ThinkFree Office 3
ThinkFree Office 3 offers both a conventional desktop productivity suite with word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation and e-mail programs, and a free, Web-based version, ThinkFree Office Online, that runs inside your browser. You don't need the desktop edition to use ThinkFree online.
Since both versions use Microsoft file formats, such as DOC, they're ready for Microsoft Office users willing to defect. ThinkFree is one of few online suites to support the new, XML-based files for Microsoft Office 2007. ThinkFree Office isn't a clone of Microsoft Office; it covers the basics well but lacks essential features. ThinkFree's Write word processor, for instance, lacks the collaborative editing tools of Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect. In our tests, ThinkFree's Show presentation program wouldn't play audio clips from PowerPoint presentations.
Similarly, ThinkFree Office Online is a clever idea but needs more polish. This free, Web-based suite provides a generous 1GB of online storage and runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows systems. The Web-based tools may come in handy if you use the desktop version of ThinkFree Office and need to access your files and functions online while you travel. But the ThinkFree Office Online has several shortcomings. For instance, you can open only one file at a time per application.
The ThinkFree Office 3 desktop suite is available via CD or download, and it runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows systems. Version 3 installs easily, and setup took only five minutes on our Windows PC. The Web-based, Java-enabled version, ThinkFree Office Online, runs inside any Web browser via a high-speed Internet connection. The Basic online edition is free, while the Premium edition in beta testing will offer file synchronization and 24 hour tech support for $7 per month. There's no setup involved, although you will have to register to use the program.
One caveat about ThinkFree Online: the first time you use one of its three applications, be prepared to wait a couple of minutes while enabling Java. The next time you use the program, it should load quickly. In our tests, for instance, Write took more than two minutes to load the first time we ran it but only 20 seconds the second time. Keep in mind, however, that if you clear your browser cache, you'll return to ThinkFree Online's agonizingly slow launch. Having to click through pop-ups to enable Java applets is also annoying.
Still, ThinkFree insists that, while its Java technologies may lead to longer file-loading times, they can manage complex operations quickly. Indeed, in our tests, we found that ThinkFree Online Calc pasted hundreds of spreadsheet rows faster than AJAX-based Google Spreadsheets. Plus, you can choose to run ThinkFree apps in QuickEdit mode to shave off some loading time.
ThinkFree Online opens a new window for each application. You can keep Write, Calc, and Show open simultaneously, but each program can display only one open document at a time. We'd prefer that ThinkFree let us skip between documents within one window under an arrangement such as tabs. It takes longer to open and save work than Google does, which is irksome when you're in midthought. Luckily, however, there's a 10MB size limit per file--far larger than the 500K maximum within Google Docs & Spreadsheets.
With its emphasis on interoperability with Microsoft Office, it's no surprise that both the desktop and online versions of ThinkFree Office mimic Redmond's look and feel. The toolbars and the icons vary slightly, but Microsoft Office 2003 users will feel right at home. In fact, the first time we launched Show, we thought we had loaded PowerPoint by mistake (see side-by-side screenshots). Similarly, Write and Calc do their best Word and Excel impersonations.
Like its online counterpart, ThinkFree Office 3 provides the core applications that people use the most: a word processor, a spreadsheet maker, and a presentation-graphics creator. Affordably priced at $50 for the desktop edition, this suite lacks extras such as a database.
By contrast, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 has Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for $150. Apple iWork costs about half that, but with fewer features. The new three-app Lotus Symphony beta is a good, free package. For true bargain hunters, OpenOffice.org 2, the open-source version of Sun Microsystems' solid productivity suite, each includes a database and won't cost you a penny.