Group Test: Free Office Suites (Part 1) - ThinkFree Office 4 Online, Google Drive

12/5/2012 11:24:36 AM

We all know MS Office isn't the be-all and end-all, but which of the alternative free cloud-based and desktop suites are worth bothering with? Let’s find out!

ThinkFree Office 4 Online

Description: ThinkFree Office 4

Also available as a paid-for download, despite the name, the ThinkFree office suite is also offered in free cloud form. Documents, spreadsheets and presentations files can all be created, uploaded and edited via ThinkFree Online, and while it might not necessarily be the first suite you'll think of in the cloud sphere, it has a decent set of features plus a clear approach, which makes it worthy of inclusion here.

What does it offer over, say, Office365? Unlike Microsoft's limited feature set and advertising-fuelled effort, ThinkFree is a fully featured package in its own right. In the presentation stakes, it's quite a basic beast at first glance, featuring a functional and fairly uninspiring home screen. We appreciate that we're talking about office software here, but even so, this could do with a bit of pizzaz.

Naturally, the cloud offering is at the heart of what makes ThinkFree an attractive proposition, being able to access documents from any system, anywhere. On the downside to this, however, is the 1GB storage space, which is poor by any modern standards. With no obvious upgrade path on the online storage front, if you're going to spend a substantial amount of your time using ThinkFree, you'll have to find somewhere else to store your work.

Where ThinkFree shows its hand is in the wealth of advanced editing features. Font options in Write, for example, are just as impressive as anything you'll find elsewhere, and the likes of AutoCorrect, Autoshapes, PivotTables, Bookmarks and Track Changes are all here alongside the basics. We also liked the option to edit a file from the product's home web page without having to open up the full suite itself.

But, boy, is this sluggish. If the future really is in the cloud, we'd be surprised to see ThinkFree as the standard-bearer. Taking an age to open up even a blank document, ThinkFree becomes annoying very quickly. Surely, cloud computing is all about working on the move, quickly and efficiently? Somebody really should have told the ThinkFree developers, although once open, testing of the suite proved stable and reliable. The Help files aren't the best to sift your way through either.

The speed issue is a shame, because in look and feel ThinkFree is much like MS Office, particularly Word, and it's easy to forget that you're not using Microsoft's expensive package. Of course, all packages have understandably adopted camp Redmond's approach, so ubiquitous has its success been, but it's nice to see it carried out so effectively here. A mobile application allowing for document access, editing and sharing is another welcome inclusion (the viewer is free but the mobile office app is paid-for).

In the end, though, the feature set and clarity of approach are irrelevant, because the performance problems will leave you tearing your hair out and wishing you'd just stumped up the money Microsoft wants.



Hancom Inc.


Required Spec

Internet connection, 256MB RAM, Windows XP or later







Google Drive (incorporating Google Docs)

Description: Google Drive (incorporating Google Docs)

Google's own cloud-based suite has been around in its fullest form for a few years and it's proven to be one of the firm's more successful ventures.

Earlier this year, Google Docs was superseded by Google Drive, a file storage and sync service incorporating the Docs suite and upping free storage from 1GB to 5GB. The upgrade has paid off.

Take the brilliant but essentially simple Research tool, added to the service earlier this year. Found under the Tools menu, clicking on the Research option brings up a banner to the right-hand side of the screen. Enter any term and you're presented with web results and images pertaining to that search term, making note-taking on the fly a far more organic and natural process.

Pitched as “software as a service”, Google Drive allows for the creation, editing and sharing of docs, spreadsheets and presentations (plus Google's Drawings and Forms tools) and document sharing is provided for too, as you'd expect. Downloading the service to your PC makes for simple syncing of files from your home system to the online space. Saving is carried out on your behalf automatically and continuously, meaning you don't have to worry about losing your work and it's all done without any noticeable drag on performance.

Google's dominance of the market also means that you can access your files on Android phones via a Google Play download.

Where Google Drive takes a slightly odd turn is in presentation. While not exactly pushing the proverbial boat out, this is the one suite on test that doesn't seem to take its cues directly from Microsoft. All the core features are present and correct, but they've been handed their own look on the toolbar at the top of each separate application. It does lack in some features too, such as a small range of fonts and relatively poor formatting options. For example, paragraph spacing within the Word processor is clear enough but nowhere near as detailed as with other packages on test.

Whether you need this level of detail is a matter of opinion, of course. What you can't fault Google for is reliability and efficiency. The user experience is so fast and smooth that you'd be forgiven for forgetting you're working in the cloud at all, which is testament to how well thought out this suite really is. Google's suite has a history of working smoothly and efficiently and that hasn't changed. Also, it's worth noting that as an overall collaboration tool, Google Drive is superb and the inclusion of mobile support, downloadable from Google Play, is a further positive on that front.

For the average user, all of the tools are here to make Google Drive their cloud suite of choice. The speed of use will keep you on board and the terrific sharing and collaboration options, delivered in a clear, functional format, are worth the download alone. If only the core suite could boast some further features, this would be tough to beat.





Required spec:

Internet connection, Windows XP or later







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