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 StarOffice 8, each includes a database and won't cost you a penny.
ThinkFree's Write, Calc, and Show are decent Microsoft copycats. Write, for instance, uses Word's DOC file extension as its de facto format, but it also reads and writes RTF (Rich Text), SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic), and PDF (Adobe Acrobat) formats. ThinkFree's capability to export Acrobat files is noteworthy. You can even use ThinkFree Show iPod edition to carry presentations on the handheld MP3 player, then connect to a projector.
But ThinkFree Office 3 lacks some essentials, too. Calc, for instance, doesn't support hyperlinks in spreadsheets (Excel does); Write doesn't offer advanced tools such as Word's Smart Tags (pop-up icons that provide fast access to other Office tools); and Show won't play the sound, movie, and animation effects in PowerPoint 2003 files. ThinkFree officials say these features are under development.
The online version of ThinkFree offers some neat features that enhance its word-processing, spreadsheet-editing, and presentations-crafting abilities. It has added Web publishing, and it's cool that you can search by subject for images from the Flickr photo-sharing site, then insert them, which automatically pastes the source URL alongside the picture. The array of photos from Flickr users is a nice alternative to clip-art libraries--which ThinkFree also provides, unlike Zoho and Google. You click on an embedded image in ThinkFree to tweak its brightness and contrast--although you can't preview the changes first, unlike with Microsoft Office 2007 software. ThinkFree Write supports a slew of fonts, as well as bookmarking for long documents. You can post blog entries to accounts at Blogger, Typepad, WordPress, and Squarespace. There's also support for Atom and Movable Type. ThinkFree Show includes many attractive templates and is more professional than other online presentations apps. ThinkFree also lets you share files with other users.
There are some downsides to ThinkFree Online. Each application allows only one open file at a time, which gets tedious in a hurry. Second, when you close a browser window, ThinkFree Office Online doesn't ask if you'd like to save changes to the file.
Unfortunately, ThinkFree hasn't built a bridge between its services and Microsoft Office, unlike Zoho's Word and Excel plug-in that lets you instantly upload work to Zoho's servers. If you use Microsoft Word at work and want to edit the document with ThinkFree, you'll have to cut and paste or upload that file by visiting ThinkFree's Web site.
ThinkFree provides free, 24-hour e-mail support but no phone or online chat assistance. Our support experiences were mixed. The company answered one of our e-mail queries within eight hours, but another question went unanswered for several days. Still, the replies were succinct, polite, and professional. The vendor's support Web site provides a limited selection of FAQs and a sparse knowledge base that needs more nitty-gritty details on product features and troubleshooting issues.
Overall, the combination of ThinkFree Office 3 and its online counterpart may suit you if you're in the market for a no-frills, low-cost package of tools that lets you access and edit files while on the road. If you can wait patiently while ThinkFree Online takes its time to save documents, its Web-based software offers more storage and editing features than do its rivals.