ThinkFree Office 2.1, by ThinkFree
Posted: 15-Dec-2003

3 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: ThinkFree Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Jim Melton Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
Some years ago, my company's license with Microsoft allowed employees to install Office software on their home computers, if that software was used in the workplace. A year or so ago, Microsoft changed their license, rescinding the right to use Office at home. I was left with some number of Word and Excel files and no software to open them. Oh, I could pay $400 and buy a copy for my personal use, but that's a lot of money for software that is only rarely used.

ThinkFree Office is a product that opens all Microsoft Office formatted files. It doesn't have all the features of Microsoft Office, but for the casual user, it can offer a budget alternative (priced at $49.95). When opening a Microsoft-format file, ThinkFree Office displays a dialog detailing precisely what features are not supported. It includes a word processing module, a spreadsheet, and a presentation tool.

Licensing
It is worth noting that ThinkFree Office has a somewhat unique licensing model. The product is licensed to a user, not an installation. Subscription to ThinkFree's Cyberdrive (one year included with the purchase of the software) provides 20MB of Internet accessible storage, and the privilege to install the product on any computer that they use, regardless of operating system. So, for example, you can install ThinkFree Office on your PC (ugh!) at work, and also on your Mac at home (it's cross-platform).

Product Review
It is difficult to know how to evaluate ThinkFree Office. Should it be compared to Microsoft Office, feature-by-feature, for completeness? Or should it be rated on its own merits, as a stand-alone application? For this review, a combination of the two will be used.


ThinkFree Toolbar

ThinkFree Office launches with a small, unobtrusive toolbar with icons to launch the Write, Calc, and Show modules. In addition, there is a file browser component. All the modules clearly share a common framework, as one would expect from an integrated office productivity suite. The overall feel is very Microsoft-ish; more Windows than Mac in flavor. The toolbars are consistent, and reminiscent of their Microsoft counterparts.

The application is written in Java, and suffers some of the performance problems one would expect. There is still quite a lot of diagnostic output enabled that goes to the console (unless you routinely keep a console viewer open, you would never notice this). The initial launch of a module takes longer than "average" applications, but once a module has been used the first time, subsequent launches are more reasonable. Several operations take substantially longer than other similar ones, contributing to an overall impression of sluggishness. On occasion, ThinkFree Office took over my computer, driving CPU utilitization to 100% (a rare occurrence for my 1GHz G4).

Note: version 2.1 was reviewed; version 2.2 is available and claims performance improvements. A cursory evaluation supports that claim.

The word processing module (ThinkFree Write) provides all the basic features I require in a word processor. It reads and writes files in native (.wrf) and Word (.doc) formats, as well as HTML (.html), text (.txt), and Rich Text (.rtf) formats. The module does not support embedded objects, such as spreadsheet tables, but it does allow native tables and importing of images. I imported this file (written with TextEdit) and it resulted in a bizarre line wrapping, at a fixed number of characters, even in the middle of words. This default formatting could be overridden, proving that no corruption of data occurred. It provides all the paragraph and character formatting required for a word processor, including nested auto-numbered and bulleted lists.


ThinkFree Write in action

There is a rich set of HTML tools, almost a whole other module within a module. It provides WYSIWYG editing, including support for framesets. I opened the HTML file(s) generated from the presentation tool and was unable to get the image in the main frame centered (apparently a rendering problem).

The spreadsheet module (ThinkFree Calc) does most of what you would expect in a spreadsheet. It comes with a full suite of formulae (that's plural for formula :-), as well as a charting tool and a rich set of formatting options. It doesn't support logical names to the extent that Excel does. On the other hand, if you open an Excel spreadsheet that employs features not supported by Calc, it handles it gracefully. Saving such a spreadsheet could result in a loss of information. One of my favorite Excel features missing in Calc is auto-completion of text within a column. It does support automatic sequence completion (where you grab a handle of a selected cell and drag it across a range of cells to extend a sequence).

The presentation module (ThinkFree Show) creates slide-show presentations. It opens PowerPoint presentations and templates. It lacks a preview mode when applying design templates, which makes picking a presentation style a bit of a shot in the dark. It saves in native (.shf) and PowerPoint (.ppt) formats and exports to HTML (.html) format. Native Show format supports password protection on the file. The HTML output is better than PowerPoint (at least when viewed in Safari).

On the other hand, I cannott recommend using the presentation mode for anything business critical. Although ThinkFree Show supports animations within slides, there are no transitions between slides. Also, the animation effects don't work very well. There were also some rendering glitches on the title slide.

The file browser appears to be functionally identical to Explorer on the PC. I found this to be one of the least Mac-like and most superfluous features of the product. Files are sorted in the Windows way, with folders grouped together and other files following. I didn't find any compelling reason to prefer this tool over the Finder. Fortunately, the ThinkFree toolbar is customizable, and you can remove any tool you choose from it. However, it is the only way to browse your Cyberdrive.


Summary
ThinkFree Office is not a replacement for Microsoft Office. However, at a tenth the price, it should not be expected to be. If you are familiar with Microsoft Office, you will undoubtedly come across some feature that is not implemented by ThinkFree Office. However, it reads and writes most Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files (although writing them may result in a loss of information if unsupported Microsoft features are used). I did come across documents that were e-mailed to me that could not be opened and hung the application. However, for the casual user, who needs the ability to open Office-formatted files, but does not require all the features, ThinkFree Office is a budget priced alternative.

Pros

  • Opens Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) documents
  • Budget price


Cons

  • Occasional glitches in feature performance
  • Unacceptable presentation slideshow
  • Performance is sluggish


Overall Rating

3 out of 5 Mice