Dirt-Cheap Office-Productivity Software

As more and more people find themselves working from home and owning multiple PCs, the cost of must-have office-productivity software such as Microsoft Office is more crippling than ever. Big businesses typically purchase Office licenses through a subscription-like offering, but individuals like you and me face the prospect of either obtaining Office with a new PC or buying a boxed copy of the software from a retail or online store.

Microsoft Office
If you're already in the market for a new PC, purchasing Office with the computer is the cheapest route. For example, Microsoft Office 2003 Standard Edition (which includes Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word) costs about $342 at Amazon.com, and the Upgrade version (which requires you to own a previous version) will set you back $206. But the cheapest Office version you can get with a new home computer at Dell.com—Office Basic Edition (which lacks PowerPoint)—costs an additional $149. That's a big difference.

 However, even if you aren't buying a new computer, you can save money on office-productivity software. Microsoft sells a special Office package called Office 2003 Student and Teacher Edition ($125 at Amazon.com) that features Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word, just as the Standard Edition does. So what's the difference? First, unlike Standard Edition, the Student and Teacher Edition can't be later upgraded to a future version of Office. Second, to purchase this version, you or someone in your family should be a full-time or part-time student, a teacher or faculty member at an educational organization, or a business owner. But no one is really checking, so anyone can purchase this version. And as with other versions of Office, you can install the software on as many as three PCs, which spreads out the cost.

WordPerfect Office
Not cheap enough? Well, you have other Microsoft Office alternatives that offer varying degrees of compatibility with Office document types and similar UIs. The best of the lot is probably Corel WordPerfect Office 12. Like the Microsoft product, WordPerfect Office comes in various editions, including a Student and Teacher Edition (word processor, spreadsheet, relational database, presentation package, and the Pocket Office English Dictionary), a Standard Edition (same features), and a Home Edition, which drops the presentation package but adds a number of features—OfficeReady Personal Finance, Encyclopedia Britannica Ready Reference 2003, Corel Photobook, Corel PhotoAlbum, Pinnacle Instant CD/DVD 8 LE, and Norton Internet Security 2005—that are custom-tailored to consumers and home offices.

Each of these packages is cheaper than the Microsoft equivalent, and the Home Edition ($50 at Amazon.com after a $20 rebate) is particularly attractive. You can also get WordPerfect with new PCs. At Dell.com, the basic office-productivity software sold with new home systems is WordPerfect. And you can upgrade to WordPerfect Office 12 for $50.

Star Office
Sun's Star Office, at $60 (direct download) is another low-cost option. However, you should wait for the company to finalize the latest version, Star Office 8, before you buy. (In the meantime, you can check out the free beta version.) Star Office 8 takes the unprecedented step of reasonably emulating the Office 2003 UI, which makes the product much easier to use, although the menus and dialog boxes are still a bit harder to navigate than in Microsoft's offerings. Star Office 8 includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database, and HTML-editing applications, and, like WordPerfect, offers excellent Microsoft Office compatibility and PDF-export capabilities. However, Star Office 8 also has the added benefit of running on Linux and Solaris OSs in addition to Windows.

OpenOffice.org
If you're looking for the ultimate in cheap office-productivity solutions, you need to check out OpenOffice.org, the very poorly named open-source office-productivity suite. This software is absolutely free and is the basis for Sun's Star Office, so you'll notice that they're almost identical. What you lose when moving from Sun to OpenOffice.org is support, some format-compatibility niceties, and the database application. However, everything else is present. And, as with Star Office, the beta version of the next big update—OpenOffice.org 2.0—looks like a winner.

Compatibility
What these alternate suites all lack is a true Microsoft Office compatibility mode—which is odd, because each, in its own way, comes pretty close. WordPerfect Office, for example, includes a Workspace Manager that emulates the shortcut keys, menu items, and toolbars that Microsoft Office applications use. But the Workspace Manager isn't well implemented, and WordPerfect looks more like Office 97 than Office 2003, with flat 1990s-style toolbars. The OpenOffice.org 2.0 and Sun Star Office 8 betas, meanwhile, look almost exactly like Microsoft Office, but the menus and shortcuts are out of whack. Because of these differences, seasoned Microsoft Office users will find it difficult to make the switch. But make no mistake: Both WordPerfect and OpenOffice.org/Star Office are high-quality office-productivity suites that rival modern Microsoft Office versions in many ways. For most people, any of these suites would be ideal.

Save Some Cash
If you're looking for a low-priced, even free Microsoft Office alternative, you have plenty of high-quality choices. And you can save money on this software whether you're buying a new PC or not. It's a great time to be a consumer.

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