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Suites for the Sweet: GNOME Office - page 2

Continuing Our Series of Office Suite Reviews

  • June 6, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

Word processors typically anchor office suites, often providing the incentive IT decision-makers have to select one suite over the other. AbiWord, currently at version 0.7.9, is a promising but still somewhat limited effort to provide a Microsoft Word-compatible word processor.

Unlike the other pieces of GNOME Office, AbiWord, though released under the GNU GPL, is largely a commercial effort by the company AbiSource, who have picked up the Open Source development model and run with it. AbiWord is also cross-platform.

AbiWord's current strengths are its speed and weight: it's very fast and very light. As noted in our recent survey of Linux word processors, AbiWord is still under heavy development and can't provide everything an office suite power user is looking for.

Despite its current limitations, though, AbiWord shouldn't be discounted by those taking the long view. It offers compatibility with Microsoft Word, a familiar Word-like interface, and a surprising level of stability for a project still under heavy development and nowhere near feature-complete. It's also, in its current state of development, a fine word processor for those who don't need to produce heavily formatted documents. We previously recommended it for light correspondence and the use of server-room users with a need to produce very simple documents, and we continue to do so.

Crunching Numbers with Gnumeric
Spreadsheets are the other common denominator of every office suite. Gnumeric fills this role for the GNOME Office collection nicely. Though still waiting for the unification Bonobo will provide (which will, most notably, allow for use of graphics), Gnumeric is laden with the functions and features users of other spreadsheets will be familiar with and demand.

Gnumeric is clearly aimed at toppling Microsoft's Excel. To that end, it offers import filters for Excel (which worked rather well for the modest Excel spreadsheets we had available to throw at them), and claims 95% of Excel's built-in functions. Gnumeric also offers a largely Excel-like user interface. Anyone moving from Excel to Gnumeric will understand how to use Gnumeric immediately, right down to the cell-formatting commands.

Gnumeric is also capable of, to a limited extent, dealing with GNU Oleo spreadsheets, HTML, CSV ASCII files, and Lotus 1-2-3. It can export files as XML (its native format), HTML, CSV, LaTeX, troff, PDF, DVI, HTML, and Excel documents.

We found Gnumeric to be the most polished and usable of the traditional office suite elements under the GNOME Office umbrella, holding its own against commercial entries in every area but the integration of graphics, which is dependent on the pending firming-up of Bonobo support. It's stable and fast and provides a good model for how solid a free software offering can be.

A Trio of Graphics Tools
The presentation manager is a staple of many office suites as well, and in this area, the GNOME Office concept is a little weak if it's to be taken as an effort at emulating other suites, though its graphical offerings are strong on their own and indicate, once again, that GNOME Office may eventually prove to be better suited to a technical audience

Instead of a PowerPoint-like clone, Dia, a structured diagram editor, allows users to create simple illustrations. Dia's strength is in its prepackaged sets of graphics, which make it easy to create network diagrams, organizational/flow charts, engineering schematics, database diagrams, and more.

Though Dia isn't designed with the fancy transitions and effects of a presentation manager, the fact that its export formats include PNG and (more importantly) Encapsulated Postscript mean it can easily be leveraged with more traditional production tools to satisfy the needs of most technical users.

Eye of GNOME (EOG) is a very basic image viewer. Those used to xv, Electric Eyes, or gqView may be more comfortable with one of those tools in the interim, because EOG's promise is definitely tied up with the eventual completion of Bonobo and the ability to use its simple file viewing as a way of grabbing graphics and moving them into documents without having to hassle with a full-fledged image editor.

Finally, rounding out the graphics tools offered as part of GNOME Office, is one of free software's most notable and honored successes: the GNU Image Manipulation Program, more commonly known as the GIMP.

A lot has been written about the GIMP, and there's nothing new left to say about its abilities. Users migrating from Windows or Macintosh who miss Photoshop or its ilk will be comfortable enough dealing with the GIMP. The sheer number of filters and image-manipulating scripts packaged with it are a web designer's delight, and it even includes a basic vector illustration plug-in for those who don't need as much structure as Dia provides.

The GIMP's one weakness with regard to serious use is its low level of support for prepress work, though the GIMP User's Manual includes some thoughtful and thorough advice on how to deal with these shortcomings.

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