September 11, 2007

Office software shootout: Writer vs. Microsoft Word, round three

Author: Bruce Byfield

Every few years, I check in on how Writer compares to Microsoft Word. The first comparison came in 2002, the second in 2005. In those two comparisons, emerged as superior, not least for its greater stability. With Microsoft Office 2007 now out for six months and 2.3 about to be released, what's the situation today? To find out, I compared the two programs on the tools that most intermediate to advanced users are likely to use.

The Interfaces

Dozens of keyboards must have been worn out in denouncing the introduction of ribbons in Microsoft Office 2007. At least one company now even offers a program to give Microsoft Office 2007 its former look. However, stripped of the hype, ribbons are nothing more than a merger of menus and toolbars, and anyone who keeps an open mind about change should be able to adjust to them for most purposes in less than 20 minutes. The main problem is not so much the idea of ribbons as the poor arrangement of items on them -- despite the effort to group related functions in one pane. Configuration options are difficult to find, and the arrangement of some functions seems completely arbitrary, with some that used to be in the File and Edit menus in a tab on the upper left, others on the far left and right sides of the Home tab, and still others dumped randomly on the Insert tab. Many users, I suspect, will miss the arrangement of some of the File and Edit items under the large logo button on the left of the ribbon area. Writer 2.3 retains the look of the older versions of Microsoft Word that it originally borrowed from, with some borrowings from other programs and macros that have been integrated into the program. The result is chaotic, but it has the virtue of at least being familiar chaos. Instead of ribbons, it uses floating toolbars that pop up in the appropriate context. Although these toolbars sometimes spring into existence right where you are working, on the whole they are much less disruptive than a complete interface overhaul.

Verdict:, not because it is well-designed, but because Microsoft Word's changes seem pointless and upset users for no good reason.


Word processor styles are like declarations of a variable in source code: They allow you to save effort by doing work once instead of repeating it each time that you need it. With styles for characters, paragraphs, lists, frames, and pages, Writer remains one of the most style-oriented word processors available, often forcing users to apply styles in order to take advantage of advanced features. With floating styles and formatting window, Writer is one of the easiest programs in which to apply styles.

Microsoft Word 2003 toyed with its own floating style window, but in 2007, its developers opted for placing styles in the right half of the Home tab's ribbon. This arrangement displays a half dozen of the most common styles and a drop-down list of 10 more. These styles are further subdivided into style sets reminiscent of those used for templates in early Word versions, such as Elegant, Formal, and Modern. To change styles, you have to drill down several layers, while you create new styles via formatted selections in a document rather than from a menu choice. I appreciate the one-line previews of each style, but the overall result, as with the general interface, is a lot of cosmetic choices for no strong reasons. Meanwhile, the lack of page or frame styles continues to severely limit layout in Word.


Page layout

Writer's page layout lacks only the ability to repeat a text frame on each application of a style to have the power of an intermediate desktop publishing program. Word, however, has little concept of the page as a design unit. Its Building Blocks, which include a number of different page layouts, is a step in the right direction, but the feature is far more rigid than Writer's page styles.



Previous versions of Word lured users to corrupt their documents by applying multiple templates to them. Word 2007 seems to have removed that temptation by not providing an interface in which to apply multiple templates. In theory, this change should make Word files less prone to corruption, but only extended use will prove whether that is so.

Word installs with dozens of templates, with even more templates online, vastly outdoing the handful with which Writer ships. You can get dozens of free Writer templates online without any difficulty, but the mystery is why doesn't ship with them, or at least link to them, the way that Word does.

Verdict: Microsoft Word.


Nothing has changed in outlining in either program: Word still has an Outline view with a collapsible tree view, and Writer still has a list of Headings in the Navigator floating window. Word's Outline view allows users to conceal individual headings, while Writer's Navigator only gives you the option of hiding headings beneath a certain level. Writer also requires some customizing of Tools -> Outline Numbering before the Navigator shows body text, while Word displays it by default.

Verdict: Microsoft Word. OOo Writer's outlining remains only adequate.

Bulleted and numbered lists

Word 2007 improves on earlier versions by providing a tool for setting up nested lists with a limited number of layout options. Otherwise, lists in Word 2007 remain prone to corruption when you start editing them unless you set up SEQ fields for numbering and design macros to apply them automatically. Nor does Word allow fine-tuning of such details as the space between a bullet and text, although you can define your own list styles.

Writer has not changed its implementation of lists in version 2.3, but it had little room for improvement. If you use list styles, you can nest lists and move list items around without the slightest problem, and edit their layout in detail.

Verdict: Despite some improvements in Word 2007, Writer is not seriously challenged.


