First Look at OpenOffice.org 3.0

Writer, Calc, and Impress

The Notes feature in previous versions of OpenOffice.org was woefully inadequate and not very user-friendly (Figure 3). In-line notes in a text document were displayed as tiny yellow rectangles, which were difficult to use and easy to miss.

If you use notes to comment and collaborate on Writer documents, you'll be pleased to learn that OpenOffice.org 3.0 comes with a completely redesigned Notes feature (Figure 2). Notes are now displayed on a side of the document, and each note has an arrow that points to the exact insertion point in the text. Notes created by different users are displayed in different colors, and each note contains a time stamp as well as the name of the user who added the note. All this makes it easier to keep tabs on notes and use them as an efficient tool for document collaboration.

OpenOffice.org 2.4 introduced the ability to apply different language settings to text segments in a document easily – a feature that comes in particularly handy when dealing with multilingual documents. OpenOffice.org 3.0 adds a small but important improvement to this feature. Spelling dictionaries in OpenOffice.org 3.0 are treated as extensions, and the Tools | Language | More Dictionaries Online command points you to the spell-checking extensions in OpenOffice.org's extension repository. Here, you can download the spell-checking dictionaries you want and install them using the Extension Manager.

The Extension Manager module has also been thoroughly reworked to make it more user-friendly. The new manager offers a better overview of the installed extensions and displays detailed information about the extension (provided that the extension's developer has included the info in the package). Extension developers will also appreciate the ability to integrate the extension's help into the On-line Help module.

The Writer application sports another minor yet useful improvement: You can use the slider at the bottom toolbar to zoom in and out of the document as well as switch between different viewing modes. This feature provides a more efficient way to view and browse long documents than the Preview button in version 2.x.x (Figure 4). The Calc spreadsheet application has a few new features, too (Figure 5). The most notable one is the Solver component, which is designed to solve optimization problems in which the optimum value of a particular cell is calculated based on constraints provided in other cells.

Another new – and less esoteric – feature is the ability to share spreadsheets with other users. In the current version of OpenOffice.org, when the user opens a Writer, Calc, or Impress document, the system locks it so other users can't modify it. The Share feature in Calc gives other users access to the document and provides a simple conflict-resolution mechanism. When you enable the sharing feature using the Tools | Share Document command, other users can open and edit the shared spreadsheet. The changes to the spreadsheet are merged when the users save them. When they do that, the system notifies you about the modifications and highlights them in the shared spreadsheet. If two users modify the same cell, the system displays the Resolve Conflicts dialog box, which provides different options for solving the listed conflicts.

The Charts module in the new version of OpenOffice.org introduces support for error bars and regression equations. Now it's possible to draw error bars based on error ranges provided in spreadsheet cells. Additionally, it is possible to display regression equations as well as correlation coefficients.

The Impress presentation application now comes with native support for inserting tables into presentations (Figure 6). In the previous versions of OpenOffice.org, you could insert tables only as embedded Calc objects, which was both cumbersome and limiting.

The new version of Impress sports native support for tables, and the application provides all the essential tools for manipulating and formatting tables. When you insert a table using the Insert | Table command, you can use the Table toolbar to add and remove rows and columns, merge and split cells, and tweak the table's properties. The Table Design tab in the Tasks pane also provides a few predefined table styles that you can use to spice up the overall look of the table.

Extensions

With a robust extension architecture in place, integrating features directly into OpenOffice.org is no longer the only way to add functionality to the suite, as the Sun Report Builder extension [2] shows. Instead of replacing the outdated report feature in OpenOffice.org Base, Sun released a new reporting engine as an extension. This trend continues with Open-Office.org 3.0, in which several new "features" are released as separate extensions. The most notable examples are the Sun PDF Import [3] and Sun Presenter Console [4] extensions. As the names suggest, the former allows you to import PDF files into OpenOffice.org, whereas the latter provides more control over a slide show presentation.

Sun PDF Import is a boon for users who need a lightweight tool for editing and commenting PDF documents. The extension allows you to import a PDF file into the Draw application, and you can use all the available tools to tweak and comment the document. Then, you can then save the modified file back to the PDF format using the File | Export as PDF command.

Although PDF Import does a good job of opening PDF files, it won't replace a dedicated PDF editor because of several important limitations. For example, the extension imports each line of text from the PDF file as a separate text block. This means that you can't copy a text fragment and paste it as text into a Writer document, which limits the ability to extract text from PDF files. Also, exporting the edited file as PDF doesn't preserve the existing bookmarks of the original PDF file. Thus, the PDF Import feature is useful for occasional lightweight editing, but it won't replace a dedicated PDF editing application. That said, you should keep in mind that the PDF Import extension is not designed to be a full-blown PDF editing tool.

Giving presentations created with Impress is now much easier, thanks to the Sun Presenter Console. This extension lets you see the upcoming slide, the slide notes, and a presentation timer. This information is available only to you and the presenter, whereas the audience sees only the current slide.

Although the idea of extending functionality via extensions makes a lot of sense – after all, Firefox has been doing this for ages – there are a few downsides to this approach. For example, this means that after you've installed version 3.0, you still have to download and install several extensions to add some of the most interesting and useful – and some would say essential – features. Also, some users might find it slightly confusing that the PDF export feature is built into OpenOffice.org, but if you want to be able to import PDF files, you need to install an additional component.

Final Word

Steady improvement and a rather conservative approach to adding new features have always been the major traits of the OpenOffice.org project, and the upcoming version of the productivity suite is no exception. OpenOffice.org 3.0 is by no means a revolutionary release, but it does offer enough improvements and a few new features to make it a solid and desirable upgrade for most users.

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Comments

  • Compatiability

    Well I'd just like to add one more thing, something which should encourage Everyone to use it - you can get it as a Portable Application and put it on a USB - I use a 2GB stick for my work, and carry Office and Gimp portably, so I can operate on every Windows computer. When people ask why, I tell them it's easier to use (I find Word easier for making up documents as I have to make worksheets, drag pictures in there. I generally export them as PDF once made, because that keeps the file size Very reasonable - a 9MB word file opened in office can often save as a 600kb PDF file...)

    Microsoft Word could never go onto USB, and isn't welcome in any civilised computing environment.
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