The Practical Mac

ThinkFree Office: Not Ready for Prime Time

- 2003.01.28 - Tip Jar

I want to like ThinkFree Office. I really do. I would like nothing more than to find an office suite that would be a Microsoft Office killer.

Unfortunately, ThinkFree Office ain't it.

When I first bought my refurbished 600 MHz iBook, my goal was to keep it Microsoft-free. I was very hopeful that I would be able to do this. Safari instantly allowed me to bypass Internet Explorer.

My theory was that AppleWorks would allow me to skip installation of Office. This proved to be true - until I sent a multi-sheet Excel spreadsheet home from work. When I opened it in AppleWorks, all the sheets were merged into one. I had forgotten one of the long-standing complaints about AppleWorks: The spreadsheet only supports one sheet per file.

Frustrated, but not to the point of installing Microsoft Office, I downloaded a free 30-day evaluation copy of ThinkFree Office. After installing it, I opened my Excel spreadsheet in ThinkFree Calc and was pleasantly surprised that it looked (and worked) just as it did in Excel.

Encouraged, I proceeded to ThinkFree Write. This is where I ran into disappointment.

I discovered numerous problems with the program itself, as well as its Microsoft Word compatibility. The first thing I noticed is that the Edit menu does not contain a "Paste Special" function. This is very frustrating if you do a lot of cutting and pasting. Every time you paste text into your document, you have to select it and change it to the document font. Using "Paste Special" allows you to paste information as unformatted text which immediately takes on the characteristic of your document font when it is pasted.

Speaking of cutting and pasting, the pasted text does not always maintain the formatting or font of the original either. I noticed it often mutated to Times 12. The formatting virtually never transferred. What is the most maddening about this is that every once in a while it worked correctly - despite the fact that I did my cutting and pasting the same way from and to the same documents every time!

As long as we are discussing fonts, if there is a way to change the default font from Times 12 to something else (please, anything!), I can't find it. I usually use either an Arial or Courier, and it is irritating to have to change it with every new document.

When you go to save your document, the document name is not highlighted in the "name" box. This is a minor complaint, but I have become accustomed to Word and AppleWorks highlighting the file name when you select "Save As." That way, if you want to rename the document you merely have to start typing the new name, and it automatically deletes the old name (or "untitled" if you are saving a document for the first time). With ThinkFree Write, you have to manually select the document name first.

While ThinkFree Write has a function that allow you to insert the date and/or time into your document, it does not seem to be able to have it automatically place the current date and/or time in the field every time you open the document. This is an especially useful function in template documents, such as letterhead and forms. Having to manually type in the date is not something we have had to do in word processing for 15 years!

Write is completely unable to handle anything but the most simple Word tables. I had a (very important) document (the final project for one of my MBA classes) with what I considered to be a relatively simple table in it: three columns wide and 10 rows long. Each cell contained a bulleted list.

While Write rendered the table properly, it had a tough time with the bulleted lists. Bullets disappeared at random. Even after manually restoring them, they would often just disappear later. What's worse, the problem only appeared after I edited the document and saved it in Write. When first opened in Write, everything appeared to be correct!

It was this final problem that forced me to install Microsoft Office. I was under a deadline to finish the project, and Write was severely hampering my ability to be productive. This is not acceptable for a word processing program. Their whole purpose is to make you more productive.

One positive thing I noticed is that Write displays the full path of the current document at the top of the document window by default.

ThinkFree Office also contains ThinkFree Show, a PowerPoint substitute. While all of my PowerPoint presentations opened properly in Show, I should note that my presentations are very basic and do not use any advanced PowerPoint functions. (This is primarily due to the fact that I don't know how to use the advanced PowerPoint functions.)

My Excel spreadsheets, while I would not consider them "highly advanced," could be classified as at least moderately complex. I did not have a single problem opening and editing any of them in Calc. Calc seems to be the most advanced and polished program in the ThinkFree suite. Write appears to need the most work.

The $49 price tag does make this a tempting alternative to Microsoft Office. If your word processing and presentation needs are modest and/or your primary requirement is a highly capable spreadsheet program, ThinkFree is the program for you. However, if you have a need to open and edit Word documents that are the least bit complex, this is probably not going to fit your needs.

I understand that ThinkFree is working hard to upgrade and improve the MS Office compatibility of its suite. As soon as there is a major revision, we will revisit ThinkFree and bring you our report.

I am cheering for ThinkFree. I would like nothing more than to write a column a few months down the road entitled "Bend Over and Kiss Your Suite Microsoft Good-bye!" With all the work ThinkFree has obviously put into their product to get it this far, they deserve to succeed. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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