ThinkFree steps into the fray

New ProductsTechnology IndustryBusinessProductivitySun Microsystems Inc.Apple Inc.

Despite the overwhelming dominance of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows in the computing realm, it can be avoided with such alternatives as the open-source Linux operating system and, of course, Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh.

But while you can duck Microsoft's operating system, avoiding the company's office productivity software is not so easy.

Microsoft Office -- which includes Word (word processor), Excel (spreadsheet) and PowerPoint (presentation) -- has become such a standard that even many Mac users find they need some measure of compatibility with it.

Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit has done a terrific job on the current Mac versions of the suite -- Microsoft Office 2001 for Mac OS 9 and Microsoft Office v.X for Mac OS X -- provided you can afford it.

The full versions of Office v.X and Office 2001 list for $499.95 each, though you can get them for $435.95 at such catalog resellers as MacMall and Club Mac.

But if you're in the market for a new Mac, you can get the OS X version of Office for just $199, as long as you buy by the Jan. 7 deadline. Few users, however, can benefit from such a limited offer.

Should you own an older version of Office, upgrading isn’t cheap, either: The upgrade packages list for $299.95 each, with the resellers discounting them to about $259. If you only need one Office component, you can save a little, however: Word, Excel or PowerPoint can be bought separately for about $350 each.

Faced with such prices, many Mac users have wrestled with either shelling out a princely sum for a Mac version of Microsoft Office or enduring the inconvenience of being unable to open Office files.

Apple's own productivity suite, AppleWorks 6, costs much less at $79 -- and Apple bundles it with iBook and iMac software for free -- but the program lacks the scope of Microsoft Office's features.

AppleWorks also includes file translators from MacLinkPlus, which allow it to open and save Word and Excel files, but can’t transfer much beyond the most basic formatting. And AppleWorks' presentation module is completely incompatible with PowerPoint.

Yet Mac users have a better, if lesser-known alternative: ThinkFree Office, from ThinkFree.com Corp., a company based Cupertino, Calif.

ThinkFree can open and create files in the three primary Microsoft Office formats. And because it is written in Sun Microsystems Inc.’s platform-independent Java programming language, ThinkFree can offer versions for Mac OS X, Mac OS 9, Windows and Linux -- every significant operating system in general use today.

Best of all, this software suite costs a mere $49.95.

If you need Microsoft Office compatibility -- and these days, nearly everyone does -- ThinkFree is worth a look. But before rushing out to get a copy, be aware that this package has several serious drawbacks.

As is common in Java-based software, ThinkFree can be sluggish -- though the severity of this problem depends on your Mac’s horsepower.

For instance, ThinkFree launched in 11 seconds on my 867 megahertz, G4-equipped tower Mac, but took 44 seconds to launch on my 500 megahertz, G3-powered iBook.

Once launched, the software is responsive, even on the iBook; while not as snappy as AppleWorks or Microsoft Office, it’s still quite usable.

Another issue with ThinkFree is that it can't handle much of the complex formatting embedded in files created in Microsoft Office, though it will preserve the content.

Here's a typical warning message encountered when opening a Word document: "Only text, but not the format will be converted in the following elements: footnotes, endnotes, bullets and numbered list, caption, cross-reference, index and tables, page numbers inserted in vertical positions, drop caps."

The most troublesome aspect of ThinkFree Office, however, is how closely the interface mimics the Windows version of Microsoft Office.

For example, when you access the "Open" file dialog box, the navigation controls are identical to Windows, except for OS X's "Aqua" appearance. It defaults to the Documents folder, so the user must hunt through disks and folders to find stored files.

Subsequent visits to the file box puts you right back at the Documents folder -- not in the last folder you visited.

ThinkFree’s font menu is another Windows-esque interface nightmare. When choosing a font, the user is presented with a box that displays the names of only 12 fonts.

The box is not resizable; rather, the user must click on a scroll bar or scroll arrows to navigate the list, a task that grows more cumbersome with the size of your font library.

But one silver lining is that people switching from Windows to the Mac will be right at home with the way ThinkFree Office works.

Mac users, however, will find it contradicts many Mac software rules of behavior. At least Microsoft has made its recent Mac versions of Office behave like Mac programs.

Aside from the frustrating interface, ThinkFree Office lacks many of the features found in the genuine article.

Microsoft Office is laden with hundreds of features that most people never use, so this isn't necessarily bad. But if a feature you rely on is missing, it could be a deal-breaker. In particular, ThinkFree Office doesn't do macros, upon which many people depend in their daily work.

Even with these flaws, ThinkFree has several significant points in its favor. It has more features than AppleWorks, and those it has more closely match those of Microsoft Office.

It's also compact. The program consumes fewer than 20 megabytes of hard-drive space, compared with 55 megabytes for AppleWorks and a staggering 500 megabytes for Microsoft Office.

And ThinkFree’s "Cyberdrive" is an extra not found even in Microsoft’s package. Included in the $49.95 price is a one-year subscription to your personal Cyberdrive, 20 megabytes of online storage space similar to the iDisk feature of Apple's .Mac Internet service.

A subscription also entitles you to upgrades to ThinkFree Office released during the year, as well as unlimited e-mail technology support.

At the end of your first year, you can continue to use the ThinkFree software without the online storage, or you can renew your Cyberdrive subscription at $30 for double the storage, 40 megabytes.

Subscribers can pay to increase the size of their Cyberdrive up to 1 gigabyte, which goes for $299 a year.

Is ThinkFree Office for you? If you absolutely need some of Microsoft Office’s more sophisticated features, probably not. But as a low-cost solution for basic Office compatibility, ThinkFree -- warts and all -- can't be beat.

ThinkFree Office is available as an online download from the company's Web site, www.thinkfree.com, which also serves as a free 30-day demo. A boxed retail package is sold at Apple's online store as well as most Mac catalog resellers.

For Macs running OS X 10.1.3 or higher, it requires at least a G3 processor, 128 megabytes of system memory and Java 1.31 or higher; for Macs running the classic Mac operating system, ThinkFree requires OS 8.6 or higher, a G3 processor, 64 megabytes of memory and Apple's Mac OS Runtime for Java (MRJ) version 2.2.3 or higher.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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