Think Outside the 'Office'

By Eric Grevstad | Posted April 30, 2004

Once you start using WordPerfect Office 12, you won't miss Microsoft Office. That's not to say that Microsoft's dominant productivity suite isn't great software, or for that matter that Corel's blows it away; both are first-class, formidably powerful word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation combos, though extra conveniences ranging from friendlier formatting help to built-in Adobe Acrobat PDF output make WordPerfect Office an at least arguably preferable alternative.

The huge challenge for Corel is to get people to consider its alternative, period — to dare to try WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, and Presentations in a market ruled by Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Toward that goal, the WordPerfect Office 12 package that premieres tomorrow is priced at $300 versus $399 for Microsoft Office 2003 Standard Edition, with an upgrade price — offered to users of Microsoft's humble Works 7.0, let alone Office 2000 or XP — of $150 versus $239.

(Teachers and students, who can get the educational edition of Microsoft Office for $150, can get the corresponding WordPerfect Office box for $100; the just-as-daunting-as-Microsoft-Access database Paradox continues to be part of Corel's OEM-oriented Professional edition.)

That's not enough to make Corel's the cheapest suite in town; the company believes most consumers won't take the trouble to seek out Sun's $80 StarOffice 7 or download the latter's free sibling OpenOffice.org 1.1. But it should attract some attention, even considering that WordPerfect Office doesn't include an e-mail and calendar program to match Microsoft Outlook (it can tap Outlook's address book for mail merge or document routing).

And once they install the Corel trio, users will get all the migrate-from-Microsoft hand-holding they could want. A new Workspace Manager lets you change settings, toolbars, and menus from WordPerfect Office's own interface to one that mimics the Microsoft Office programs', including saving documents in Brand M file formats by default. You can also choose a Lotus 1-2-3 mode for Quattro Pro, or WordPerfect modes that hark back to the white-text-on-a- blue-background version 5.1 for DOS or emphasize the word processor's popularity for pleadings and other law-office work.

The imposture isn't 100 percent (Word's word-deleting Ctrl-Del and Ctrl-Bksp work a bit differently in WordPerfect), but the Microsoft modes — along with a handy toolbar for importing and exporting documents in different formats, including XML, HTML, and PDF for WordPerfect and Presentations, Macromedia Flash SWF for Presentations, and XML for Quattro Pro, plus thorough documentation of compatibility details — go a long way toward easing the transition.

WordPerfect Office 12 is also noticeably more successful at reading Microsoft Office files — ranging from PowerPoint gradients to Word tables and text wrap around graphics — than version 11 was; most users should have no problems with most everyday documents. That said, it's still easy to play gotcha games and find Office files that don't import perfectly, whether fancy PowerPoint slide transitions (all converted to simple left-to-right wipes in Presentations) or Word AutoShapes and elaborately formatted, footnoted reports; one or two of our Microsoft documents still fared better in OpenOffice.org than WordPerfect Office. Quattro Pro ignores a couple of dozen esoteric Excel functions and, not so esoterically, macros, although the Corel suite includes Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications as well as its own PerfectScript language.

Example of WordPerfect Office's Choose Mode Option

On Its Own Merits
But again, the speed bumps on the road to Corel Nation are relatively low, and WordPerfect Office 12 can capture your heart if you give it half a chance. Built-in PDF publishing is a huge convenience that Microsoft's proprietary-format-proud engineers refuse to provide. So is compatibility with Windows 98 and NT 4.0, while Microsoft Office 2003 insists on newer Windows XP or 2000 platforms. (Though that doesn't mean Corel's suite runs smoothly on antique hardware; it was sluggish on a Pentium III/550 desktop with a measly 128MB of memory.)

And the software provides easy access to everything from favorite document templates to powerful, normally-submerged-in-the-menus program features. Version 12 introduces an OfficeReady Browser that provides a visual view of, and slightly tacky plug for third-party, templates; it's handsome, but we like the default, well-annotated, file menu just as well.

Example of WordPerfect's PerfectExpertThe latter segues nicely into the PerfectExpert sidebar that organizes editing, formatting, and publishing options in friendly, need-anticipating fashion (and disappears with a click of the mouse if you'd rather free up screen space). Anticipating needs has been a WordPerfect hallmark since the debut some versions back of the real-time toolbar that offers both corrections for misspelled words and synonyms for correct ones; we admire it almost as much as the Real-Time Preview function that shows font, zoom, or other layout changes not only in a preview box but on the main document display as you hover the mouse over a menu choice (without actually changing your text until you click). For fine-tuning your formatting, the word processor's famous Reveal Codes option eliminates guesswork about whether an invisible format tag is at the end of one paragraph or start of the next.

While WordPerfect remains by far the star of the suite, Quattro Pro offers ample, industrial- strength spreadsheet features including 3D charts and CrossTab Reports akin to Excel Pivot Tables; Presentations makes crafting slide shows simple, with plenty of transition effects and executable and Web-page export options. You also get knickknacks and extras ranging from Corel's usual bushel of fonts and clip art to SMS mobile-phone e-mail and messaging utilities, though the provided Pocket Oxford Dictionary has too high a ratio of blank (or rather, "No definition in this edition — visit Corel's online store to buy the full version") to real entries.

Word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations are pretty well developed as mature PC applications, and WordPerfect Office 12 isn't a landmark advance that'll send Microsoft back to the drawing board. Nor, for that matter, will it replace OpenOffice.org as the clear choice for bargain hunters or users eyeing Linux (Corel recently reintroduced its WordPerfect for Linux, but it's years older than release 12 for Windows).

But it's the best, smoothest alternative yet to paying Microsoft's office-suite mortgage (in Product Activation and business licensing rigmarole as well as retail price, though Corel does nag you to register for e-mail support). If you're among the millions using an older version of Microsoft Office and don't need the enterprise-oriented, back-end server integration that anchors Office 2003, you should take a good look at the Canadian contender before mailing your next upgrade check to Redmond.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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