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Is OpenOffice a Viable Alternative to Microsoft Office?

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I was thinking about purchasing Microsoft Word, which I had on my last computer. I need it occasionally to make lists, etc. I think it costs around $100 or perhaps even less. I don’t need Office, etc., just Word. I happened to read this article on freebies and it mentioned something called Open Office. So, I need your suggestion. Is this something I should download or am I better off purchasing Word? I assume that Open Office works the same as Word.

Open Office, now more formally Apache Open Office, and the very similar Libre Office, can be an effective alternative to Microsoft Word and even some other Microsoft Office applications.

Whether or not it’s a solution that works for you depends on which applications you use, how you use them, and most importantly, with whom you might share your documents.

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Apache Open Office Suite

Apache Open Office is a completely free suite of programs.

It includes a word processor comparable to Microsoft Word, a spreadsheet comparable to Microsoft Excel, presentation software comparable to PowerPoint, a database comparable to Access, and even drawing and math equation tools similar to those included in Microsoft Office.

I say “comparable” because of course, they are not exactly the same. Open Office looks and feels quite different than Microsoft Office. The fundamental concepts are the same, but the user interface puts components in different places, and it may behave somewhat differently than you’re used to.


Libre Office
Open Office Logo

Open Office versus Libre Office

Libre Office is what’s called a “fork” of Open Office. It was created some years ago, mostly due to organizational politics, as I understand it.

Both are good, though their feature sets have diverged slightly over time. Libre Office tends to release updates more quickly, and comes pre-installed on many Linux distributions.

For a slightly more detailed look at the differences, see TechRepublic’s “What’s the difference between LibreOffice and OpenOffice?” from 2014. Be sure to scan the comments on that article for some of the nuances.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the phrase Open Office, but my comments apply to both Open Office and Libre Office. You can try both, if you like; Open Office, Libre Office, and Microsoft Office can all be installed on the same machine.

Open Office doesn’t have all of the advanced features Microsoft Office offers. Exactly what those missing features might be will vary over time, as both suites continue to change and grow. If you never use those advanced features, this may not matter to you at all.

Compatible, but not

Open Office can, in fact, read and write documents created with Microsoft Office1. On the surface, this implies that you can happily exchange documents with people who use Microsoft Office.

Unfortunately, this exposes what I would call the biggest issue with Open Office: the document you create in Open Office may look different when opened in Microsoft Office. If you make changes in Open Office, then return to Microsoft Office, the document will also probably look different. The programs are compatible with each other in that they can both read and write the same file formats, but in practice, they are not identical.

Minor, and occasionally major, formatting differences are common when you exchange documents between the two. If that matters to you, Open Office may not be the best choice.

It’s everywhere, and it’s free

Open Office is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. All version of Open Office are identical no matter what platform you use.

And, as you know, it’s completely free. No one-time charges, no subscriptions; just download, install, and use.

An alternative? It depends.

Is Open Office a suitable alternative for you? It really depends on your needs.

If your needs are basic to moderate in complexity, and strict visual compatibility with Microsoft Office isn’t a concern for you, then it could be a very good, free alternative. I’d recommend giving the latest version a try.

If you’re a Microsoft Office power-user, or you expect to use Microsoft Office add-ons, or you need to exchange high-fidelity documents with other Microsoft Office users, then typically only Microsoft Office will do.

Footnotes & references

1: The reverse is also true: current versions of Microsoft Office can read and write Open Office’s native file formats.

42 comments on “Is OpenOffice a Viable Alternative to Microsoft Office?”

  1. One thing I do after installing Open/LibreOffice is go into Tools->Options->Load/Save->General and for each Document Type, change the default save format to one of the Microsoft Office formats. I usually use Office 98/2000/XP/2003 format, as this is the format compatible with almost every office suite out there (.rtf is also OK for text documents). I’ve had to help a few OpenOffice uses with this when they sent people documents which they were unable to open. Later versions of MS Office can open the OpenOffice format (.od*) files, but earlier versions can’t.

    • Mark,

      This is a good tip. It can be applied to individual documents by using “Save As…” and selecting Office 98/2000/XP/2003 format. Be sure to click the option to use the current formatting.

      The saved Word and Excel documents looked pretty much like their counterparts. They were good enough for me to be able to send via e-mail to others.

      I don’t use the other two programs, so can’t say how they would come out.

      • Set the “Save” options ONCE. Do it through the menus. Then you don’t have to decide what format to save documents in each time you save something.

