It's been less than a year since Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice.org hit its major 3.0 release, but the next version of the open-source, cross-platform-friendly productivity suite is already available, complete with a slate of feature enhancements and performance tweaks.
After testing OpenOffice.org 3.1 on both Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux systems, I found Version 3.1 a worthwhile upgrade, particularly for those who work with charts and graphics within their documents, spreadsheets and presentations. (OpenOffice 3.1 is also available for Apple's OS X and Sun's Solaris.)
Featurewise, OpenOffice.org 3.1 matches up fairly well with Microsoft's Office. In addition, between the work that the OpenOffice.org team has done to make its suite compatible with Office's traditional binary and newer, XML-based formats and the work that Microsoft has done to make Office 2007 compatible with the OpenDocument format, these rival suites can coexist more peacefully than ever.
With that said, the only way to truly determine whether OpenOffice.org can serve as a replacement for--or complement to--Microsoft Office in your organization is to try out the suite with your own documents and processes. Since OpenOffice.org is free to download and use, the barrier to trying it out is rather low.
Calc Faster, Friendlier
Some of the most dramatic enhancements in OpenOffice.org 3.1 involve the performance boosts that the project's developers have managed to wring out of the suite's spreadsheet component, Calc. In particular, the team addressed the so-called "Zaske Case," in which a spreadsheet with many formulas referencing the same range of cells took much longer to process changes in that range than did Microsoft's Excel.
In Version 3.1, the OpenOffice.org team erased this gap by broadcasting cell changes to affected formulas in bulk, rather than through repetitive broadcasts. In my tests, a recalculation that took 14 seconds on Calc Version 3.0 took 1 second on Version 3.1.
Another notable improvement in Calc 3.1 involves the application's row-sorting toolbar control, which now behaves more sanely by default. When I hit one of the sort buttons in Calc's toolbar, the application correctly identified my column headers and sorted the data beneath them accordingly. In Version 3.0, the sort buttons paid no heed to my headers, requiring me to visit a sort dialog to tell Calc that headers were present.
Elsewhere in Calc, the spreadsheet application has picked up the view-zooming slider control that debuted in OpenOffice.org's Writer 3.0, which saves a trip to the application's view dialog. Along similar lines, Calc has adopted Excel's style of sheet renaming-I could double-click on a sheet tab to rename it, rather than do the deed through a right-click menu.
I also appreciated Calc 3.1's new formula tool tips, which would pop up after I began typing in a formula to remind me of the proper syntax for the function at hand.
Another notable enhancement in OpenOffice.org 3.1 is the suite's improved rendering of on-screen graphics through anti-aliasing, an advance that applies to the entire suite but that should prove particularly pleasing to users of the product's presentation component, Impress. In previous versions of OpenOffice.org, graphics such as circles and other basic shapes tended to render with somewhat jagged borders, which could give documents an unfinished look.
I opened a sample PowerPoint presentation within Impress 3.0. While Impress did a good job with the document's formatting, the shapes within the presentation looked noticeably rougher than in PowerPoint-effectively snatching defeat from the jaws of format fidelity victory. I opened the same document using Impress 3.1 and found that the edges of the shapes within rendered just as smoothly as in Microsoft PowerPoint.
While working with the same presentation, I dragged one of my shapes around on the document and watched as Impress 3.1 displayed a translucent, "shadow" version of the object, complete with the text that the shape contained. In contrast, Impress 3.0 displayed an empty frame during dragging operations, and PowerPoint 2007 displayed a shadow image of the shape but one that lacked the attached text.
The Write Stuff
Version 3.0 of OpenOffice.org's word processor, Writer, introduced Microsoft Office-style comments in the margins of a document. (Previous versions of OpenOffice.org socked comments away behind small yellow marker images that I always found too troublesome to use.)
With Version 3.1, Writer's comments feature now supports conversations among document editors.
I opened a document in Word 2007, inserted a comment, saved the document and opened it in Writer 3.1. My comment appeared in the document's margin, and I was able to right-click it and choose "reply" from a short menu. Writer created a new comment below the original comment, which included the date and time of the original comment along with my Word 2007 user name. I could continue the conversation from Word by adding new comments, but Word lacks the "reply" shortcut.
Users of OpenOffice.org 3.1 in networked office environments will benefit from the suite's bolstered file locking, which now does a better job preventing overwriting of documents stored on networked shares and accessed by users running different operating systems and applications.
I found that separate Windows XP instances running OpenOffice.org 3.0 seemed to handle file locking well enough, giving me the option to open a read-only version of the file or to make a copy. But OpenOffice.org 3.0 would happily open a document that was already open in Office 2007. With Version 3.1, file locking worked properly for me between OpenOffice.org and Office 2007, whether both applications ran atop Windows XP or OpenOffice.org ran from a Linux machine.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.