Product review: SOT Office offers quality and compatibility at a perfect price--free

A review of SOT Office--an open source application

It's often said that you get what you pay for. But when it comes to open source software, this phrase's validity may need to be reconsidered. I think this holds particularly true for SOT Office from Finnish software maker SOT. SOT Office contains many of the same components as retail productivity suites—word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, drawing application, and HTML editor—but instead of costing hundreds of dollars, SOT Office is completely free. But how good is SOT Office? Can it compete with its retail cousins? Let's take a look at SOT Office and see how it compares to Microsoft Office XP and some other free productivity suites.

System requirements and installation
SOT Office runs on Windows 95 (requires DCOM95 and MSVCRT run-time libraries), 98, NT (SP3 or later), 2000, XP, and most GNU/Linux systems (requires glibc version 2.2.1 or later and XFree86 version 4.1.0 or later, and if installed with RPM, requires rpm version 3.0.5 or later). Click here for a complete list of system requirements.

I'll start by saying that installing SOT Office was no picnic. You can download SOT Office from SOT's Web site, but the file is a whopping 639 MB. Even with my broadband connection, this one took all night to download.

Unfortunately, once the download was complete, I was still not ready to install the software. Instead of a zip file or self-extracting executable, the SOT Office download is an ISO file (CD-image). While having the ISO file makes it easy to burn an installation CD, it adds an extra step to the installation process.

Thankfully, burning the CD from the image file worked flawlessly and after doing so I was ready to install the software. Looking at the contents of the CD, I realized that it contained both the Windows and the Linux version. While I found this to be handy, I would like to have seen separate downloads for the two versions. This would have dramatically decreased the download time.

No e-mail or database apps but almost everything else
The SOT Office suite includes four core components—SOT Office Writer, SOT Office Calc, SOT Office Impress, and SOT Office Draw—and several extras—an HTML editor and equation editor. When compared to Microsoft Office, the only components SOT Office lacks are Outlook and Access equivalents—SOT Office 2003 does offer a dBase database but it can't compare to Access. Now that you know the basics, let's look at each component in more detail and compare them to Microsoft Office applications.

SOT Office Writer
SOT Office Writer looks and behaves very much like Microsoft Word. I'll let you decide whether that's a positive, but Word users should feel right at home. An example of the similarity between the two word processors is shown in Figure A. As in Word, if you misspell a word, SOT Office Writer automatically underlines it in red. If you right-click on the misspelled word, you're given correction options and can add the word to one of several available dictionaries.

Figure A
SOT Office Writer looks and feels very much like Microsoft Word.

Speaking of dictionaries, SOT Office Writer contains both a dictionary and a thesaurus, but lacks the ability to check a document for grammatical errors. For the most part, however, SOT Office Writer behaves just like Word and is both stable and very intuitive.

This is all fine and dandy but what about compatibility with other word processors? SOT Office allows you to save your files in a variety of Microsoft Word formats, RTF format, StarWriter format, and the software’s own proprietary format. The software can also save the documents in HTML format.

SOT Calc is SOT Office’s answer to Microsoft Excel. As I worked with this program, I felt right at home. As you can see in Figure B, the software is very similar to Excel and as I used the software I happily found no major missing features.

Figure B
As with other SOT core components, Microsoft Office users should feel right at home with SOT Office Calc.

The one thing I didn’t like about this package was the way the undo feature worked. During the course of playing with the software, I entered the numbers and created the graph in Figure B. I then edited the graph, adding some 3-D effects. I decided to undo the effects and realized that there was no undo option. After I exited the graph creation portion of the software, undo came back, but I could only undo the entire graph, not just the 3-D effects.

