December 23, 2005

Review: Crossover Office 5

Author: Aditya Nag

If you just can't bear to part with Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or Quicken, but want to make the switch to Linux, relax -- CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office has you covered.

While it is technically possible to install Windows software on Linux using the Wine project, it requires a lot of technical knowhow and painful troubleshooting. It's not as simple as putting in a CD and clicking Install.

CodeWeavers' flagship product, Crossover Office, is based on the Wine project, but incorporates substantial changes to make installation of Windows programs a piece of cake. CrossOver Office version 5.0 was released at the end of October, and offers support for several versions of Microsoft Office -- including Office 2003 -- Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Dreamweaver, Quicken, and a host of other Windows software.

The most notable change in this new version is the concept of "bottles." A bottle is basically a separate virtual drive for each instance of installed software. For example, if you install Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, they will exist on separate virtual drives, with separate files.

This approach has certain drawbacks, the most noticeable of which rears its head when you need something like Internet Explorer, which is generally installed only once and then used by various programs. When using CrossOver Office, you'll need to install IE in every bottle separately. It is possible to force an application to install in an existing bottle, but CrossOver Office warns you that doing so is "likely to produce errors." I tried installing Flash MX and Dreamweaver MX in the same bottle, and it worked, but other applications might not.

The advantages to this approach outweigh this inconvenience, though. You can be sure that installing a new program will not ruin a working program. This used to happen occasionally with previous versions of CrossOver Office, and it was a major show-stopper. The peace of mind the new approach gives is worth the slight trouble of installing some software multiple times.

CrossOver Office is available in Standard ($40) and Professional ($70) editions. The two are functionally identical, but the Professional version has some extra features that home users won't really miss, such as multi-user support and the ability to create RPMs with CrossOver Office and Windows apps installed under CrossOver Office. The company also offers a CrossOver Office Server Edition, which allows CrossOver Office to run on thin clients.

Installing the software

According to the requirements page, CrossOver Office should run on many Linux distributions on x86 hardware, with a 200MHz or faster CPU and at least 50MB of disk space available. CrossOver Office also requires Glibc 2.2.5 or higher, and Perl 5 or later with threads enabled.

Installing Microsoft Office with CrossOver - click to enlarge

I tested Crossover Office Professional under Ubuntu 5.10 and SUSE 10.0. After I downloaded the 15MB file, installation was a simple matter of double-clicking and pressing "Next" a few times. It installed properly in less than two minutes, and added itself to the GNOME menu in Ubuntu, and the KDE menu in SUSE.

Once I had the software installed, I started to install a list of Windows software: Microsoft Office 2003, Dreamweaver MX and Flash MX, Adobe Photoshop, Apple iTunes, and Musicmatch Jukebox.

Office 2003 installed and worked fairly well, with the exception of Outlook 2003. Outlook support in CrossOver Office always lags a version or two behind the latest version of Microsoft Office. Outlook 2000 and XP work to some extent, if not perfectly. The lack of Outlook 2003 support is noted on the CodeWeavers site.

Running Microsoft Excel in Ubuntu Linux - click to enlarge

Word 2003 and Excel 2003 worked well, and I was able to open complex documents on which OpenOffice.org chokes. The apps even seemed to work a little faster on Linux than on Windows, on the same hardware. This is probably because my Windows installation has accumulated all sorts of crud, while the Crossover Office bottle has nothing but the essentials required to run Microsoft Office. Still, it was rather surprising to see Microsoft apps working better under Linux!

Dreamweaver MX and Flash MX worked perfectly, but the more recent 2004 versions do not work at all. Adobe Photoshop had a similar tale to tell. Version 7 worked flawlessly, but the newer versions would not even install. Apple iTunes 4.9.0 was functional, though CD ripping and syncing with my iPod did not work. Musicmatch Jukebox 10 did not install at all.

The separate bottles approach leads to some interesting situations. For instance, if you are using a version of Internet Explorer in one bottle, and have Microsoft Office loaded in another bottle, you can't copy and paste text between them. It seems like it should work, but it doesn't. It was a bewildering few minutes before I figured out what was going on. As long as you remember that different bottles are essentially independent Windows machines, everything's fine. Web developers especially will appreciate the ability to have different versions of Internet Explorer installed independently, for testing purposes.

Summary

At the end of the day, Crossover Office does a few things very well. Office runs well, and some major apps like Dreamweaver, Flash, and Photoshop will work, as long as you don't try using the latest versions.

Is this worth paying for? It depends on your needs. If you are able to work with the Linux alternatives like OpenOffice.org, the GIMP, and Nvu, then by all means save your money and buy a Tux T-shirt instead.

However, if you have effort and money invested, or you absolutely have to have Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver or any of the other supported apps, Crossover Office is a useful purchase, and less expensive than alternatives such as Win4Lin and VMware (those those programs also offer more functionality for their higher price). It's not perfect, and has its share of problems, but CodeWeavers has focused on getting the essentials right, and it has done a fairly good job.