Computing for the beginner: Free Alternatives to Microsoft

By Colin Cartmell-Browne

ONE of the biggest complaints about owning a computer is the cost of software.

For example, at the time of writing, the cheapest copy of the Microsoft Office suite of applications (Word, Excel etc) costs £55 for a one year user licence. At the end of the 12 months you need to re-subscribe.

But do you really need Microsoft? Most home users don’t need all the functionality of Microsoft Office, they only produce the odd typed document, written letter or, at a push, produce a spreadsheet of their personal finances.

The cost of Microsoft Office seems quite steep in this situation. The good news is that you can get away with paying absolutely nothing, and still fulfil your computing needs.

OpenOffice

OpenOffice is a totally free suite of programs for both PC and Mac produced by Apache. It can be downloaded from www.openoffice.org/download/index.html.

You just need to chose the right operating system and ‘British English’ before clicking download and follow the on-screen instructions (see figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1

OpenOffice offers a range of applications including a word processor; spreadsheet and presentation (think PowerPoint).

The one main difference between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office is the use of single ‘launch’ window which allows users to create any of the required document types from a single window rather than load up separate applications (although some versions of Microsoft office have this function) (see figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

The word processing and spreadsheet program are very similar to the Microsoft equivalent with only minor, mostly cosmetic, differences. Anyone who has ever used Microsoft will find them easy to use.

The other features of OpenOffice such as presentation and database are very different from the offerings from Microsoft and will require some playing around with before users are likely to confident enough to get the results they want in their work.

Google Docs

Google Docs, as the name suggests, is part of a suite of programs from the search engine giant. Other programs include Slides (for presentations) and Sheets (spreadsheets).

You will need a Gmail account (Google email) before you can download the applications but its pretty straight forward to do this. Just go to www.gmail.com; click on ‘Create Account’ and fill in the information (see figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Once done go to www.google.co.uk/docs/about/ and click on ‘Go to Google Docs’ in the middle of the screen (or Slides of Sheets depending on what you want to do). Once loaded you can select a template for your document or select a blank page.

Google Docs doesn’t seem to have quite as many features as Word but the layout is pretty clear and, personally, I find it very easy to find what I need. Part of the problem with Word is the ‘cluttered’ workspace with just too many different options. In that respect Google Docs is much cleaner!

The unique selling point of doing things the Google way is the ability to share documents with friends or colleagues.
With that in mind a lot of what Google does requires an internet connection. Documents are usually saved onto Google Drive (an online storage place accessed via a separate application) although they can be downloaded onto your own PC. For most users the requirement of an internet connection shouldn’t be a problem unless you happen to live in a place with poor internet speeds and want to work on a very large document. Having said that it is possible to set up Google Drive so that you can work ‘offline’ and save the files to your own computer. Google support has information on how to do that here: support.google.com/docs/answer/2375012?hl=en

WordPad

Both OpenOffice and Google Docs aim to provide a complete alternative to Microsoft Office and as such have much the same features. At the other end of the scale is WordPad, also published by Microsoft. WordPad is very much a stripped down word processor. It has considerable fewer features than OpenOffice and Google Docs but is still capable of producing a range of documents and importing images, spreadsheets etc from other programs. The best thing about WordPad is that you PC should already have it installed as it usually comes with the Windows operating system.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many other, free, word processors available but unfortunately we don’t have the space to list them all here.

If none of the programs discussed provide what you are looking for then try using Google to search for ‘Free alternatives to word’ or similar and see if any of those suggestions seem worth taking a look.

Just remember:

  1. Check that the free version is truly free and not either an advertisement filled program which become unusable due to pop up ads
  2. That the free version is not a limited use program that stops after a certain number of days
  3. Mostly importantly that you download the program from a reputable website

If you are stuck with a particular aspect of computing then get in touch.

You can email me at colin@egremont2day.co.uk