SOT Office Impress
SOT Office Impress is SOT Office’s equivalent to Microsoft’s PowerPoint. Although I'm no PowerPoint expert, I can tell you that as I browsed through the software's various features, I could find no feature that was seriously lacking. In fact, SOT Office Impress, unlike PowerPoint, has tabs beneath the slides, as shown in Figure C. These tabs allow you to move from slide to slide in the same way that you would move from spreadsheet to spreadsheet within an Excel workbook. I really like this feature and as with SOT Office Writer, Impress was able to open one of My PowerPoint presentations perfectly—one of the slides is shown in Figure C.

Figure C
You can create new presentations using Impress or open existing presentation formats.

SOT Office Draw
SOT Office Draw is used for drawing diagrams. Although this utility lacks the photo-editing capabilities found in Microsoft Office XP, it makes creating images (such as organizational charts) very easy. SOT Office Draw is much easier to use than the drawing utility built into Microsoft Word. You can see a sample of this utility in Figure D.

Figure D
Although SOT Office Draw lacks photo-editing capabilities, it allows you to easily create a variety of charts and diagrams.

SOT Office Math
The SOT Office Math equation editor is one of the minor SOT Office components. You can launch this tool manually from the SOT Office menu, but the tool is also opened automatically any time you try to insert a formula into a document.

Using this utility is fairly easy. In Figure E, notice a window with lots of mathematical symbols. The top two rows of symbols represent general types of mathematical operations. If you click on an icon in the top two rows, the available formulas will fill in the rest of the window. Next, type your numbers into the Commands window, select them, click the desired function, and the command window will be translated into something that the other SOT Office documents can understand.

Figure E
SOT Office Math is an equation editor that can be launched separately or from within other SOT Office components.

SOT Office HTML Editor
SOT Office HTML Editor is a no-frills HTML editor. As shown in Figure F, this application allows syntax highlighting, a feature I find very helpful. For the most part, this application is almost identical to SOT Office Writer, except that you can switch back and forth between a WYSIWYG view and an HTML code view. I only wish that you could display both views simultaneously in a split-screen format. Perhaps SOT will include this feature in the next version of SOT Office.

Figure F
The HTML Editor is nothing fancy, but gets the job done.

Comparing SOT Office to Microsoft Office and other free productivity suites
Now that you know what SOT Office has to offer, let's see how it stacks up against other free and retail productivity suites. I think SOT has done a great job with SOT Office. It has incorporated the most commonly used office applications—a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program—into a functional, stable, and free alternative to Microsoft Office. That said, SOT Office is lacking several components available in Microsoft Office XP, such as Outlook and Access equivalents, speech recognition, document scanning, imaging capabilities, and a photo editor.

If your users can live without these and a few other minor features, they'll likely be perfectly happy with SOT Office. The product runs smoothly and was stable during my tests. Best of all, the software is free.

One of the more popular free office suites is called 602 Pro PC Suite. This software is only 14 MB as opposed to SOT’s 639 MB. The software has many of the same basic features as SOT Office, but some, such as the spell checker, are disabled until you register the software. Registration is free, quick, and easy.

Like SOT Office, 602 Pro has a word processor and a spreadsheet. It lacks an HTML editor, or an equivalent to PowerPoint, Access, or Outlook. Also missing are the drawing tools and equation editor.

What 602 Pro does have that SOT doesn’t is a photo editor and an image organizer. In my opinion, if you can handle the massive download, SOT is a more comprehensive product than 602 Pro.

Another contender is EasyOffice, from e-press corporation. EasyOffice is a Microsoft Office-compatible freeware product. There is also a premium version for $40. Like SOT Office, EasyOffice contains a word processor, spreadsheet, and a PowerPoint-style presentation application. EasyOffice is a 58-MB download.

What EasyOffice has that SOT Office doesn’t is a bookkeeping program, a contact manager, a voice module that can read documents to you verbally, and a zip compression utility. EasyOffice is lacking the equation editor, the drawing tool, and the HTML editor.

My assessment is that all of these are good programs, and all are Microsoft Office-compatible. Although none of the free applications have all of the functionality of Microsoft Office, they do come close. If you're planning to use a free Office suite, you're best off choosing a product based on the features that your users need.