OpenOffice.org 3.0 Reviewed
OpenOffice.org is a free cross-platform office suite, originally developed as the proprietary StarOffice suite. It combined a word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation tools and was available for Unix and Windows based systems. The StarOffice code was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999 and released under a LGPL/Sun licence in 2000. In 2005, OpenOffice.org's licence became LGPL only, prompting greater adoption by the open source community and Linux distributions. Now, OpenOffice.org is about to release their third major version of what is the de facto standard in open source office productivity.
One of the biggest enhancements in OpenOffice.org 3.0 is for Mac OS X users. Previous versions of OpenOffice.org used the X Window System on Unix based systems, and though using X on Mac OS X was relatively simple, the application didn't look or behave as a native application would. NeoOffice took the OpenOffice.org code and rewrapped it in a Mac OS X GUI, but now OpenOffice.org 3.0 has a native Aqua user interface as standard. The native user interface feels faster and better integrated into the desktop, but in testing, NeoOffice was still the more stable rendering of OpenOffice.org on the Mac.
Upon starting OpenOffice.org 3.0 a new "Start Center", a task oriented interface, offers the option to create a new document, presentation, database, spreadsheet, drawing or formula, as well as icons to quickly get templates or open existing documents. This is a more friendly approach than in previous versions. It is still possible though to directly launch Writer, Calc and the other components of OpenOffice.org. The user interface itself has been cleaned up by a new set of smaller icons and better toolbar spacing.
In OpenOffice.org Writer, the compacted toolbars frees up some screen space for documents while getting more icons visible on them. You have to look to the bottom right of Writer windows to find the other immediately visible improvement; new zoom controls. The zoom function on OpenOffice.org 2.4 was crude, offering a set of zoom levels off a popup menu or dialogue. In 3.0, there is now an intelligent slider which lets you freely change the zoom level, but sticks at preset marks for the optimal page view.
Zooming out now also supports viewing multiple pages side by side or in duplex printing order. Notes embedded in documents can now be viewed in a sidebar to the document, rather than the previous small yellow square you had to click to display. The expanded view also gives a different colour to notes depending on author and quick menu access to delete a note, all notes by an author or all notes.
Calc, the spreadsheet component of OpenOffice.org, has received a similar toolbar makeover, but has not had its zooming enhanced. Visually though, it is more attractive. Older versions of OpenOffice.org used simple colours and a black box for selections. In 3.0, a glass effect has been applied to row/column headers and translucency used to show selected cells. The big change in Calc is that it now supports 1024 columns in a sheet, four times that of previous versions. A new Solver component in Calc brings the capability to generate values, with constraints, iterating through combinations of those values till a cell on the spreadsheet hits a minimum, maximum or specific value.
It is a feature that has been present in Microsoft's Excel for some time, but oddly, Microsoft removed it from Mac OS X Office 2008, so the arrival of the Solver feature in OpenOffice.org and OpenOffice.org's native debut on Mac OS X should help users who make use of a solver. Calc has also acquired a collaboration mechanism which allows a spreadsheet owner to share a spreadsheet with other users and merge in those users' changes. Fonts and formatting are not handled by the sharing system, so users have to unshare their spreadsheet to work on those elements of it. Compared say, with the collaboration offered by an online web application such as Google Docs, the collaboration feels more like an overgrown change control feature.
Draw and Impress have seen a few enhancements in usability beyond the improved icons, such as an easier to use cropping tool, but like Calc, both lack the enhanced zoom control of Writer. We hope that the next release of OpenOffice.org will fix this inconsistency and install the new zoom control in all the modules. The OpenOffice.org Chart module sees the addition of customised error bars as an option in its chart rendering, and some other features which make the charting more useful in scientific presentations.
An office productivity suite is only as good as its document compatibility, and OpenOffice.org 3.0 implements ODF 1.2, the latest version of the Open Document Format, the OASIS and ISO standard for office documents. OpenOffice.org also maintains its support for Microsoft formats, in the case of Writer, importing and exporting Word 97/2000/XP, Word 95, Word 6.0, and importing Microsoft Office 2007 .docx files. It is a similar story for the other modules, with the legacy Office formats supported for read/write, and the Microsoft XML formats supported for read only. Quality of importing is reasonable though not without issues. In testing we found, for example, that comments in a .docx file are translated to inline text, not into OpenOffice.org comments.
OpenOffice.org's 3.0 version does feel in many ways more of a point release than a full blown update. The Mac OS X native GUI does make the application look completely different on the Mac, but apart from the new icons and toolbars, it is quite hard to tell the difference between OpenOffice.org 2.4 and 3.0 visually. The inconsistentency in use of the new zoom control seems to hint at a rush to hit the fixed release date. That said, OpenOffice.org is still a reasonably competent office productivity suite for a large number of users and the various extensions, including the new Import PDF Extension for 3.0, mean it can be, at least, sufficient for many tasks.