Choosing the best office suite: word processors, spreadsheets, database applications and more: Buyer’s Guide review

How to get the best deal on your productivity software
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One of the most common reasons for owning a computer – besides gaming – is for productivity. Whether you’re a student, a home user, a business user, or just an avid letter-writer, the chances are that the first thing you’ll install on a new computer is a productivity suite – more commonly known as an office suite. But what each suite contains and how it works – as well as your own personal needs – mean that investing in office software isn’t always the easiest task. IT Reviews is here to help guide you through the task.

What is a productivity suite?
A productivity suite is a collection of applications that are designed to work together in harmony, with an application for each common office-related task: a word processor, which allows you to create documents ranging from simple letters to complex reports using a variety of fonts and embedded graphics; a spreadsheet, which makes it easy to deal with numbers, laying out your accounts or creating graphs and equations; a presentation app, for creating slideshows to easily share information; and a database, which can be used as anything from a personal address book to a stock tracking system.

Additional features
Some productivity suites include a few extras: a drawing app, for creating high-quality vector artwork that doesn’t pixelate when you scale it up; a photo editor, for tweaking images before they’re embedded in other parts of the software; a formula editor, for those who need to share complex mathematical ideas; and a desk-top publishing app, designed to make it easy to create magazine-style layouts.

When you’re looking at buying a productivity suite – or upgrading from the basic applications like WordPad that may have been supplied with your computer as part of Windows – the chances are the first place you’ll look is Microsoft. The company’s Microsoft Office suite has long been the de facto standard in productivity packages, to the point where its applications have entered the general lexicon – you’ll often find people asking for a Word document or an Excel file, for example.

Office 2010 icons
Many of Microsoft’s Office suite programs have become household names, synonymous with their function.

Microsoft Office
There’s no denying that Microsoft Office is a great package, and an excellent choice for home users. One of the major advantages of getting the suite, which is available for both Windows and Mac, is that of compatibility and familiarity. If you use a computer at school or work, the chances are you’re already using Microsoft Office. Files saved at home will work elsewhere, too – and there shouldn’t be any problems with cross-compatibility between different versions.

Student Edition
Microsoft Office is a great package, but it can be expensive. The high price can be offset by families, though, thanks to the company’s introduction of a Home and Student Edition which contains the basics – Word, the suite’s word processor, Excel spreadseet, and Outlook communications packages – for under £100. the discount is available to any family with a member in full-time education. Full-time students in higher education can claim the Office Professional Academic version for just £49.99.

Microsoft Office Home Student 2010
Student discounts are available on Microsoft’s Office suite.

Careful choices
If you’re not opting for the Student edition, it’s important to keep your wits about you when buying Microsoft Office. Although each component is available as a stand-alone application, most choose to buy one of the bundles – and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up missing out on getting the application you really need.

If you want Microsoft’s Publisher desk-top publishing package, for example, or the Access database application, you’ll need to buy one of the higher-end bundles – and they come with a corresponding rise in price.

For those who aren’t convinced that Microsoft Office is for them – or who simply can’t afford it – there are plenty of options out there. Microsoft recently launched a web-based version, which allows users to access their documents in an Office-like interface in any web browser – but it’s far from the only company to do so.

For many users, the power of a fully-fledged office suite goes unused. A new breed of productivity apps has emerged to cover most eventualities – and it doesn’t even require you to install any software. Instead, the applications are accessed from any web browser.

While companies like Microsoft have tried to get involved in the web-based productivity market, there are really only two major players: Google, which has its Google Docs service, and Zoho, with its similarly-named Zoho Docs.

Free versions
Both services are pretty similar: for light use, they’re completely free – and run entirely within your web browser. Access from tablets and smartphones is also included – and because documents are stored on each company’s servers, they’re accessible from anywhere in the world and automatically backed up. If your PC fails, your files are still there – and you can hop on any other Internet-connected PC to access them.

The online nature of Google and Zoho Docs offers other advantages, too: multiple users can access the same document and collaborate on work, while files can be shared quickly and easily. Files created in either suite can also be downloaded in a range of formats for offline use – including formats that are compatible with Microsoft Office.

Users with heavier requirements can sign up to paid-for versions of the services, which bring features such as increased storage space for larger files – but most home users will find the free offerings offer plenty of capacity. There are, however, disadvantages to web-based productivity suites.

The downside
The biggest is the lack of off-line access: because your files, and the applications themselves, are stored on the Internet, if your connection goes down, you lose access to them – and you’ll be sat twiddling your thumbs until your connection comes back up. The apps also lack some of the more sophisticated features of their larger, off-line cousins – and while that’s not important for most users, power users may find them restrictive.

You don’t have to use a web-based productivity suite to the exclusion of a locally installedd variant, of course – you can combine both, using the web-based version when collaboration or document sharing is required, and the off-line version when your connection goes down or you need more power.

For those of you who like the sound of an off-line office suite that’s installed on your PC – but who are looking for something closer to the cost-free web-based model than Microsoft’s paid-for products – there’s good news: open-source office suites are available for download on almost all platforms, and they don’t have to cost you a penny.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is Created by Sun Microsystems after it purchased the rights to a closed-source productivity suite called StarOffice, the project has created one of the most popular packages around.

OpenOffice 3
For those who can’t afford – or prefer not to use – Microsoft’s product, OpenOffice is a great choice.

For each application in Microsoft Office, there is an OpenOffice equivalent: for Word, there’s Writer; for Excel, there’s Calc; for PowerPoint, there’s Impress; and for Access there’s Base. The suite even includes its own vector drawing application, Draw – and an optional formula editor for mathematical documentation.

As an open-source project, OpenOffice has one major advantage over Microsoft’s equivalent: freedom. Users are able to tweak the source code, should they so desire, and the package itself is completely free to download and use – even for businesses.

Minor gripes
There are complaints to be made about OpenOffice, however. The user interface, while functional, lacks the elegance of recent Microsoft Office versions – and can be confusing for newcomers. A spin-off project, dubbed LibreOffice, improves upon this with some new code – but it still lags behind its paid-for equivalent.

For those looking to gain access to a powerful productivity suite without having to shell out a fortune, OpenOffice and LibreOffice come highly recommended – but new users should be warned that there’s a learning curve ahead.

Business users are, mostly, confined to using Microsoft’s Office suite. The enterprise-grade editions come with a raft of features that ensure it will remain the pre-eminent business productivity suite for years to come – and, ignoring compatibility, the main reason is simple: Outlook.

Microsoft’s messaging and calendaring client, Outlook is popular with home users – largely thanks to the introduction of Outlook Express, a free version which shipped with earlier versions of Windows before being replaced with Windows Live Mail. In business, however, it really comes into its own.

When coupled with a Microsoft Exchange server, Outlook allows users to easily share files, folders, calendars, and e-mails – and remains one of the most popular messaging platforms around today.

The flexibility and power of the other Office applications are also popular among business users, with PowerPoint perhaps the most well known – although, given that the package is often associated with the phrase “death by PowerPoint”, where users are faced with interminable meetings staring at slideshows created in the product, that’s not always a good thing.

Alternatives do exist, however – with IBM’s Lotus Symphony gaining ground. Although it only covers word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations – missing the communications and database features of Microsoft Office – it comes at the right price: free. While less popular than open-source equivalents such as LibreOffice, Lotus Symphony is worth investigating if you’re looking for something with the support of a major multinational corporation behind it.