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NeoOffice 1.2.2 Review


I originally reviewed NeoOffice/J 0.82 back in 2004. At the time, Apple hadn't officially released it's X11 server, so running OpenOffice.org of any type on Mac OSX was quite a challenge. Two years later, the now renamed NeoOffice remains by far the best way to run OpenOffice.org (OOo) on OSX.

NeoOffice Splash

What Is NeoOffice?

NeoOffice is a version of OpenOffice.org for Mac OSX. While a port of OOo exists for Mac OSX, it requires Apple's X11 server. This means that it doesn't fit in well with the rest of an Apple desktop, it uses different shortcuts, fonts and printing. In short, while better than nothing, OOo's X11 port is certainly less than optimal for Apple users. Moreover, Apple's X11 server isn't even included in the default OS install, so running OOo on a Mac requires a lot of work by the end user.Enter NeoOffice.

NeoOffice basically replaces the dependency on X11 with a dependency on Java. As Java is a native interface to Mac OSX, this means that NeoOffice can look and feel like a native Mac application. Now, the work is far from complete, but NeoOffice 1.2.1 features Mac-friendly keyboard shortcuts, shares the Apple clipboard, has a top toolbar like other Mac applications, and uses fonts and printers native to Mac OSX. It still doesn't fit perfectly into the environment, but it's far closer than anything else. Amazingly, NeoOffice is mostly the work of three people, only one of whom does the majority of the coding. Despite this, NeoOffice is a solid, complete office suite that brings modern features such as spell-as-you-type, word completion, writing to PDF and Flash files, and more to the Macintosh platform in a single package that is easy to use and install.


NeoOffice with both Draw and Writer documents open

NeoOffice is a complete office suite that can open and save Microsoft Office documents, can read OOo 2.0's OpenDocument format. It is based on OpenOffice.org 1.1.5, with an alpha based on OOo 2.0 in the works. Text documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawing, NeoOffice handles them all with aplomb. It does take more RAM than MS Office to run well, but the suite is Free and Open Source, so the money that you save on the MS Office license will more than pay for the RAM upgrade. As a long-time OOo user, I prefer NeoOffice to MS Office for most tasks.

Capabilities and Performance

As has been outlined above, NeoOffice is a very capable office suite. It even integrates with 10.4's Spotlight. For more details on what the suite can and can't do, one can read up on OOo 1.1 or StarOffice 7 reviews. This is basically the same program. NeoOffice is slow to load, but once it's running, I find it faster for most tasks than MS Word 2004 on my PowerBook G4 1.5GHz. This is especially true for larger, 30+ page documents.

While NeoOffice looks less like an Aqua application than MS Word, when actually using it, I find NeoOffice's interface to be less intrusive and less jarring than MS Office 2004. Yes, it lacks translucent hover menus, but the interface actually seems to have less lag than MS Office's, at least on my machine. Once I'm actually using it, I find it easier to ignore NeoOffice as an application, and to focus on my document. When it comes to using MS Office on the Mac, I often find that the constant use of eye candy in the interface often distracts me from the task at hand. More importantly, though, I find NeoOffice's font rendering to be better than MS Office's. Finally, despite claims of 100% compatibility with the Windows version, I have found that MS Office for Mac doesn't always open Window MS Office files the same way. This has never been an issue for me with NeoOffice. Documents created in Linux, Windows or Solaris load exactly the same in NeoOffice. I often find, at least for the MS Office documents that I deal with, that NeoOffice does a more faithful import of the file than MS Office 2004. However, being a long-time Linux and StarOffice/OpenOffice.org user, I will admit a certain predisposition to finding faults with MS Office. I haven't used it extensively on the Mac, but when I have it certainly seemed like a poor cousin to the Windows version to me.

Room for Improvement

While NeoOffice is my office suite of choice on the Mac, there is definite room for improvement. At this point, the largest problem with NeoOffice is that it only runs on PowerPC systems. Apple's Rosetta doesn't work for Java programs, and NeoOffice is a very complex mix of C++ and Java. It has, however, been ported to Java 1.4 which has paved the way for Intel support. OOo 2.0 runs natively on Intel, and the main developer behind NeoOffice has been working hard to move his changes to OOo 2.0. Once this is complete, it should be a relatively minor job to get NeoOffice running on Apple's new Intel machines. Given the severely limited resources of the NeoOffice team, the speed at which the port progresses is astounding. In the meantime, there is still pure OOo 2.0, the first native Intel office suite for the Mac.

NeoOffice Native Print Dialog

The native print dialog hints at future further integration with OSX

Obviously, getting something working on the new Intel Macs and moving to OOo 2.0 are the biggest project goals. Beyond this, there is work on replacing all 400+ icons with ones that will more closely fit with the rest of the system. There is also a desire to move to native dialogs wherever possible. This has already been done with the print dialog, but the open and save dialogs remain at the top of this list. Unfortunately, there are good reasons for leaving things as they are at the moment.There are some fairly simple changes that could be made to the default NeoOffice package to make it a bit more Mac-like and to have it stand out a little less. As you can see in my screenshots, I have replaced the default icon set with a slightly different one. I've also collapsed and disabled a few toolbars. This eliminates some of the GUI components that make NeoOffice stand out as non-native, while also simplifying the interface for new users.

Performance has been improving steadily in NeoOffice. There was a big jump to 1.1 and an even more noticeable improvement in 1.2.2. There is still room to improve, though. While running performance is quite good, launching the application is quite slow. This is because on top of the already heavy OOo code, NeoOffice must launch a JVM. There's only so much room for improvement on this front, so expect no miracles.Development is flying at a great clip these days, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before most of the following issues are dealt with.

Wrapping Up

NeoOffice is important not only because it brings a decent OOo port to the Mac platform, but also because it is arguably the only complete, non-Microsoft office suite for Mac OSX. Apple has all but abandoned AppleWorks which has mostly been replaced with iWork, except that iWork has no spreadsheet component and the word processing component is more of a page layout tool than a word processor. That's right, the platform that encourages users to ?Think Different? is pretty much down to a single office suite. This is unsurprising given that MS Office dominates so much of the market. With Apple's small market share, there really isn't space for a second-tier competitor such as Corel.NeoOffice continues to progress at an amazing pace considering the extremely limited resources of the project and the complexity of the code. OpenOffice.org is a massive project with over 50 full-time engineers working 9-5 on it. It's a true shame that, as the only viable OpenOffice.org version for the Mac, someone at Apple or Sun doesn't sponsor NeoOffice development, even unofficially. Patrick, the lead developer, is doing an outstanding job of bringing a proper OOo release to the Mac crowd. I hope that he can continue development, as the platform would largely be abandoned otherwise.

One more thing...

NeoOffice is a volunteer-run Open Source project. This mean that everyone gets the source code as well as the ability to run, use and copy NeoOffice for free. Having said this, NeoOffice needs funding to continue development. The source code is very complex and development is very difficult. If you can, please consider donating to the project.