OpenOffice.org 2.0’s A Suite Little Rock ‘n Ruler

So, you have a pirated copy of Microsoft Office. Never mind which version. Oh! You don’t, well never mind. If you really want a copy and are willing to compromise, you could download a pirated version via Torrents, on a CD sourced from a friend or direct from your somewhat-friendly neighborhood pirate. Or you could acquire a absolutely legal and powerful alternative: OpenOffice.org 2.0 available (in separate versions) for MacOS (OpenOffice.org 1.1.2 only), Windows and Unix/Linux/Solaris.

OpenOffice.org 2.0 is the first office suite to support for the OpenDocument OASIS Standard. This XML file format can be used regardless of vendor specific lock-ins or licensing terms/fees. The file is actually a compressed collection of XML (for data) and CSS (style sheet; for formatting) files. Resulting in a highly-optimized file size. For example a 19 kB OTT file actually contains 41 kB of data. And in a pinch you can access the file contents using an archive program like 7Zip or UnZip when you don’t have access to OOO2 but need to edit a file.

OpenOffice.org 2.0 is also available in multiple languages including the Indian languages like Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. And the new version also imports Microsoft Office dictionary and auto-correct data.

Did you know that 80% of users use under 20% of available features? I’m sure many Word users have never mail-merged. Or written their own macros. Ditto for Excel. Have you ever used a Pivot Table?

The learning curve is non-existent. Writer like Word, as does Calc (Excel) and Impress (Powerpoint). And in the new release, the Base database goes beyond what Microsoft Access is capable of. OpenOffice.org 2.0 also natively supports the scalable vector graphics (SVG) format even as Microsoft Office 2003 doesn’t (you need to install its separate Visio component). OpenOffice.org 2.0 also lets you directly export to PDF. This feature, first introduced in OpenOffice.org 1.1, has now been enhanced and you can not only customize the document quality and size, but also include links, indexes, fillable forms, thumb nails and transition effects!

OpenOffice.org 2 is absolutely free. And the only cost you’ll ever incur would be on connect charges to download the 75 MB setup file. You can download it by FTP, BitTorrent or order it on a CD-ROM.

Writer is a true word-processor. That does double-duty as an HTML editor. If you need to use a spread sheet the suite opens a new window for Calc, et cetera for every other component. Writer’s default view is in-page editing with a choice of online layout. The window is remarkably like Word but without useless frills and toolbars. There’s also a context-sensitive Help Agent that’s less intrusive than animated on-screen paper clips and barking dogs. The help system is well organized.

For this preview (and to save me later bother) I setup a special custom style for header, leader, sub-heads and body. This made applying formatting very easy. Writer might lack Word’s context-menu enabled formatting controls. But each style includes up to 12 different options including text flow, effects, numbering, indents and drop caps. To apply repeat formatting use Fill Format which works like Word’s Format Painter.

The Direct Cursor lets you enter text or an object anywhere on the page. I also liked the predictive text option that guesses what I was trying to type and auto-completes the word. Its a real boon for touch typists who look at the screen instead of the keyboard (unlike this writer who’s fixes a death like stare downwards :))

Writer as a whole is optimized for use with a mouse. Keyboard shortcuts do exist and are often identical to Word with a few exceptions. I recommend printing out a copy of the Keyboard Shortcuts until you are completely familiar with the package.

There’s both a spell checker and thesaurus. The speller detects and indicate misspellings on-the-fly with a wavy red underline to indicate mis-spelled words. Yet it often tripped while suggesting correct alternates. Oddly disabling the auto-spell check and using manual spell checking resulted in better detection and correction. The new Thesaurus offers a comprehensive word list. But its application is clunky. There’s no separate Grammar check. You have to highlight the word and then activate the Thesaurus.

