The Best Free Microsoft Office Alternative

Last Updated Aug 22, 2011 10:38 AM EDT

You don't need Microsoft Office. Seriously, you don't. That may be a hard reality to grasp, especially if you've spent the last decade or so using one version or another, but it's true. There are several perfectly capable alternatives out there -- some of which are free.

You probably think I'm going to chat up, the poster child for free Office replacements. But I'm actually talking about SoftMaker Office 2008, a slightly older version of a commercial product (SoftMaker Office 2010) that the developers now offer free of charge.

How brilliant is that on SoftMaker's part? After all, older/discontinued programs probably generate little revenue for them, so why not give them away? I'd love to see other software devs follow suit.

OK, but is SoftMaker Office 2008 any good? No -- it's great. Its TextMaker, PlanMaker, and Presentations modules closely resemble the Office 2003 versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, both in looks and functionality. (That's especially good news for anyone who doesn't much care for Microsoft's Ribbon interface, which debuted in Office 2007.)

Any Office surrogate worth its weight must be file-compatible with both current and past Microsoft formats. Although SoftMaker Office 2008 doesn't expressly list the newer DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX formats, I was able to open several samples of each -- all formatting perfectly preserved. Update: This is not correct. I opened what I thought were newer files, but they were indeed the older formats: DOC, XLS, etc. My apologies for the mistake.
Another perk: This suite is fast. Unlike Lotus Symphony, which until recently was my go-to free office suite, and Microsoft Office 2010, SoftMaker Office 2008 doesn't take a week to load. Rather, it starts up very quickly and runs smoothly. I like that.

Of course, like pretty much all the freebie office suites, SoftMaker's lacks a replacement for Outlook. That's a potential dealbreaker for some, but it shouldn't be -- there are other ways to manage your contacts, calendars, and email. (But that's a story for another post.)

SoftMaker Office 2008 is available for both Windows and Linux. To get it, you simply need to supply a name and email address; you'll receive a registration code immediately thereafter, one that unlocks the full version of the suite, in perpetuity. In other words, it's yours to keep and use forever, no strings attached. (There's not even a provision that this is for "personal" use only; apparently even business folk are welcome to it.)

I like that, too. If your small-business budget can't accommodate pricey Microsoft Office licenses (and I don't know many that can), SoftMaker Office 2008 lets you keep your money while preserving your productivity. To my thinking, it's the best office suite money can't buy. (And you don't have to take my word for it; InfoWorld also found it superior to

Do you think there's a better option? Tell me about it in the comments!

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.