Technology

NeoOffice: Writer First Impressions

I’ve heard about the project known as OpenOffice on many occasions as a viable alternative to Microsoft Office, and I was pleased to find a Macintosh version of the office suite on the project’s website. What did not please me was the X11 requirement for the OS X version. Fortunately, it was not long before I discovered a project called NeoOffice written in a combination of Cocoa, Carbon, and Java. It’s based on the OpenOffice 2.0 code base but runs natively in the OS X aqua environment.

Over the course of a few posts, I’m going to be looking at the text editor, NeoOffice Writer, and the presentation module, NeoOffice Impress, to see how they compare to Microsoft Word 2004 and Microsoft PowerPoint 2004 in daily use. These articles are not going to be deeply technical or philosophical. They are just going to reflect my thoughts and feelings as I take the software through some paces.

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Upon launching NeoOffice, I was immediately greeted by a setup “wizard,” which immediately set within me a sense of foreboding. “Wizard” is not a very Mac-like term, but I went through the process, which, in and of itself was fairly painless. The only real nit to pick is that registering the product took me to a sign-in page for existing NeoOffice users – not a page to create a new account.

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That aside, NeoOffice Writer looks a lot like MS Word for Windows. This is by no means a slight. It just means that Office users will feel right at home in the interface. On the other hand, it does look alien on the Mac desktop as even the Mac version of Word looks very different from its Windows counterpart.

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NeoOffice Writer on the left; Word on the right.

In terms of functionality, Writer has pretty much everything users have come to expect in a word processor. The only notable absence has been a built-in Grammar Check. On the other hand, NeoOffice seems to have some drawing tools, like curve, circle segment, and pie that are not present in Word. Also, NeoOffice has a built-in bibliography database available in the Tools menu. Unfortunately, I can’t get it to format a bibliography automatically the way EndNote will in Word. Another good bit of news is that NeoOffice has extensive macro support – a feature that is scheduled to be eliminated from the next Mac version of Office.

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Writer open with the database browser and macro dialog box.

As far as other features, Spell Check seems on par with Word, and you can right-click on a marked word for spelling suggestions – just like in the Microsoft alternative. In fact, you can do an awful lot with text formatting by right-clicking on it, something I think MS Word is definitely trailing the OpenOffice team on.

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You can export a document as a PDF directly from the app, a task which is roundabout in Office 2004 for the Mac and nonexistent in Office 2003 for Windows. Included templates and clip art is minimal, but templates found here and clip art here work fine with the NeoOffice applications. Since I seldom use templates or clip art, this doesn’t really bother me.

I opened a few MS Word documents with NeoOffice with varying results. Basic documents opened without a hitch. Many that contained drawings or shapes also opened fine, but the shapes would occasionally be in the wrong place. Some opened and could be edited while others opened as “read-only” and I had to “Save As…” to edit. Bullets points were consistently lost in the transition, but, surprisingly, most clip art and images survived the transition. Overall, the application’s compatibility with Word documents is pretty good.

On the downsides, the look-and-feel (which I’ll talk about more in another post) doesn’t quite fit in with Mac OS X despite efforts to aquify the application, and performance is sluggish on my G5 PowerMac. This is especially true in redrawing elements like toolbars. On my PowerBook G3, the performance is downright dismal. I suspect the combination of PowerPC and Java elements is the culprit. On the other hand, there is an Intel build available, and I’ll be interested in trying that out whenever I get around to updating my hardware.

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Just waiting for the rest to show up…

In conclusion, I can see where NeoOffice could supplant MS Office for the budget-conscious. While it has some issues, it is very capable on its own and in working with Microsoft-compatible formats. Stay tuned for some more posts like these in the near future regarding NeoOffice.

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