Calc too is much like Excel and supports power features like pivot tables (called DataPilot), goal-seek, auto-sum, and more. Here again the learning curve is minimal. I was able to open my Excel documents and get up and running in seconds. Graphics-wise there are three separate components of presentation graphics, vector drawing and gallery (for themes, clip art, et al). Impress (presentations) is equal to PowerPoint feature-wise and in ease-of-use. The only difference is that the slide navigation controls move from bottom-left to top-right of screen. But modifying Impress’ slide master is not as easy as in Powerpoint.

There are still a fair number of non-intuitive features. My version by default ‘forgot’ to add an automatic extension to new files created. Thereby causing Windows to get all confused about which application to associate with the file! The change in the default document and template formats means that while you can use older add-ins, you need to import them into the new format used. Besides it’s unfair to compare a free product like OpenOffice.org whose gestation period (overall including the paid Sun StarOffice versions) at 5 years is less than the decade plus that Microsoft Office has taken to evolve. Overall OpenOffice.org 2 scores on cost (zero vs. Microsoft Office’s Rs 35,000+ in India), overall easy of use and compatibility with other Suites. So what are you waiting for. Get your copy today.

Another significant new release is Firefox 1.5 RC1 which is definitely worth a look. However by default many extensions and themes designed for the production Firefox 1.0.7 version are incompatible. This is not an intentional cause of the browser upgrade. But to help you out, Firefox 1.5 RC1 can detect if an extension is compatible or not. Or if you like living a bit dangerously you can download the Nightly Tester extension designed for testers that forces older extensions to work with the new browser.

The built-in automated update feature for extensions has been expanded to include the browser core. Which is good news because you no longer have to download an entire build version (average 5 MB) while upgrading. A step that will also (hopefully) impose less stress on Mozilla’s FTP servers. Firefox 1.5 now supports an Opera-like Back and Forward navigation system that opens previously-viewed pages faster. Tabs can also be reordered using drag ‘n drop without the TabBrowser extension installed. Popup blocking too has been improved. And by default no software (extension, theme) will be installed unless it’s from an approved source (updates.mozilla.org and addons.mozilla.org are the preferred defaults).

The new Clear Private Data lets you quickly delete personal data. And the search engine list now supports Answers.com. If the included search engines aren’t topical enough for you, use MyCroft to add new search engines. Other enhancements include more descriptive error pages, a redesigned options menu, auto-RSS discovery. As well as enhanced accessibility with support for DHTML and assistive technologies. The included Web site Reporter (that debuted with Firefox 1.0.6) helps track sites that don’t work with Firefox. And SVG, CSS 2, CSS 3 and JavaScript 1.6 support is now part of the standard release. Read the Unofficial Changelog for a detailed list of changes.

FasterFox tweaks Firefox network and page renderingA new extension, FasterFox, really improves browser rendering. It prefetches Links by recycling idle bandwidth to silently loading and caching all links on a browsed page. It also tweaks simultaneous connections, pipelining, cache, and DNS cache. As well as page and image rendering settings like initial paint delay. A small Page Load Timer listing how fast a page rendered is displayed in the bottom-right side of the status bar. The extension also blocks popups initiated by Flash files.

Another great extension is FlashGot (also works with Thunderbird) to handle single, all and selective content downloads. It can be your single-point interface with a wide variety of external download managers like FFlashGet, Free Download Manager, Fresh Download, GetRight, HiDownload, iGetter, InstantGet, Internet Download Accelerator, Internet Download Manager, LeechGet, Mass Downloader, Net Transport, NetAnts, ReGet, Star Downloader, TrueDownloader and WellGet (Windows). Aria, cURL, Downloader 4 X, GNOME Gwget and KDE KGet (Linux / FreeBSD / other Unix-like OSes). And iGetter and Speed Download 3 (Mac OS X).

And with this post, let me introduce you to my new web-based Feedback Form. It’s powered by a neat AJAX script. AJAX is a technology popularized by GMail that uses a combination of XML and JavaScript to reduce server-side calls.

Stay Safe. Until the next time then.

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