  2. Whichever one of the two programs comes with the “Ubuntu” distribution: I found presentation (PowerPoint equivalent) to be quite frustrating. I used it as a temporary solution before I was given a copy of Office 2010. I was lucky that Ubuntu came with that program, as I needed the presentation one for an assignment from my U.S government class.

    It was nice that it did, because I didn’t want whichever free office program it was to touch my real computer. (for reasons I have since then realized were invalid)

    I was running Ubuntu in a virtual machine to see what Linux was like, and I learned some differences about it such as this one.

  3. If needed, users can use Microsoft’s Word/PowerPoint/Excel/InfoPath online:formerly know as “(name) Web App”, their SkyDrive app that runs in web browsers that can read and, if necessary, edit or make Word documents (the latter with limited capabilities).

    Something else that can come in handy: the native WordPad on Windows vista and later can read and edit .docx files, again with limited capabilities. Also note that I have not been able to get any version of WordPad to open a .doc file, nor can Windows XP’s native WordPad open .docx files. (obviously not, XP predates .docx)

  4. A general observation. I’ve used Open Office and Libre Office on and off over the past few years in an effort to avoid Microsoft’s eye-watering prices. But the freewares just aren’t up to it. Compatibility is a real issue: you can’t send documents to Word users – who are most people, after all – with any confidence that the letter, report etc will display and handle properly if it has any formatting complications at all. And the open suites’ functionalities in the Ppt equivalents are poor. (For virtually all purposes the word and stats processing are good, until sent to an MS Office user.)

    Having said that, I am a big fan of free office software in principle. If the applications improve I’ll be back to them sharpish.

  5. Kingsoft has a free version of their office suite that includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation. The look and feel is very close to Office 2003 with the “classic” theme which I VERY MUCH prefer. Just one gotcha during install offering to add some sort of PC speed-up BS which is easily ignored. As support for Office 2003 ends, I may leave Microsoft”s products behind.

  6. I tried LibreOffice one time and it so badly hosed the format of a spreadsheet that I had created in Excel that I never used it again. Luckily, I found a backup copy that I was able to use to recreate the spreadsheet. Never again.

  7. I came on OpenOffice several years ago when I was thinking of converting to Linux. I wanted something that would work with both OSs. Since then, I’ve been using both OpenOffice and MS Office on a daily basis. Both forms of word processor and spreadsheet programs are very good and fairly easy to use. However, each has features that the other doesn’t, so which I use depends on the features needed for that task.

    Find out more about each product by going to http://www.openoffice.org and click “Product” on the navigation bar. That gives a list of each component. Clicking on each one takes you to a good description of it. NOTE: I did not find any way someone could get individual components – just the entire suite.

    Since OpenOffice is free, check it out; see if it will meet your needs. Just be sure to get it directly from http://www.openoffice.org to avoid any extra junk being included in the download. If you don’t like it, at least you’re not out any money.

  8. When I got a new computer, I checked online and found Open Office is not that regularly updated any more.

    If you have files from MS Works (not Word) Open Office might be able to open the file.
    Chances are, Word cannot.

    I got Libre Office instead. It does seem slow to load. The few files I have saved are fine.

    The only spreadsheets I have created have been very simple so cannot really compare.

    I was able to play a PPT (Powerpoint) file using Open Office and once I got it started it played pretty well.

    I did get Office Home & Student 2010. The ribbon be da****.
    Mary

  9. Kingsoft works in Linux, if you are okay with alpha software.
    “Kingsoft Office Published New Version for Linux Alpha 11”

  10. I tried some “Freewares” for MS Office substitute ,, didn’t like’em !! Tried Open Office, for some reason it did not install properly so I ended up with something else. When I tried to use it, It seemed confusing in some way like it was hard navigate and seemed completely foreign in some way. “It worked in a pinch”(that’s all), as I was waiting for a new copy of “XP PRO” to arrive and had, on hand a New “MS Office 2010” waiting ,, finally got it all installed “couldn’t wait” and “NO PROBLEM” at all (install and use) !!

    If yur in a pinch get a 3 Computer software package “MS Office” with 2 other friends !!

  11. I have observed drastic formatting differences when sending a .doc, created in Microsoft Office, to an associate who had the same version of Office, but a different printer. So it’s not just MS Office/Libre Office which have this issue.

    I routinely send simple documents (invoices!) from Libre Office to MS Office users, and never get a complaint.

