April 14, 2007

Review: NeoOffice 2.1 makes incremental improvements

Author: Nathan Willis

NeoOffice, the Mac OS X native-ized port of the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, is now at version 2.1. This release is marked by several key improvements, some inherited from OpenOffice.org, and some native to OS X.

You can download the latest release as an OS X disk image from a variety of mirrors, either through direct HTTP file transfer or BitTorrent. The disk image is around 140MB in size, and the app consumes about 360MB when uncompressed and installed. 2.1 is the second release of NeoOffice that runs on both Intel and PowerPC Apple hardware, and continues to support OS X 10.3.9 and newer for PowerPC Macs. Intel Macs require 10.4.9 or greater.

To clarify NeoOffice's version history, the prior major release was named 2.0 Beta 3 -- there was no "final" NeoOffice 2.0. 2.0 Beta 3 was a major upgrade over its predecessors, marked by moving to the OpenOffice.org 2.x code base and the start if a major Aquafication push. In the absence of a 2.0 Final, though, the NeoOffice documentation, wiki, and release notes are inconsistent in what they refer to as the previous release -- in some cases, 2.0 Beta 3, in others 1.2.2.

NeoOffice 2.1 is branched off of OpenOffice.org 2.1, and thus inherits all of the parent suite's new features. These include support for Microsoft Word's OpenXML document format, Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) macros, the new optimization solver for the Calc spreadsheet component, LaTeX and BibTeX output, and initial support for importing documents from Microsoft Works.

NeoOffice 2.1. Click to enlarge.

The NeoOffice-only improvements for this release consist of further OS X integration work. The most noticeable is a greatly revamped toolbar icon and widget set. The preceding releases of NeoOffice incorporated native-looking top-level interface elements like dialog boxes and scroll bars, but the toolbar icons stood out as conspicuously non-Mac. The change is a welcome one. It does not bring new functionality but it is considerably more modern -- the old icon set looked out of date in addition to out of place.

Like most new releases, NeoOffice 2.1 promises speed improvements. It pains me to report, however, that I did not see any. The release notes specifically mention "significant improvements" to startup time, but I found no discernible difference between 2.1 and 2.0 Beta 3. In fact, when I tested 2.1 on the same files and operations that I threw at 2.0 Beta 3, on the same machine with the same configuration, 2.1 was slower. Opening the Don Quixote e-text, for example, took less than 7 seconds in 2.0 Beta 3, and 11 in 2.1. As with all real-world performance testing, of course, your mileage may vary.

I was also disappointed with 2.1's Microsoft Office compatibility. It correctly opened less than half of the sample OpenXML documents I tested (including the trivial examples from twoseparate online sources). I tested the Calc component against Gnumeric's Excel function sample files, and while 2.1 passed as many of the mathematical and statistical functions as 2.0 Beta 3, it repeatedly core-dumped when attempting to open the database functions file.

In the positive column, 2.1's VBA macro support and TeX output both seem solid. I am not a VBA power user, so if you rely on it you will want to test specifics, but NeoOffice did correctly read the macros in all of the test files I tried. LaTeX and BibTeX support was broken in the original 2.1 release, but the project quickly released a patch that restored the functionality.

The Solver tool for Calc is quite nice. Primarily of interest to mathematicians, it allows you to build linear programming problems (i.e., max-min optimization problems incorporating multiple constraint equations) step by step, and solve them right in the spreadsheet itself.

More welcome news to Mac users is integration with OS X's built-in Spotlight search framework. Installing NeoOffice requires you to authenticate with an administrator-level password; one of the behind-the-scenes tasks this step performs is registering all of NeoOffice's file types with Spotlight, which permits Spotlight to parse the contents of NeoOffice-compatible files automatically whenever you search your system.

All in all, NeoOffice 2.1 is an incremental improvement over NeoOffice 2.0 Beta 3. Microsoft Office OpenXML compatibility is still a weak point, and if you are looking for help, you are better off avoiding the inconsistent and outdated documentation on the wiki and heading directly to the discussion forum. Nevertheless, NeoOffice remains far superior to the X11-based Mac builds of OpenOffice.org. The OS integration work is impressive, and the new features make the suite as a whole all the more indispensable.

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