Unless you live in Germany, where SoftMaker has a long-established and respected presence, you may never have heard of SoftMaker FreeOffice or its commercial big brother SoftMaker Office 2012. But SoftMaker's compact, powerful, and sleek application suite feels right at home in the English-speaking world, and the price of FreeOffice – free, as in FreeOffice – makes it especially attractive.
Compared to its main freeware rival, LibreOffice, Softmaker FreeOffice can't compete on advanced features, but I prefer the FreeOffice interface, and FreeOffice is the only free office suite that displays documents as I want them displayed. More about that in a moment, but first I'll cover some basics concerning the suite as a whole.
SoftMaker gives away FreeOffice partly as an advertisement for its commercial suite. FreeOffice consists of the three basic office apps: TextMaker, a word processor; PlanMaker, a spreadsheet app; and SoftMaker Presentations. The £59 commercial suite adds a programming language similar to Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications, and a £76 Professional version adds an Outlook 2013 work-alike. All three of the free version’s apps do an impressive job of importing Microsoft Office documents.
Unlike LibreOffice, FreeOffice can open password protected Microsoft Office documents if you know the password, and this feature alone is a good reason for installing FreeOffice on a USB stick so you can open your password protected documents on someone else's computer. (The standard installation includes a Start Menu item that installs a "portable" version on a thumb drive.) Like LibreOffice, FreeOffice opens legacy WordPerfect documents – a major plus for law and government offices that typically have thousands of files in WordPerfect format.
I was pleasantly surprised by FreeOffice's speed. Complicated Microsoft Office documents that opened with painful slowness in LibreOffice opened instantly in FreeOffice – including multipage worksheets and a 400-page Word document. All basic formatting features imported perfectly, but you can't expect perfection with advanced features.
For example, when I used PlanMaker to open an Excel worksheet that uses Excel's fancy conditional formatting to colour-code data, PlanMaker warned me that some conditional formatting would be lost – and indeed it was. Any formatting lost on import into FreeOffice will be lost forever if you save the file after editing, so make sure you know what you're doing when saving an imported Office file. (LibreOffice does a better job with Excel's conditional formatting and other graphic features).
LibreOffice comes in versions for Windows, Linux, and OS X, with tablet versions coming later this year. FreeOffice runs on Windows only, but the commercial SoftMaker Office runs on Windows, Linux, and Android, and an older 2010 version runs on Windows Mobile and even the ancient Windows CE mobile platform – the only full-featured office suites for mobile Windows platforms.
FreeOffice's interface looks a lot like Microsoft Office 2003, with the traditional top line menu and toolbars, along with bright and clear icons that make it easy to find what you're looking for. One icon I was glad to see was a PDF icon that saves the current document in PDF format without long detours to the menu, as seen in other major suites. The only major annoyance is the lack of a "live" word count, forcing you to click a button on a Statistics toolbar to see how many words are in your document.
TextMaker impressed me most with its document viewing options. In addition to the usual page view, which shows headers, page numbers, footers, and top and bottom margins, TextMaker has a "continuous" view which displays only the main content of the page, without headers and footers, and with page breaks indicated only by a faint line across the page.
This is the view I prefer to work in, because it shows me how my text will look on the page, but doesn't break up the text at the top and bottom of every page – and TextMaker is one of very few word processors that offer it. (The others are Microsoft Word for Windows – not the version for OS X – and Corel WordPerfect). LibreOffice doesn't have a continuous view, only a web view, which doesn't show the actual margins and font that your document will have when it prints, and that's too little formatting for me to feel comfortable with.
TextMaker offers most of the advanced features you'll find in Microsoft Word, but with some significant exceptions. You can insert footnotes or endnotes, but not both, as you can in Word. If you want to create cross-references, or use mail-merge to create form letters, you'll need to buy the commercial SoftMaker Office, not the free version. The free version has limited graphics capabilities compared to the commercial version – for example, you can't apply shadows, and graphic shapes are limited to printing with 300 dpi resolution. None of these restrictions will affect anyone who creates basic documents, but advanced students and scientists may want to look elsewhere.
Spreadsheets and presentations
PlanMaker opened my sample Excel worksheets smoothly, but this is an app best suited for basic data manipulations. You won't find anything like Excel's zero effort pivot tables that reorganise your views of data with a few clicks, but you do get filtering options for tables, which accomplishes the same thing with a bit more effort. Conditional formatting has to be built by hand, without the gallery of elegant colour-coding and other graphic features that Excel and LibreOffice boast. Charting is adequate but not dazzling.
SoftMaker Presentations gives you enough features to get basic presentations built, and does a good job of importing PowerPoint files which aren’t too complex, but look elsewhere if you want to put together a presentation that's visually memorable instead of something that looks as if it was left over from the last millennium.
Don't be misled by my focus on the limits of FreeOffice. This suite is fast, effective, and overall it’s extremely well-designed. For the vast majority of users, FreeOffice does everything you need in an office suite, and does it more quickly and intuitively than LibreOffice. However, LibreOffice is more powerful and up-to-date on an overall level.
If you want the state-of-the-art, you'll choose Microsoft Office, but SoftMaker FreeOffice has plenty to offer anyone who wants solidly functional apps and doesn't want to pay for them.