Although ThinkFree Office 2.0 can't hold a candle to Microsoft Office in power, features, or collaboration tools, it costs just $50 for the program and a year's worth of updates. Plus, this Java-based suite runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux; includes 20MB of online storage space for sharing documents; and lets you install it legally on as many computers as you want. As such, ThinkFree is a smart deal for home users who need simple applications on the cheap. If you need reliable compatibility with Microsoft Office, however, Works is your best budget choice. Although ThinkFree Office 2.0 can't hold a candle to Microsoft Office in power, features, or collaboration tools, it costs just $50 for the program and a year's worth of updates. Plus, this Java-based suite runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux; includes 20MB of online storage space for sharing documents; and lets you install it legally on as many computers as you want. As such, ThinkFree is a smart deal for home users who need simple applications on the cheap. If you need reliable compatibility with Microsoft Office, however, Works is your best budget choice.
One-year subscription does it all
ThinkFree Office's installation doesn't pop any surprises. You'll have the whole suite installed just five minutes after downloading all 30MB--which takes more than an hour on a 56K dial-up connection--or, if you bought the boxed version, after sticking in the CD. But ThinkFree maintenance is another story, thanks to its unique subscription model. After you pony up just 50 clams for the program, ThinkFree's Web site checks to make sure your version is up-to-date each time you log on. Outdated? The company upgrades your software for free for a year after purchase. After that, it'll be another $50 for another year.
Speaking of sharing, unlike the other alternatives suites we've seen, ThinkFree comes in both Mac and Linux editions, making it the right choice when you run multiple OSs. So far, ThinkFree isn't optimized for Mac OS X, but the software does let you install it on all the computers you personally use. So if you have, say, a Mac desktop at home and use a Windows notebook while you're on the road, you're set.
Three apps, but no Office killer
ThinkFree's LaunchPad control panel lets you access its three applications: a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation maker. You'll also find a Windows Explorer-like file manager that lets you move files to and from the online storage area in a simple drag-and-drop process. The three apps are fine for short, unsophisticated chores, such as typing letters or tabulating household expenses, but that's about it. For example, the ThinkFree Write word processor can build tables, open and save a variety of file types (Word, RTF, text, and HTML), insert hyperlinks into documents, count words, and even automatically correct mistyped text. But while its menu structure and toolbars mimic those of Microsoft Word, Write lacks advanced tools, such as macros and the ability to build tables with spreadsheet capabilities. Also missing: bullet lists, a way to send files via e-mail from within the program, and text highlighting.
Numbers and slide shows
Likewise, ThinkFree Calc, the suite's Excel alternative, lacks the power to do much more than crunch simple spreadsheets. We like its chart-making wizard, which includes 40 chart styles and works much like Excel's, and the way that it imitates Excel's toolbars and menus. But ThinkFree Calc, unlike Excel, can't automatically add up a column, nor can it embed a hyperlink into cells so that you can open a browser in one click.
ThinkFree Show, on the other hand, is a credible replacement for presentation makers such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Show opens and saves PowerPoint-formatted files, retaining their formatting with much more accuracy than Write does for complex Word files. It includes a slide sorter so that you can shuffle thumbnails to reorder slides and offers a wide range of transition effects to jazz up your presentations.
Collaboration is ThinkFree's kryptonite. This suite provides virtually no advanced collaboration or workgroup tools--it won't even let you transmit a document to your e-mail app. Worse still, Write doesn't let you track changes.
There is, however, one consolation: ThinkFree's CyberDrive online hard disk, with its 20MB of storage space. Here, you can store files for others to retrieve or connect to another ThinkFree user's public folder to grab his or her files. Sure, Yahoo Briefcase gives you 30MB for free, but because CyberDrive integrates directly with ThinkFree, it's easy to access from the suite itself. Unfortunately, there's no way to set privileges for your public folder, so anyone who knows your ThinkFree ID can snoop through that folder.
Incompatible with Office
ThinkFree fails our most important office suite requirement test: its compatibility with Office file formats is deplorable. We were unable, for instance, to open large (more than 1MB) Word files, which both 602Pro PC and GobeProductive opened quickly. And when we opened complex Word docs that included tables, ThinkFree Write screwed up both pagination and formatting.
Cheap substitute, but no replacement
ThinkFree's limited tech support includes a series of online FAQs and a help desk that's reachable only by e-mail. We asked for help in figuring out why we couldn't open large Word files in ThinkFree Write, and we were still waiting for an answer a day later.
ThinkFree has some bright ideas, from its subscription-based updates to its built-in access to online storage space. And compared to other cheap alternatives, such as GobeProductive and Ability Office, it sports a better mix of applications for less. For half the price of Works, it's the best deal for cash-strapped at-homers. But if you need real Word compatibility, Microsoft Works should be on your buy list.