Nobody can deny that Microsoft Office is the most advanced and full-featured office suite on the planet, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you. Why fork over cash when you can use a free alternative that still offers all you need?
For the past few years, LibreOffice has been Microsoft’s biggest office suite competitor. Not only is it free and open source, but its feature set is rapidly expanding, so much so that LibreOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office in many ways.
Now we have a third contender in the ring. It’s called FreeOffice 2016 and it’s surprisingly good. But is it good enough to make the switch? Here’s what you need to know.
What’s Included in FreeOffice 2016?
FreeOffice is the free lightweight version of Softmaker Office, which is a proprietary suite that costs $70 for the standard version and $90 for the professional version. Even so, FreeOffice still offers enough to be interesting.
- TextMaker: A word processor that aims to be the most accurate when displaying Microsoft Word documents. It can open both DOC and DOCX formats, and export to formats like PDF, EPUB, etc.
- PlanMaker: A spreadsheet application that aims to be the most accurate when displaying Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. It can open both XLS and XLSX formats, and export to formats like DBF, SLK, etc.
- Presentations: A presentation application that aims to be the most accurate when displaying Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. It can open both PPT and PPTX formats.
You probably noticed a pattern: “most accurate when displaying”. That’s one of the key selling points of FreeOffice, the ability to deal with Microsoft’s proprietary formats without running into formatting errors and data loss. It’s as close to true as you can get for free.
At the moment, FreeOffice 2016 is only available for Windows and Linux. It’s unclear whether Softmaker has plans to include OS X at any point.
Despite it being free, you’ll be asked to input an email address prior to downloading. After installing, you’ll be asked to enter a product code that’s sent to that same email address. Keep that in mind if you’re worried about email privacy.
It’s Easy to Use and Navigate
Before diving into FreeOffice’s feature set, let’s first explore how it looks and feels to use. After all, even the best applications aren’t worth using if they’re ugly, clunky, and lacking in finesse (too many free options have this problem).
What impresses me most about this office suite is its speed — it’s faster than any other office suite I’ve ever used. Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer both take several seconds to launch and load, but FreeOffice is ready in under a second. No exaggeration.
And it’s not just launch speed. Office applications tend to slow down when you’re dealing with large documents, but FreeOffice holds up well — even with complex spreadsheets that involve dozens of pages and thousands of calculations.
The other thing I love about FreeOffice is the familiar interface. Most office suites look pretty much the same, but there’s something about FreeOffice that feels cleaner and snappier. The toolbars are compact, the menus are organized well, and nothing gets in your way.
In short, it’s a delight to use, as long as you’re okay without a Ribbon interface. If you prefer the Ribbon look, your only options are Microsoft Office and WPS Office. Personally, I’m very satisfied with FreeOffice.
Fonts, layouts, and graphics are all displayed to near perfection. This is a big problem that I’ve had with other cross-platform applications, including LibreOffice, but FreeOffice seems to have dodged the issue altogether. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.
I only have one complaint as far as appearances are concerned: the icons used throughout the suite — namely in the toolbars and menus — are reminiscent of the 2000s era. Updating to a modern flat motif would be a simple change to bring the software’s character up to date.
Useful & Notable Features
Now for the part that matters the most. Is FreeOffice actually worth using? Are there any important features missing that I’d need? Does it live up to its promise as the best free office suite? I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
Again, file integrity is great. I tried opening as many Microsoft Office files as I could using FreeOffice and they all worked without any quirks in formatting or layout. Other office suites aren’t as accurate.
When people send you DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX files, rest assured that you’ll be able to see them as they were intended to be seen (i.e. as they would appear in Microsoft Office 2016).
But there is one huge downside to FreeOffice: it can’t actually save in DOCX, XLSX, or PPTX formats. So if you’re working in a team and everyone insists on using the newer Microsoft formats, that could be problematic.
It has all of the necessary standard features. Paragraph formatting, drawing tools, layout templates, data tables and graphics, spelling and grammar checkers, formulas in spreadsheets, animations in presentations, and all of that good stuff.
But it also has a number of advanced features that a lot of other office suites simply don’t have. Let’s look at each application separately.
Notable TextMaker features:
- SmartText expands any shortcut phrase into a full phrase, such as “asap” into “as soon as possible”.
- Track changes made to document, which you can later accept or reject without any hassle.
- Margin comments for annotating edited documents.
- Create PDF forms and documents.
- Export to EPUB format for ebooks.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best free word processors currently available. My only regret is that I didn’t discover it earlier.
Notable PlanMaker features:
- All formulas are compatible with Excel. If you’ve spent time learning the nuances of Excel formulas, you can switch to PlanMaker right away.
- Over 80 different types of charts and graphs.
- Auto-update for charts and graphs as data changes.
- Pivot tables, data groups, and special filters.
- External references so that formulas can perform calculations based on data in other files.
- AutoComplete and AutoFormat for filling out cells.
Notable Presentations features:
- Insert graphics, videos, and sounds.
- Design and draw using AutoShapes that are fully compatible with Microsoft PowerPoint.
- Interactive presentations using a virtual pen or highlighter.
- Export presentations as a collection of images.
- Flexible slide designs and templates.
- Support for 4K UltraHD displays.
And yes, you can import templates intended for Microsoft PowerPoint and use them to make your slides more pleasing to the eye.
It Even Comes With Mobile Apps
But only for Android devices. Sorry, iOS users.
Mobile apps are becoming standard fare for office suites these days. Microsoft Office has them, Google has them, and even WPS and Polaris have them. And the surprising thing is that these mobile office suites are quite productive.
FreeOffice comes with its own set of apps and they’re really good. The aesthetics could use a bit of work — again, they feel slightly outdated — but the interface is designed well enough that you won’t feel frustrated or cramped, even on a smaller screen.
You can work on your files using a desktop or laptop and seamlessly switch to your smartphone or tablet without losing anything, especially if you use cloud storage services like Dropbox or OneDrive to keep everything in sync.
The mobile apps are feature complete. You can edit, format, track changes, add comments, insert formulas, alter presentations, play slideshows, display any font, and more. Nothing is missing here.
In fact, the best thing about this mobile suite is the ability to save in DOCX, XSLX, and PPTX formats. We don’t know why this feature isn’t in the desktop versions, but at least you can do so using the mobile alternatives without having to pay anything.
Is FreeOffice 2016 Right for You?
For the most part, FreeOffice 2016 is a more-than-viable replacement for Microsoft Office, at least if all you need is word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The mobile apps are convenient, if you’re always on the go and need to edit away from home.
The only downside is the inability to save in DOCX, XLSX, or PPTX. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic office suite that could easily become a top-ranking alternative.
If you really need to save those files, then you can do so with the FreeOffice mobile apps, upgrade to Softmaker Office, switch to LibreOffice or Google Docs, or just look for a free copy of Microsoft Office.
Other features you’ll find in the paid Softmaker Office, but not in FreeOffice 2016, are multi-language spell checking and synonyms using commercial dictionaries, an extended sidebar, macros, cross-references, figure captions, envelope and label printing, mailmerge, and displaying your documents in browser-like tabs.
Personally, FreeOffice 2016 has become my office suite of choice. That about sums it up, doesn’t it?
What do you think of FreeOffice? Does it offer enough to tempt you into switching? Or are the DOCX/XLSX/PPTX formats so important as to be deal breakers? Let us know what you think in the comments below!