OpenOffice 3.1 goes to bat against Office 2007 SP2

It's almost trite to talk about OpenOffice's aesthetics, as if the best way to figure out whether the open source apps suite is competitive to Microsoft Office is to hold a beauty contest. Yes, interface matters, but it's not the only thing that matters, so let's get this out of the way:

Dear person or persons who worked on the anti-aliasing feature that makes the screen look so much nicer: Thank you. It was noticed. It is appreciated. This review required about one-third as much aspirin as usual for her review and I owe those aspirin all to you.

Let's move on. Instead, enclosed please find seven "ooh!" moments from our OpenOffice 3.1 review process -- the ones that make reviewers smile and skeptics feel warmly toward a productivity suite that's been batting in the big leagues for a while now, but only recently has acquired the sheen of a genuine all-star.

1. Hey, other people exist! Fine new file-locking and commenting features are among the most desirable changes, and should cheer those among us who would like to bring OpenOffice into our workplaces. Comments especially were a pleasure to use, and are at this point functionally equivalent to anything Microsoft has thrown at the problem of multiple-author markups. (I found it a little weird at first that comments are also searchable within a document, but the usefulness is clear right away.)

Comments are of course a Writer-specific feature; file locking, on the other hand, extends past the word processor and over to Impress (the presentation module) and Draw. (Calc allows multiple simultaneous edits but can detect conflicts.) Files can be either locked entirely or opened in read-only mode. Locking worked, to our joy, across operating systems; the file I had open on the Vista machine was successfully locked when I tried to get at it via the Mac.

2. Calc gets formulaic (in the good way). The OpenOffice team is mighty proud of sorely needed speed improvements to Calc; our tests didn't include a means of conclusively stress-testing that claim (beyond, of course, loading up a couple of really hulking spreadsheets), but it certainly seemed to move faster. We did appreciate another type of time-saving improvement, though: When you're typing data into a cell with a formula attached, Calc now pops up a box with the syntax of the formula you're using. This saved us a nonzero amount of time trying to remember what the heck we were trying to do in the cell. (Hey, every little bit counts.) An assortment of formula changes have also been added, including some that will help with certain statistical analyses.

Calc's sort function also appears to be better-behaved than we left it back in October. If you're sorting a group of entries with several equivalent sort keys, Calc resists the urge to disorder them. As with certain other specialized tweaks, this one might matter only to a few users, but if you're one of those people who doesn't like it when Sort makes unwarranted assumptions, this is a nice fix. Similarly, Calc now has the sliding-zoom-view feature that Writer gained in 3.0; it's mainly useful for adjusting your screen or your printed output, but if you need it you need it.

3. Not Drawn out. Draw is arguably the weakest module of the suite, and there's nothing here that will convince users of other graphics programs to make the jump (other than the price). But as an adjunct to Impress -- arguably the best module of the suite, and still far better at handling older or unusual file formats than its Microsoft competitor -- Draw's looking slick. Slideshow builders have plenty of backgrounds, dingbats, ruled lines, and sound effects to drop into their presentations, and as with Calc the program feels faster than it did in our 3.0 tests last year.

We also liked the decision to clean up the dragging process; when you move an onscreen object now, it's the translucent shadow that you're grabbing and shifting. Depending on your hand-eye coordination this may or may not help you with moving shapes around onscreen. We were indeed helped.

4. Chart gets smart. If we were giving awards for Most Improved OOo Module, Chart would be one of the top two contenders. The anti-aliasing makes a clear difference in results here, but the big news is the much-requested support for more flexible positioning of axes. In particular, axes can now be positioned in the middle of the page for those of us who like our data grouped in quadrants.

The program also adds some flexibility for charting datasets with missing information -- leave a gap, assume a value of zero, or extrapolate through the missing data. And users now have the option of flowing text elements bidirectionally, which should help with certain readability issues.

5. All your Base are... you know. OOo's database functionality isn't something everyone will use, any more than everyone uses Access in that other suite. Still, one wants it to behave like part of the family, and it's getting closer, with changes that make it the other contender for that Most Improved title. Most significantly, database documents can now include embedded macros and scripts -- old shoes for the other modules, but a nice step forward for Base, and for those who'd like to build database applications in it.

SQL users have a special treat in store with code highlighting -- colors for syntax, and flash for matching parentheses. Fortunately you can change those color schemes (and the fonts if you like), but the visual cues certainly make the prospect of staring down poorly typed lines of SQL much easier to bear.

6. Calc stops the sheet-renaming madness. Not every change is earthshaking, but whoever made the decision to dump the right-click-and-pop-up tab-renaming schtick for the infinitely more sensible double-click-and-type approach is a friend to all of humanity. Sometimes it's okay to be like the other spreadsheets out there. It really is.

7. My eyes... my eyes... are fine, actually. In addition to anti-aliasing to smooth out the curves and lines (most immediately noticeable when playing with Draw, obviously, but the effect was palpable throughout testing and especially helpful with certain kinds of charts), there are a few tweaks that simply made the package more enjoyable. Writer's highlighter, for instance, now acts more like a real highlighter, dropping the jarring reverse-text effects for a pleasantly muted background tint.

What's not to like? Speed, always an issue with OpenOffice, seems to have improved, but even the most fervent OOo loyalists admit that there's work to be done on that front. And this reviewer can't be the only user who wishes Oracle would welcome OpenOffice into the fold by throwing a developer at the allegedly complicated outline problem. (Comments about Navigator or the outlining function in Impress or even the new header-aware "outline level" function in Writer are directed to dev/null; it's just not the same as a tightly integrated full outlining function.)

Overall, there's no backsliding, and some pleasing advances on the collaboration front. Impress continues to be the best of the suite, but the addition of top-notch commenting functionality and cross-platform file locking raise Writer to a higher level than ever. Calc uses 3.1 to build on its genuine breakthroughs back in October's 3.0 release, and smart developer focus is fast leading Chart out of the tall grass. The months ahead will reveal a great deal about OpenOffice's future in the new Sun/Oracle world, but this strong 3.1 showing should give all parties faith that this suite's in it to win it.

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