Is OpenOffice.org as good as it's cracked up to be? I am heading canary-like to mine the depths of this free suite alternative. If I report back to you in short, desperate breaths that the suite is impossibly difficult to use, you will know better than to send in more miners. But if I come out of this experiment alive and well, you may just have to ask yourself, as I asked myself, "Why not give it a try?" (See Trouble Me.)
This is the second article in a series about OpenOffice.org, an open source office productivity suite purportedly replete with components, features and functions comparable to and compatible with Microsoft Office and other proprietary alternatives. If you read the first article, you should be able to answer these basic questions about OpenOffice.org: What is it? Where can you get it? Who uses it? How much does it cost to use it? And why bother trying? (See novell.com/connectionmagazine/2006/10/tech_talk_3.html.)
In this article, I share my first impressions of OpenOffice.org Writer (OO Writer), the suite's word processor. Having fiddled around with OO Writer for about one week now, I feel qualified to report that OO Writer looks and feels like a word processor should and is equipped with the features that I use most often. At this point, I feel comfortable recommending OO Writer to close friends and family members; however, before I can, or cannot, recommend it to you for use in a small, medium or large business, I'll have to run a few more tests. (See So What's Coming Up Next?)
Launching OO Writer for the first time from a Windows workstation is predictably straightforward. Click OpenOffice.org Writer in the OpenOffice folder among All Programs. The first time you launch it, OO Writer takes a little longer to load than it takes forever after. Part of the delay can be attributed to the fact that the program creates a shortcut to OO Writer, which is thereafter accessible from the Start button.
Checking out the Toolbars
The first time I opened OO Writer, I was nonplussed. The program doesn't look like a radical change from what I'm used to nor does it look like an exact replica. What it looks like is comfortably familiar, albeit slightly less colorful. (See Figure 1.)
I was unaccustomed to some of the icons in the toolbar, although it took only a few moments to locate those I'll use regularly. For me, regulars include Left, Center and Right Align; Justify; Numbering; Bullets; Indent Left and Right; Highlight; Zoom; and Undo. (At this writing, a few icons still taunt me with their functions. I'll fill you in on these in future articles.) You can easily customize, hide, add and remove buttons from these toolbars using the button checklists. (See Figure 2.)
I was quite surprised and very pleased to discover a button that enables you to export files as .pdf documents. If you have Microsoft Word 2003 and paid for the .pdf export add-in (as I did), then you are probably dependent on this handy function. If so, you should be happy to hear that with OO Writer, exporting files to .pdf is a default function.
More important, I prefer the way OO Writer handles this export function. In any OO Writer file, click the Export to PDF button, after which the conversion occurs so quickly that you might mistakenly assume (as I did the first time) that something has gone wrong. In a blink, your file is exported to .pdf, and nothing else changes. You remain in OO Writer, ready to go.
Checking Out the Status Bar
The sides of the OO Writer screen include a ruler down the left of the screen and a scroll bar with browse buttons (in the lower corner) on the right, just as you are accustomed to seeing.
Overall, the bottom of the OO Writer screen is a bit cleaner than the bottom of an MS Word screen. For example, OO Writer does not have the view buttons that you find in the lower left corner of MS Word. But you can change to the other views in OO Writer from the top menu. I have to admit that I don't miss those buttons because I never used them. (The truth is that I only noticed that they were there when I was comparing the OO Writer and MS Word screens.)
The OO Writer Status Bar includes basic information and a few buttons. (See Figure 3.) Here you can tell at a glance what page you are on and how many pages total are in your document and whether or not you have made unsaved changes to the document (indicated by an asterisk in the right button). The other buttons across the bottom enable you to:
- change or edit the page style
- reduce or enlarge the screen display
- toggle between Insert and Overwrite
- choose your selection mode
- edit your hyperlinks
- add, view or remove digital signatures to your document.
The selection modes include Standard, Extended and Add. In Standard mode, as you would expect, you double click and drag to cover the areas of text you want to highlight. If you single click anywhere, your cursor simply moves to that place in your document.
In Extend mode, every time and everywhere you click, it extends (or crops) the selection of text to the place where you click highlighting (or unhighlighting) chunks of nearby text. (See Figure 4.) To resume writing, simply toggle back to Standard mode. This function is very useful as long as you understand that you control it. If you don't know how to make the incessant highlighting stop, you might find yourself muttering under your breath and wildly clicking away until you finally give up, exit and reopen the document, just so you can click here and there without that black shadow tailing your cursor. (Not that I'm speaking from experience. I'm just saying that I can imagine being annoyed by this feature if I clicked it by accident and didn't know how to escape it.)
