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Beyond Microsoft Office: We compare 9 productivity suites

Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect, StarOffice, OpenOffice, iWork, Lotus Symphony, ThinkFree, Google Docs, Zoho. Help!

Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and their Office allies can be great applications, but not everybody needs everything they offer. How do you know where to start when shopping for alternative software? You'll save money with a different brand, but will it do the trick? Should you buy boxed software, download freebies for your hard drive, access browser-based apps, or juggle all of the above?

We've reviewed nine productivity suites--including downloads and online services--and cooked up a jumbo chart mixing up their gumbo of features and file formats. IBM's release of Lotus Symphony beta added more spice to the stew last week, while continuous updates to the online applications keep us on our toes. All nine products support traditional Microsoft Office files, although not all can read the new Office 2007 formats. And although shunned by Microsoft, the Open Document Format is gaining in popularity. See: Alternatives to Microsoft Office.