MS Office PuzzleWith my e-mail client chosen and my web browsers chosen, the next item on my list was to find a good office suite. The three main applications I needed in the suite were a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool. Those are the core apps that I use every month in some capacity, so regardless of what I chose had to have those pieces included in the suite.

The de facto standard for office applications is Microsoft Office and Microsoft has a mac version called mac: Office. Having already spent a great deal of money on a new laptop, accessories, etc., I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice and not just responding to a knee jerk reaction to buy mac: Office, so I decided to try a few other alternatives out there.

Just what options are out there for the Mac? There may be more, but the ones I looked at were OpenOffice, NeoOffice, iWork and mac: Office. I also took a short peek at what Google had to offer as well.

If Microsoft Office is the de facto standard for an office suite, the OpenOffice is the de facto alternative of MS Office. The office suite was originally put out as an open source solution from Sun called StarOffice. Sun ended up changing their minds regarding open source an decided to go a different direction a few years back. The good news was that they released the source code to the Open Source Community and thus OpenOffice was born.

I’ve played with OpenOffice off-and-on for several years. In fact, for about a year, that was the only office suite I used (I had lost my MS Office disks). With this previous experience in mind, I knew that OpenOffice (OO) could meet my needs from a functionality standpoint. Since OO can read and write the popular MS Office extensions, it was looking like a perfect fit.

Upon closer inspection though, I learned that in order to run OO on my MacBook, I would need to install X-11 on my Mac first. X-11 is a Unix based graphical environment. Installing X-11 isn’t a huge deal, but I didn’t like the idea of having a layer between me and the applications. It’s extra overhead for the laptop and it also breaks out of the traditional Mac experience. Listen to me, I sound like a Mac user already. The folks at OpenOffice did announce recently that they would be releasing a native Mac version, but that’s off in the future.

If it was my only alternative, then having to install X-11 would be just a requirement and not a determent. Thankfully, I had other options, so I decided to explore them. 🙂

The next suite I explored was NeoOffice, which is a “NeoOffice is a fully-featured set of office applications… based on the office suite, NeoOffice has integrated dozens of native Mac features and can import, edit, and exchange files with other popular office programs such as Microsoft Office.” In other words, I could get the same applications from OpenOffice without having to install X-11 and still enjoying the Mac user interface.

Well, you didn’t have to tell me twice! I immediately downloaded the suite (118MB) and installed the suite. Everything installed quickly and easily, but upon launching the word processor, I noticed that everything ran very slowly. NeoOffice was noticeably slower than the snappy application experience I was use to on my MacBook.

The answer was clear — NeoOffice was running under Rosetta and not native to the Intel version of Mac OS. The suite was still usable mind you, it just took a long time to initially launch. According to the web site, there is a Universal binary available, but it’s a beta version and there’s a charge of $50 to gain access to it. Note: I looked today and the Universal Binary is now free!

$50 is not a lot to pay, especially when you consider how much work the developers have put into it. I just don’t want to have to spend $50 on a beta version. For now, the current version of NeoOffice is running well enough for me. If it gets to be too much of a pain, I’ll pay the $50 to get access to the Universal Binary version.

mac: Office
With all the playing with MS Office alternatives, I decided to give the real mcoy a shot — mac: Office. As luck would have it, a 30-day trial was already installed on my MacBook, so all I had to do was launch it!

mac: Office 2004 comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage. Unfortunately, they all run under Rosetta because Microsoft hasn’t released a Universal Binary yet for Mac OS. They have promised to release one, but it isn’t expected to be available until some time in 2007. So, after launching MS Word, I found that I had about the same experience as I did in NeoOffice.

There is a great deal running where I can purchase Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition 2004 at CompUSA for $150 and there’s a $50 rebate which brings the price down to $100. Not too shabby. Now if you’re wondering about how I’m able to buy the Student edition without being enrolled in school, it seems that there’s no method of validation required at CompUSA. Not only that, but a good friend that works there says that he’s asked the Microsoft rep about it and he said, “just sell it.” Besides aren’t we ALL students of the world? 😉

$100 for the full version of mac: Office is a good deal, but with another version coming out next year, I would have to pay for an upgrade at that time. Since mac: Office is running under Rosetta, I’d really just be pre-paying for the opportunity to upgrade to the MacTel version, which is what I really want. No pricing has been announced, who knows how much the total cost would be.

