Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers

OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, IBM Lotus Symphony, SoftMaker Office, Corel WordPerfect, and Google Docs challenge the Microsoft juggernaut

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Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: SoftMaker Office 2010
For several years now, SoftMaker Office has been accruing a reputation as a low-cost replacement for the Microsoft Office product line. It's indeed much cheaper than Office 2010: $79 to Office's $149, $279, or $499 (the MSRPs for the Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional versions, respectively). For those who don't exclusively require Word, it's a very strong contender. It's also been written with much more of an eye toward integration with Windows than the OpenOffice.org family; for example, the Windows 7 Taskbar jump lists are supported.

The suite features replacements for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in much the same way that IBM Lotus Symphony strips the OpenOffice.org suite down to its three most essential programs. A single copy of the program can be used on up to three PCs, with no copy protection or other restrictions. Academic pricing ($34.95 per copy) is also available, but there's no need to purchase different versions of the program for work and home.

The best way to see SoftMaker Office's much-vaunted document compatibility in action is to grab the 30-day trial version of the product, open documents in it side-by-side with your existing program, and see how they look. SoftMaker Office has its own native document formats for each program, but it does a strikingly sound job of reading and interpreting Office's native formats. It can also handle some of the OpenDocument formats used by OpenOffice.org.

TextMaker, SoftMaker's word processor, is the most likely place to start testing how well the suite works with your existing files. With most every document I threw at it from my own collection, everything from relatively complex style-driven formatting to annotations and corrections was preserved. The programmers also took the trouble to make many individual features behave like their counterparts in Microsoft Office, such as the way corrections can be viewed in a callout pane to the side of the text. OpenOffice.org and its derivatives do the same thing, but often lose the name of whoever submitted a given correction. TextMaker preserved the names properly (as did Symphony's word processor). Details like this position TextMaker as that much more attractive to users who care about preserving document fidelity.

PlanMaker, the suite's spreadsheet program, supports up to 65,536 rows and works with both older and newer Excel documents. It opened existing spreadsheets better than any of the OpenOffice.org variants, but I still ran into some hitches. When I opened the mortgage calculator spreadsheet, it displayed the charts properly but didn't recalculate the charts when I changed the data. Even forcing a recalculation of the charts from the program menu didn't work. Also, PlanMaker doesn't open OpenDocument-format spreadsheets (.ods), though TextMaker opens word processing documents in the OpenDocument format (.odt).

SoftMaker Presentations had some similar file format hitches. PowerPoint 2007/2010 presentations (.pptx) are not yet supported, and neither are OpenDocument presentation files (.odp), but files in the older PowerPoint (.ppt) format load and run very well. In-slide animation and transitions also work. One key omission from Presentations is the lack of a feature like PowerPoint's synchronized multiscreen presentation mode. This allows a presenter to run the presentation on one display, such as a projector, while having his notes for the presentation visible on his notebook display. With Presentations, it is possible to run the slideshow on one display while manually browsing the notes for the presentation on another, but it's not quite the same.

All SoftMaker Office applications use a scripting language that's based on Microsoft's own VBA for application automation, and the suite includes an editor (BasicMaker) for creating and debugging scripts. Note that while SoftMaker's scripting language is similar to VBA, this doesn't mean existing Office documents with VBA automation can be used as-is. You'd have to export the code from those documents, reimport it into BasicMaker, and then modify it line by line. I did like the program's PDF exporter, which is on a par with OpenOffice.org's excellent tool.

SoftMaker Office did a consistently good job of being true to original documents, including corrections and markup.
SoftMaker Office did a consistently good job of being true to original documents, including corrections and markup.
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