Businesses have budgets for things like this, but for the average home user, $200 is an insane amount of money to pay for a word processor, spreadsheet manager, and presentation builder. Especially when there are so many free alternatives. That's right: Free. Violating the whole no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch rule, many software developers offer robust, Office-like office suites that don't cost a dime.
What's the catch? No catch. You might miss out on a few of Microsoft Office's more sophisticated features, and you'll probably end up with a slightly dated-looking interface. But so what? As long as you can open, edit, create, and save Office-compatible documents, presentations, and spreadsheets, does any of that matter?
I don't think so.
Indeed, I think there's a big advantage to choosing a freebie office suite over Microsoft's definitely-not-free one: size. Microsoft has long been accused of turning Office into bloatware, stuffing it with features few people need (or want) and ending up with a big, slow-loading monster. In contrast, most of the other alternatives are smaller, leaner, and faster--meaning they're less likely to bog down your system.
A couple quick caveats before I give you the list. First, none of these freebies come with a substitute for Microsoft Outlook. If you need a contact/calendar manager and e-mail client, check out Mozilla Thunderbird or Microsoft's own Windows Live Mail--both of which are free. Second, I intentionally left out Web-based options like Google Docs and Zoho. These are worthwhile alternatives, to be sure, but I'm old-school: I like software that runs on my PC. You know, for those times when I'm not connected to the Internet.
So, in no particular order, here's my list of five Microsoft Office alternatives. They're all free, so you've got nothing to lose by test-driving each and every one. That said, see below for my top pick.
OpenOffice is the heavyweight of the group, an open-source powerhouse that's a favorite among many users. But I've actually found it to be a bit slow, and the interface is rather drab.
I like Softmaker Office because it used to be a commercial product (i.e. it had a price tag), but after developer Softmaker moved on to newer versions, it offered up this older one gratis. Nice!
So what's my top pick? Newcomer Kingsoft Office 2012. Nice interface, fast performance, and total file compatibility with Microsoft Office. I'm writing this very post with Kingsoft Writer, and it's working beautifully.