Microsoft Office alternatives for Macs

I've decided to see if I can make it without biting the bullet and shelling out for MS Office for my business. So over the past few months I have been trying 4 alternative products: Apple's iWork, ThinkFree Premium, and NeoOffice. They all offer more or less the same tools as the standard Microsoft Office package, and as I am not in need of any database functionality, I based my trials primarily on MS Word and Excel equivalents, with a tiny bit of Powerpoint-y presentation work thrown in.

The first product I tried was iWork, but I quickly encountered problems when trying to send files back & forth to clients who use Word. When converting from Pages to .doc format, things went really weird with the formatting of text, especially tables. Although the interface and default templates were the prettiest of all of them (which is to be expected from Apple), it was all style not enough substance. Workflows in all the iWork products also took some getting used to, as the tools and steps were very different from MS Office. In some cases they were more intuitive, in others less so. I found Numbers really fiddly to work with, I had trouble getting charts & graphs to work as expected, and some key formulas were missing. The real star of the iWork show in my opinion is Keynote. This beats Powerpoint hands-down. It's easy to create slick, polished presentations, and some cool features - like the instant alpha for removing backgrounds from photos, and an awesome built-in image/effects editor - really set it apart. If and when I need to make more presentations, I will be shelling out the dosh for iWork; the price is worth it just for Keynote alone. was next, but their Mac offering was so unwieldy and frustrating, I could quickly see why the folks at Planamesa started the Neo Office project, which is another open source offering based on the OpenOffice suite. So I switched over to Neo Office, and things were instantly better. Neo Office isn't going to win any beauty contests, but it seems to be a solid product and I haven't yet experienced any major problems. I particularly like the ease in exporting to PDF from Writer, and out of all the office products on trial, Neo Office had the best compatibility with MS Word in my experience. The downfall seems to be their Powerpoint equivalent, which is ironically named Impress. I was wholly un-impressed, especially with the 1980s templates that make Microsoft's cheese-fest look positively appetising.

But the most interesting package I tried out has to be ThinkFree. I got the ThinkFree Premium suite free when I spoke at Office 2.0, and although it's a beta product, it shows real potential. The difference between ThinkFree and the others is that online/offline file synchronisation and storage is a core part of the product. This means you can access and back-up your files online, which is pretty damn handy. I did have some problems getting everything set up properly, but maybe that's because I got a freebie. The big downside for me was the stability side of things, and ThinkFree seemed to run much slower than most of the other products I tried. Perhaps when it moves out of beta things will improve, and I think ThinkFree is definitely one to watch.

The winner?

For now, I'm sticking with Neo Office. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and once you get used to the workflows, it's all pretty intuitive. It's pretty basic, but that's all I need right now. I like the idea of open source as a concept, and this is one of the movement's true success stories so far. Yes, you can use it for free, but I like it so much I've made a donation to the project.

In future if I have some more cash to spare, I may consider iWork, even if it's just to play around with Keynote more - it seems like fun even for non-work projects. And I have also kept my ThinkFree account active just in case. In a year's time, who knows - maybe my opinion will have changed as the products grow and develop.