Despite some serious limits in older versions of Writer, today both Word and Writer handle tables about equally well, providing similar features for creating tables and allowing the same range of formatting choices. In both cases, too, the formatting leaves something to be desired, with Writer's Autoformats being useful only for tables with the same numbers of rows as the applied format, and Word's table format being easily corrupted if you change the options on a particular table. Although some users like Word's tool for drawing a table, it is hardly an efficient tool, and is not much to weight against Writer's ability to implement basic mathematical functions and the convenience of its centralized formatting options. In Word, formatting always seems to involve drilling so far down into the dialogs that you forget your original purpose.

Verdict: Tie. Both could be improved.

Headers and Footers

For years, Word has been notorious for an awkward, pre-WYSIWYG tool for headers and footers. That tool finally hit the recycling bin in Word 2007, but what replaces it is only slightly better. Word 2007 not only defaults to four choices of header or footer, three of which are of dubious use, but is still limited to having different headers for the first, odd, and even pages unless you use sections in a document, and has only limited formats.

By comparison, in tying headers and footers to page styles, Writer allows for a greater variety of headers and footers with less effort. In addition, its headers and footers have more formatting options. It helps that footers and headers are individually defined styles in Writer.

Verdict: OOo Writer.

Footnotes and endnotes

Writer's notes are highly customizable in every aspect, from the text style to the design of the marker in the text to the separating line and whether continuation notices are used when a note flows over on to another page. Word's functionality is only basic by comparison.

Verdict: OOo Writer.


No point in belaboring the obvious: Writer's cross-reference tool continues to be arcane and usable only when some custom fields or macros are added to automate the process. Word's haven't changed much, either, but had less need to. Both would benefit from the ability to create and store introductory text in a cross-reference.

Verdict: Microsoft Word.

Indexes, tables of content, and bibliographies

Word's formatting of indexes and tables remains rudimentary compared to Writer. For instance, Word's designers never seem to have considered the possibility of more than one order in table of content entries, nor heard that leader dots between an entry's text and page number is a sign of faulty design. Writer's indexes and tables allow far more customizing, although at the expense of a slightly confusing or overwhelming interface.

Word's sole advantage is its ability to choose which standard citation formats to use automatically for bibliographies. You can set up Writer to use a particular citation format, but only by doing a lot of customization.

Verdict: OOo Writer -- but that doesn't mean that Writer couldn't improve its bibliographies.

Master documents

Master documents are collections of files that ease the editing of what would otherwise be long or large documents. For more than a decade, one word has been used over and over to refer to master documents in Microsoft Word: Don't. Over all the versions of Word in that time, master documents have been prone to crashing and corrupting their subdocuments. That hasn't changed in Word 2007.

For anyone who has struggled with Word's master documents, Writer's are a pleasant surprise. Easy to use and generally stable, the few times they do crash, they don't destroy the subdocuments.

The ironic part is, Word needs master documents, since it cannot reliably handle documents longer than about 40 pages. By contrast, Writer can handle documents hundreds of pages long, provided you have the necessary RAM to move through them efficiently.

Verdict: OOo Writer.

Drawing tools

With the release of version 2.0, Writer gained equality with Microsoft Word's tools for manipulating basic shapes, charts, and graphical text. Nothing has changed in the two applications' most recent versions.

Verdict: Tie. Possibly, the round might go to Word for a larger selection of integrated clip art.

Unique features

As in earlier releases, Word includes a grammar checker -- a mixed blessing, since it can encourage as much as correct errors, but still a feature that Writer lacks. In addition, Word 2007 includes research and translation links. Other unique features in Word includes a selection of options for displaying changes in a document, a split pane view for comparing two versions of the same document, and a multiple clipboard.

In comparison, Writer has few if any features not shared by Word. By default, it includes the export of files to PDF, but an add-on gives Word the same ability.

Verdict: Microsoft Word.


As in the previous two comparisons, Writer emerged as the winner in the majority of categories. However, in many categories, the decision is not as obvious as in previous comparisons. For the first time in several releases, Word's designers seem to be making significant changes. These changes are not always successful -- in fact, the reordering of menus into ribbons might be seen by the cynical as an attempt to hide some long-term embarrassments, such as the ongoing problems with master documents. But at least the effort is being made. Writer, by contrast, seems to be standing still, and some of its problems -- notably, cross-references -- are almost as long-neglected as some of Word's.

As free software, Writer has advantages that Word is unlikely to match -- its philosophy, its price, its easy availability, and its frequent updates. However, speaking only in terms of functionality, Writer seems to be coasting a little on its reputation. If that continues, its superiority may be eroded, or dissolved altogether.


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