developing it as LibreOffice. Oracle later gave the rights and code of the original OpenOffice to Apache, who has continued to develop it ever since.

To cut the long story short, LibreOffice and OpenOffice are like siblings. As of now, there’s little difference between LibreOffice and OpenOffice, so we shall consider them as a whole. For the purpose of this article, I opted to use LibreOffice instead, so we shall refer to both of them as simply LibreOffice.

The user interface of LibreOffice seems straight out of Microsoft Office 2000. Instead of the Ribbon interface, what you get are just good ol’ tiny icons. OpenOffice has attempted to spruce this up without copying Microsoft by also introducing a vertical sidebar, which contains easy access to key features. You may think of it as Apache’s take on the Ribbon interface. I think the vertical sidebar is a thoughtful addition, since with the widescreen displays we have today, vertical space is far more valued, and we can afford to sacrifice horizontal space instead.

The vertical sidebar is also present in LibreOffice, though you would need to tick the “Enable Experimental Features” in the Settings before it will show up.

I have used LibreOffice (in its previous incarnation as the original OpenOffice) extensively before as I worked in an organisation that exclusively used OpenOffice. LibreOffice Calc is really quite powerful for basic needs, and somehow I even prefer the way it works as compared to Microsoft Excel. Unfortunately, VBA support is rather basic on LibreOffice at present.

LibreOffice’s PowerPoint and Word-equivalents aren’t that great in comparison. Word documents generally turned out fine, and on par with WPS Office, but compatibility with PowerPoint presentations is not as good. There’s no support for many features we have come to take for granted such as transparencies, and transitions are really slow.

LibreOffice’s reliance on Java also means that you need to have Java installed in order to use certain features. Though, even when using aspects of LibreOffice that doesn’t require Java, performance is somewhat more sluggish than WPS Office in comparison.

In conclusion, unless you are an ardent advocate of open source programs, at present, WPS Office is really the better deal.

Google Drive

Moving on to online Office suites, Google Drive is probably the one that most people have heard of. The reason why Google Drive is so popular is because many people can collaborate on the same document, spreadsheet or presentation at once.

A little known fact is that Google Drive can work even when you are offline. However, you will need to use Google Chrome and Google Drive, or use a Chrome OS device.

Features-wise, it’s really spartan as compared to Microsoft Office. You can import PowerPoint slides, though compatibility is really abysmal. Word compatibility, too, leaves much to be desired.

Microsoft Office Online

Here’s a little known fact: Microsoft Office is actually available online-only for free! It also offers the same collaboration features as on Google Drive, though changes do not appear as instantly.

The user interface of Office Online mimics that of its full-featured brethren, complete with ribbons and all. The user interface is also very responsive and it almost does not feel as though you are running it via your web browser. Unfortunately, you get only a small subset of the features available to the fully-fledged version, but basic formatting features are present.

On the other hand, documents and presentations that I opened in Office Online appeared exactly the same as it did in Office 2013. Thus, for full interoperability, Office Online is your best bet.

Conclusion

Indeed, there are many applications that can open your Microsoft Office documents, presentations and spreadsheets, both offline and online. Of the lot, I think WPS Office is the most promising, unless you really need to use VBA macros. I think that ideally, you could use WPS Office as your main Office suite, and when the need arises where you have to collaborate with other users who use Microsoft Office, you could upload your file to Office Online to see if it displays correctly, and make any necessary minor changes from there.

On the other hand, Microsoft Office really isn’t that expensive nowadays. If you are working in an organisation that uses Microsoft Office, chances are that you may be eligible for the Microsoft Home Use Program. With the Home Use Program, eligible customers can purchase a copy of Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2013 for just $9.95. There are some licensing restrictions attached to it, though, but it’s still a great deal nevertheless!

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