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OpenOffice.org 2.0 review

By Jem Matzan

After two years of development, OpenOffice.org (OO.org) 2.0 is finally here. I've been using the past several beta releases in SUSE 9.3 Professional, which is packaged with a pre-release development build of OO.org 2.0, and I have to say that I like it a lot. It still has its shortcomings -- all programs do -- but version 2.0 is a significant improvement over 1.1

OpenOffice.org: an introduction

If you're new to OO.org, here's a quick explanation of what it is and what it does. OpenOffice.org is an office productivity suite like Microsoft Office or Corel WordPerfect Office. It has a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation program (Impress), vector drawing application (Draw), a solver to create complex equations (Math), and a database frontend (Base). Writer, Calc, and Impress can all read from and write to Microsoft Office files, so if you're trying to switch from Office to something else, you will still be able to read your old files.

OpenOffice.org serves as the basis for StarOffice, which is released under a restrictive, proprietary license. Aside from the name, there are a few differences between StarOffice and OpenOffice.org:

  • Microsoft-compatible fonts. StarOffice includes a dozen extra English language fonts (and many more in other languages) that make it easier to import Microsoft Word documents into Writer.
  • Clip art and sample documents. StarOffice comes with more than 2000 pictures to use in presentations and documents. Also included are sample document templates that fit a wide variety of business needs.
  • Enhanced writing tools. While the dictionary and thesaurus in OpenOffice.org 2.0 are above-average already, StarOffice 8 has slightly better ones.

Both StarOffice and OpenOffice.org have commercial support and training available through Sun Microsystems. StarOffice, however, comes with 60 days of free installation support whereas OO.org has no initial support option beyond community forums and mailing lists.

Version 2.0

The rest of this review will highlight the most significant new features of OO.org 2.0 while detailing my own experience with using it. If you just want a complete list of all of the new features and enhancements new to version 2.0, click here.

One enhancement that applies to the entire software suite is native graphical toolkit integration on GNU/Linux systems. This means that if you're using GNOME or KDE as your desktop environment, OO.org will have the same icon and menu theme as the rest of your operating system.

Installing OpenOffice.org 2.0

On Windows, just download the .exe file and run it -- the installation is pretty straightforward. On GNU/Linux, OO.org 2.0 has no basic installation program like version 1.1 did. Instead, you have the option of installing from an RPM or a DEB package. The RPMs are tailored for SUSE, Mandriva, and Red Hat Linux. If you're not using one of these distributions, likely your distro's package manager has its own version for you. If not, you'll have to use the rpm2targz application to convert the RPMs to tar.gz archives, then uncompress them and copy the resulting directories to your root directory.

The Solaris package is installed via the standard pkgadd command.

Writer

OpenOffice.org Writer 2.0 screen shot

Writer's interface has been redesigned to closely resemble Microsoft Word 2003. While people switching from MS Office to OpenOffice.org will probably find this handy at first, I think this harms long-term usability. The first thing I did when I installed OO.org 2.0 (after taking screen shots for this review) was to take all of the features out of the standard toolbars that I would never use. Writer's problem is that it is trying to be too many things at once: a desktop publishing application, a word processor, and an HTML editor.

Aside from the rearranged menus and toolbars, Writer does have a few significant enhancements:

  • Enhanced tables: the ability to nest tables and insert bulleted and numbered points in a table
  • Improved word count feature
  • Mail merge wizard added
  • WordPerfect file import capabilities

The word count feature now supports counting words in selections, so it's a little more powerful and specific. It's also easier to get to -- you can execute it from the Tools window rather than having to go to File -> Properties and then clicking on the Statistics tab.

The mail merge wizard is new to version 2.0, but 1.1 did have the ability to do mail merge; it just wasn't as easy as it is now.

The WordPerfect filter is a long-awaited feature in OpenOffice.org. It's far from "perfect," but it does the job well enough. Expect to deal with file conversion errors in bullets and numbering, graphics and horizontal rules, and any degree of special formatting that was in the original WP document. I don't mean to make it sound worse than it is, because it does work reasonably well, but the WP filter is nowhere near as good as the Word filter.

Calc

OpenOffice.org Calc 2.0 screen shot

Along with a little toolbar and menu reorganizing to -- again -- be more like Microsoft, Calc has some new features of its own:

  • Improved DataPilot functions: page fields, and more field and table options
  • Row limit increased to 65536
  • Right-to-left worksheet support
  • Improved Lotus 1-2-3 filter

Most of these enhancements are to provide better Excel and Lotus compatibility.

Draw

OpenOffice.org Draw 2.0 screen shot

Draw has not seen much improvement over the previous version. The drawing toolbar and the tools within it have been re-thought and redesigned. I think it's much easier to use than it was before.

Base

Base is new to OO.org 2.0. The previous version of StarOffice -- version 7 -- included a limited database known as Adabas D. It has been dropped from the suite entirely in favor of Base. Base is, more or less, a Microsoft Access workalike, although it cannot work directly with MSSQL databases created by Access. The OO.org project has a website dedicated to explaining Base and all of its features. I didn't test Base much, as its purpose is beyond my needs.

Impress

OpenOffice.org Impress 2.0 screen shot

Impress has been redesigned to look and feel more like Microsoft PowerPoint. Like with Writer's similar facelift, I don't think this makes Impress any easier to use. It will make it easier for PowerPoint users to switch, though. Existing OpenOffice.org Impress users will probably find the new version somewhat annoying at first.

Conclusions and recommendations

Just like version 1.1 was a big improvement over 1.0, OpenOffice.org 2.0 is another big step in the right direction for free software and for office suites. There is still room for improvement, however. Here's what I'd like to see in the next release of OpenOffice.org:

  • A grammar module. Spell checkers can only get some typos, but to really get them all, you need a tool that checks sentence structure. If nothing else, it's a great way to catch those times when you type "on" instead of "one."
  • A separate desktop publishing program. Writer has gotten so bloated that it's becoming difficult to do anything with it anymore. It's like a toaster-sized Swiss Army knife. I'd like to see all of the desktop publishing aspects of Writer removed and made into an honest-to-goodness desktop publishing app. Let Writer be a word processor.
  • A better GNU/Linux installer. Installing OpenOffice.org used to be easy -- there was a simple graphical program that walked you through it. Now what do we have -- a bunch of RPMs? Sorry, that's not going to cut it. Let's have the sensible installer back.
  • Stop copying Microsoft. Redesign the OpenOffice.org interface to be more usable, not more Microsoft-like. MS Office file compatibility is good, but menu and toolbar compatibility should be an option, not an obligation.
Purpose Office productivity suite
Manufacturer The OpenOffice.org Development Team
OS support GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, Windows NT/98/ME/2000/XP, Solaris (x86 and SPARC platforms), and OS X
Market Home and business users
Price (retail) Free to download
Previous version OpenOffice.org 1.1
Product Web site Click here