Since I’m getting the same basic experience with NeoOffice for free, the decision seemed pretty clear. Just continue to use NeoOffice until mac: Office 2007 comes out, if that’s indeed the direction I want to go, at that point in time, in the future, yada yada yada.

Apple also has a office suite called iWork, but it only comes with two applications. Keynote: a presentation program and Pages: a word processor of sorts. Unfortunately, the MacBook only comes with a 30-day demo of the suite and not the full version, which is $80.

iWork is a Universal Binary, so it loads fast and runs fast, but there’s just not much there. Keynote is a much lauded and beloved application and justifiably so. It’s quite simply one of the most beautiful presentation packages I’ve worked with. Unfortunately, I have to work with Windows users on a regular basis with the presentations I create, so sticking within a MS Powerpoint frame work is still important. I would use Keynote for presentations for my company, but I don’t do a lot of presentations, I do proposals. So you’d think that Pages would fit the bill then right? Ummm, yeah… about that.

I’d compare Pages to MS Works, which is more of a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” The application is clearly geared towards a home user and not a business. If I wanted to create a basic newsletter, invitation, flyer, or brochure, then Pages would be just the ticket. But I tend to gravitate towards pro apps, like Photoshop, or Illustrator for things of that nature, so Pages isn’t that appealing to me.

If iWork offered a more complete office suite, I’d just all over it and work around the shortcomings of Pages, but since there’s no spreadsheet program, it’s really not a complete solution. After looking at it closely, $80 would really just be for Keynote. I think Keynote is completely worth the $80, but money is tight right now, so I’ll save up for it in the future. There are just too many other applications, including applications beyond an office suite, that I have to buy so I can’t splurge right now on a semi-used program.

Google Apps
After Google purchased the online word processor Writetly, everyone assumed that Google was going to release an online office suite. Writely hasn’t quite seen the light of day, but Google did release a spreadsheet program called Google Spreadsheets. So I wondered if I could find an online office suite that could fit the bill. Then reality set in. What if I’m not online?

As much as I like the idea of an online office suite, there are plenty of times where I’m not connected to the Internet. Such as right now. I’m writing this article outside The Coffee Beanery, ltd in the Cool Springs Galleria and I don’t have a Wi-Fi connection here. I dream of having the Treo 700p connected to my MacBook and be able to surf at EVDO speeds, but alas, I don’t have such a luxury. Even if I did, there would still be times that even that solution wouldn’t work. I’d be out of range, or on a plane, or something. I think an online office suite does fill a certain need, but just not one of mine at this point in time.

Windows Office Under Parallels
All throughout this journey, I did have an alternative idea in the back of my mind. I’m a subscriber to Microsoft’s Action Pack, so I have a copy of every Windows based application they make, which includes MS Office. In the event that I couldn’t find a Mac based solution, I always knew that I could use Parallels Desktop and do an end run around the problem.

Parallels Desktop allows me to install Windows XP into a virtual workspace on my Mac. It’s a brilliant piece of software and at $80, it’s a steal. I’ll write more about this program in a future article, but suffice to say that when the program launches, it boots into Windows XP just like a PC would. Granted, you have to have a full version of Windows XP in which it install it, but like I said, I have every application Microsoft currently markets under Windows. Otherwise, this would be a very expensive option.

First you’d have to buy Parallels, which is $80, then you’d have to buy a copy of Windows XP. XP Home runs $189 (as of this writing) and then I’d have to have a full version of Microsoft Office Standard Edition, which starts at $209 and goes up from there. Not exactly cost effective. I already have copies of everything but Parallels, so in my unique circumstance, it is the least expensive option for a commercial solution.

That being said, Parallels runs a wee bit slow on my limited 512MB of RAM. I plan on upgrading to 2GB in the near future, so if you’re considering this as a solution for you, bear that cost in mind as well.

My Decision
After running the gamut on all the possible office suite solutions I could find, the suite that best fit the bill for me was NeoOffice. It’s free, it works with MS Office native documents and provides a complete suite of applications. The only negative is that it’s not yet a Universal Binary, but for $50 I could get a beta version that does.

Since I need Parallels for other things besides running MS Office, I have that as my backup solution. I still yearn for more memory so that Parallels runs smoother and so that I can switch in and out of it faster, but it works perfectly well by itself.

So there you have it! I went in search of a solid office suite solution and ended up finding a one-two punch that gives me more than I thought was possible. Man, this MacBook rocks!