    • From my experience, I’ve found incompatibilities of this sort mainly result from the document having fonts which the person receiving the document doesn’t have. It then substitutes a font which looks similar to the one in the original document, but might be a different size. I don’t believe it’s a printer incompatibility as the document is already changed as it is loaded into the second version of Word.

      If you want to improve your chances at document compatibility, stick with the basic fonts found on all machines such as Arial and Times New Roman. I’m not sure how compatible the documents would be with a Mac or Linux machine.

  12. Way back in the 80’s, we used Lotus at work. IBM has control of it now. It’s suite is called Symphony and I have been using it’s spreadsheet successfully since windows 365 started charging. It’s free for home use. It takes a little getting used to because IBM’s Terminology is different from Microsoft’s, but it seems to have all of the features I need as a retiree. That’s the only part of the suite I’ve used.

    • IBM discontinued development of Lotus Symphony in January 2012 with the final release of version 3.0.1, moving future development effort to Apache OpenOffice, and donating the source code to the Apache Software Foundation.
      Source Wikipedia.

      There’s a download link on Softonic.

  13. As mentioned above, give Kingsoft Office 2013 Free a try. I’ve been installing that for customers for about six months and it’s really great. Includes a Word, Excel and PowerPoint equivalents, all which are extremely compatible with MS Office. In addition, you can tell it to use the legacy GUI (2003 and older) or the newer “ribbon” GUI (2007 and later). The only thing the free version doesn’t do is “create” files in DOCX, XLSX and PPTX format – you need the Pro version to do that.

  14. For a while, I used Open Office. I always found it harder to do things like adding pictures and getting them positioned where I wanted them. I also found it difficult to switch between single column and double column or vice versa in the middle of a document. Using the same format all the way through was no problem. Still, it wasn’t bad for free. Just a little frustrating occasionally.

    Open Office can save a document in .pdf format. That’s what I did when I wanted to share a document and ensure that it looked the same on the receiver’s computer.

  15. If you only need WORD to uses as a word processor why don’t you simply use WORDPAD which usually comes free with the computer?

  16. If you have the installation disk for the version of Word you are using on the old computer, it should install on the new computer without any problem. If the old Word works fine for you, why change. Microsoft Works came with the computer I bought 10 years ago (two computers ago) and I have installed it on each new computer without any problem.

  17. If it’s only for making lists I think OO is a suitable choice.
    It’s free, so why not give it a try?
    I use both MO and OO and thinking about it, I don’t have a real favorite.
    OO I use for documents and Excel for complicated spreadsheets.
    BTW Spreadsheets are barely interchangeable.

  18. Something nobody’s mentioned yet is Notepad. This is a very basic word processor. It is good for any document that doesn’t need special formatting. The files don’t take up nearly as much hard disc space, either.

    I find Notepad good for making copies of comments, lists of member information for our small organization, and many other records (like some of the better suggestions on AskLeo). Sometimes I even use it to copy recipes that don’t have pictures or need special formatting. Actually, I use it so much that it is pinned to my Start Page for easy one-click access.

    The only real drawback is that Notepad doesn’t have a spell checker, so it requires actual human editing. But, hey, it’s free, easy to use, and can be opened in all the popular OSs without any special word processor.

    • Notepad isn’t really a word processor. It is a text editor which doesn’t handle any kind of formatting. I also use it for basic text editing and I keep a few .txt files for stock answers to questions etc. One thing I also use it for is to strip formatting from the text. I sometimes use it to copy and paste text from web pages and .pdf files before copying and pasting them into Word or Excel. Wordpad (Write) allows basic formatting but no spell check. It can open and save .rtf formatted files which are compatible with all word processors.

      • My comment was aimed at the original request for information. The person said: “I need it occasionally to make lists, etc.” I was merely pointing out that Notepad was also useful for such simple tasks, and that it was free and readily available.

  19. I got tired of paying $99 a year for the Microsoft 365 product, so I now am using Open Office full-time. Over the years I have used open source software , now the money is an issue especially when I don’t need anything that extensive. I need just a word writer product and a spread sheet app from time to time. Thanks……………………………..

    • I just started teaching a course in Information and Communications Technology for Business Administration students. The original plan was to use the college’s computers with with MS Office installed to teach Word, Excel and Access. The computers arrived an hour late, so they started following the steps on their own computers with different office suites installed. It was a bit more work for me helping them find the equivalent commands, but from what I’ve seen so far, there is nothing I’ll be teaching that can’t be done by the word processor and spreadsheet components of Open Office. The students now say they want to proceed with their own computers, as those are the systems they will be using when the course is over. Obviously, I won’t attempt to teach them databases using Open Office, but most people don’t need that. For the vast majority of people who don’t need absolute document compatibility or the very advanced features of MS Office, they should be totally fine with Open Office.

