I’ve been aware of Softmaker for a while now, as they were one of the few developers to make an real investment in porting their software to the Sharp Zaurus platform. Their main product, Softmaker Office, has been available for Windows and Linux for some time and is touted as the best alternative to Microsoft Office. What prevented me from trying out is the price tag associated with the product. When I saw they’d released a freeware version of their flagship suite – FreeOffice, I had to give it a try.
Once you register, you receive an e-mail prompting you to download the most recent version (in either RPM, DEB, or TGZ format). Installation of the single package is straightforward using the GUI package manager of your choice, or with the following command:
sudo dpkg -i softmaker-freeoffice_676-01_i386.deb
Once installed, you’ll find their icons in the Dash or menu for your desktop (they appeared under the “Office” menu in KDE). The applications are TextMaker (word processor), PlanMaker (spreadsheet), and Presentations.
Each of the apps has a familiar, menu-and-toolbar layout that should feel familiar to users of MS Office, Libre/OpenOffice, and most other suites. The menus are well organized, and should present little difficulty after some small adjustment (as would occur anytime you’re switching applications).
The below screenshots demonstrate the UI’s for the TextMaker, PlanMaker, and Presentations applications.
The features of the programs in FreeOffice line up well with other packages available for Linux users. To summarize:
- TextMaker: It’s easy to create formatted documents, and objects such as images, tables, indexes/tables of contents, and fields. A Track Changes feature is included. TextMaker also offers an “Outline” view, which allows you to expand and collapse large sections of text (as defined by heading styles) for easy browsing – think of it as code folding for the word processor.
- PlanMaker: With over 330 functions, PlanMaker is as much spreadsheet as most users need. One interesting feature is “Object Mode,” which changes the toolbar to allow for easy insertion of text or image frames.
- Presentations: Likewise, the Presentations app will probably suffice for most users, with a selection of transitions and auto-shapes on par with those available in other programs. (Do that many people use a lightning bolt in their slideshows?)
Across the applications, the only real lacking feature is the ability to insert linked content from other documents (such as part of a spreadsheet within a text document). This “OLE”-style embedding is only available in the Windows version of the software. In addition, compared to the paid version, FreeOffice lacks some high-level features, most notably spellcheck dictionaries.
It’s easy to share documents with other Linux programs, provided you save spreadsheets and presentations in a Microsoft format. In addition, PlanMaker and Presentations only support the older, binary (.XLS/.PPT) file format. However, TextMaker does open both .DOCX as well as ODT files (but it will only save ODT).
Softmaker prides itself on maintaining compatibility with the file types it does support. A simple test with all three programs show this is the case in TextMaker and PlanMaker; Presentations showed some slight placement and font differences, but as is always the case, you milage may vary in exchanging files with other programs.
Download for good cause
For every copy of FreeOffice downloaded, SoftMaker SoftMaker donates € 0.10 to development and charity projects on betterplace.org. So if you are keen to help out with the charity, all you have to do is to download the software and test it out. If you like it, you can continue to use it, if not, just remove it.
For the casual office suite user, FreeOffice is a fine alternative to the larger and more complex Libre/OpenOffice, and offers a feature set that meets or exceeds other options such as Calligra or Abiword/Gnumeric. It runs light, as well, so for lower-resource machines, it’s a fine choice. Lastly, it’s cross-platform (Windows/Linux), and the company has also released companion Android apps. And right now it benefits charity… so what are you waiting for?
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