In Add mode, my favorite (and not available in MS Word), you don't have to drag your cursor without releasing it and hope (frequently in vain) that it will scroll through and highlight pages worth of text. Instead, you can drag a while, rest your finger, then start highlighting again when you're ready.
In Add mode, OO Writer continues to add highlighted areas of text, and these areas don't have to be sequential, or contiguous, to use computer speak. I can quad-click one paragraph, then scroll (without highlighting) to a new page and drag to highlight several paragraphs. (See The Quad-Click Difference.)
Or, suppose you want to change the format of certain words or phrases throughout the document; just select all the desired words or phrases using the Add mode and either manually change the formatting using the Format menu, or simply apply a style to your multiple selections. Now that's cool and a real time saver.
Checking Out the Pull-Down Menus
You will find the usual assortment of pull-down menus across the top of the OO Writer screen: File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Table, Tools, Window and Help. (See Figure 5.)
Under File, you predictably find New, Open, Close, Save, Save As, Versions, Properties, Page Preview, Print and Exit. You find a few surprises as well, including Wizards and Templates. (You will learn more about Wizards and Templates in future articles, beginning with next month's article.) OO Writer also displays recently-opened files (File-Recent Documents).
Note: Versions prior to 2.0.4 had a glitch in which recent was a relative term. If you turned off your machine and turned it on again, its apparent short-term memory loss erases any recollection of the files you had open earlier that same day. (See Blitches and Gloopers.)
You also find under File some fun new features, like Reload. (See Figure 5.) The Reload feature appeals to those of us who open up a document and tackle it with terrific fervor, only to realize moments into our attack that we prefer, without question, the original version that we have now tainted. When this happens in OO Writer, Reload comes to the rescue. After you click it, Reload asks "Cancel all changes?" If I click No, nothing happens. If I click Yes, my original document is back. (Of course, if you save your changes before you Reload, you are out of luck.)
Window and Help are pretty basic. Window displays a list of the OO files you have open and enables you to easily move between them; however, you have only two options in terms of manipulating the windows displaying your files: New Window and Close Window. Click New Window, and OO Writer opens a new window that displays the same document that you're currently working on, like in MS Word. Any changes you make in one window appear automatically in the other. This gives you the same functionality as the Split command in MS Word. It allows you to see multiple parts of a document simultaneously and drag and drop edits between them. The only difference? You arrange the windows the way you want them instead of the program arranging them.
For example, suppose you're working on a long document and want to duplicate a portion of it at the end. If you really want to see and compare the two places in the document instead of simply copying and pasting the section, just click Window | New Window. Then tile the two document windows on your screen and Ctrl+drag your text from the one and drop it at the desired position on the other. Both windows update showing the change. If you click File-Close, both instances of the file close. If you want to close only one instance of the file, use Close Window.
Help is equally basic. From here, you can launch OpenOffice.org Help, register the product, check for updates and access online support. You can also click What's This? for explanations of buttons or areas on the screen about which you have more questions.
The remaining options—Edit, View, Insert, Format, Table and Tools—include far too many features and functions for me to list and describe here. Well, I could—but doing so would bore mercilessly. Plan to learn more about these options in future articles.
What's Coming Up Next?
In future articles, I'll select one or more tasks and walk you through the features and functions that OO Writer offers to help you, or your users, complete the task.
For example, I plan to test and share my opinion regarding a few claims that OpenOffice.org has made about OO Writer. OpenOffice.org claims that you can use OO Writer for "anything from writing a quick letter to producing an entire book with embedded illustrations, cross-references, tables of contents, indexes, bibliographies." The organization's Web site further claims that "Writer is powerful enough to tackle desktop publishing tasks, such as creating multi-column newsletters [and] brochures." My question is, "Oh really?"
Just how easy is it to create a letter—a fancy letter that would wow a prospective client? I'll create a few and let you know. How does OO Writer simplify the task of embedding illustrations and of creating newsletters? I'll create a newsletter with a few illustrations and let you know. (I also plan to distribute this newsletter to my homeowners' association members via e-mail and will let you know how that goes.) How practical is it to use OO Writer to cross reference data and create tables of contents, indexes and bibliographies? Naturally, I can't spit out a novel between now and next month to truly test these functions, but I can import a document large enough to test the practicality of these claims.
Until next time then, keep an open mind, and I promise that I will too.