  20. “Open Office will probably not have all of the advanced features that Microsoft Office has. Exactly what those missing features might be will vary over time as both suites continue to change and grow. If you never use those advanced features, this may not matter to you at all.”

    This section of your post explains to us just how little you really know about the subject you are posting about. I came here for a summary of these differences, not a general statement that is as obvious as this.

  21. i have been using kingsoft office beta 3 and did not update as the meta version is free and there is nothing to complain about

    i want to know about libre office

    • Libre Office and Open Office both came out of the original Sun Microsystem Open Office project. Apache is supporting and developing Open Office. The Document Foundation is supporting and developing Libre Office. They are both very similar and there’s no clear winner as to which is better. I’ve played with Kingsoft and it is very easy to use and would probably satisfy most people’s needs, but it seems like Open/Libre Office have more advanced features.

  22. I was wondering if a text in word has the same words with open office. What I mean is i.e if a text page in word has 400 words,is gonna be the same in office too or the size is got changed.
    thanks a lot

    • The physical size of the document would be different, but the number of words would remain about the same.

  23. The argument about compatibility being a problem for OpenOffice really is only based on MS being the dominant product, without taking any account of the advantages of a truly open format (ODF). Several European governments including the UK have chosen ODF over OOXML to make their documents accessible to all.

    I write fairly long and complex instruction manuals in OpenOffice, which I distribute in PDF but occasionally I send an editable version to OEM customers, they get it in ODF and then they squeal about it not being .docx, to which my answer is download the software, it’s not my job to convert it and they should be thankful I didn’t write it in PagePlus or Scribus. So the way I see it OpenOffice and LibreOffice are a freely accessible file format, cross-platform including Windows, Linux and Mac users, also unlikely to be discontinued, safer, and quicker to email (smaller).

    I have no particular dislike for MS Office, I left it when my PC at work ceased to run it and I never went back, so I would urge anyone worried about compatibility to buy MS Office if they can comfortably afford it and download OpenOffice as well, then use whichever you prefer and be able to read everything that comes your way. If you can afford MS Office there’s no need to choose, have both.

    • Open/Libre Office can be easily set to default to saving documents in MS Office formats. The output might look a little different when opened in Word or Excel, but I’ve had a similar compatibility problems in Word when I received .doc files from someone who used non-standard fonts. There may be advantages to .od* files, but whenever I set someone up with Libre Office, I set the default to save as MS Office formats. Compatibility overrides any advantages of Open Document format in most cases.

      I taught a course on MS Office. Some of the students had Macs and didn’t have MS Office installed, as an experiment, I had them install Libre Office. They were able to perform all of the tasks required in the course. My recommendation: unless you know you need it, save your money and use Libre Office. You can always get MS Office later if you find you need it.

  24. I thought that open office would be a good way to do the few spreadsheets that I need. I am so disappointed that I cannot send a spreadsheet to someone with
    Excel. Very frustrating as there is not simple procedure that I can find to do this.

    • You can send Open Office files in MS Office format. In any Open Office program, click on the Tools menu and select Options. Click on + sign before Load/Save in the left list. Click on General underneath. Where is says Document type, it will say Text document. Underneath that Always save as. Change it to Microsoft Word 2007-@0013 XML, or if you prefer Rich text (.rtf). Next change the Document type to Spread sheet. Then Always save as: Microsoft Excel 2007-@0013 XML You can do similarly with presentations and be generally compatible with MS Office.

      Recent versions of Office should be able to open Open Office files, but this will fix it for older versions.

  25. I used to work in a company that used only Microsoft products. On retirement, I continued to use these for several years, befors trying out and switching to Open Office and later, Libre Office. I found enogh similarity between these and MS Office to make a seamless changeover. Any problems arising the differences were normally easy to overcome with a little thought or a web search.
    I would save any Items for emailing in MS format, all others in ODT format. It is easy to set all items to be saved in MS format and to set the standard Font and it’s size.
    I find the latest version of Libre Office to be very good indeed and I am on my 85th lap of the Sun. What’s wrong with you young un’s, lazy, stupid or what? When you need a helping hand, look at the end of your arm, it’ll be there.
    Note: Libre does not have an update faciility, you must download the required version, this will download and install itself, removing the earlier one in the process. don’t forget to select the required language before downloading.

    Ern

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