ThinkFree Office (online beta)

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, November 2006
Published by: ThinkFree Corp.
Requires: entium 4 CPU, 512MB RAM, 1GB free hard disk space, any supported operating system including Microsoft Windows 98 through XP & Vista (RC2), Redhat Linux 9 or later, Fedora Core 3 or later, Mac OS X; latest version of Java Runtime Environment (JRE) is required for all compatible operating systems
MSRP: Free!

ThinkFree Office 3 is a web based, server hosted, cross platform office suite of programs designed to let you create and share office documents online as well as edit uploaded Word, Excel and PowerPoint files of all kinds created with Microsoft Office. ThinkFree Office looks, feels and behaves just like Microsoft Office and runs on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. Imitation is often either a direct challenge or some form of flattery, so I'm definitely eager to see how Microsoft responds to this latest assault on its pre-eminence in the office software suite 'wars'. That ThinkFree Office declares that it "looks, feels and behaves" just like the three, core, Microsoft Office programs is simultaneously unsettling and interesting.

But who cares about any of that. ThinkFree Office is free. No money. That's, like, nothing. You might ask how good it can be when its direct competition, Microsoft Works 2006 replete with a massive feature and function set (as well as the Encarta encyclopedia, mapping software and a full calendar utility) is available for only $99.95. We've already seen Google's free online office suite effort with its Writely and Google Sheet offerings, neither of which should be ignored. The point of this review is to find out where ThinkFree Office is positioned and whether or not you should bother with it. ThinkFree Office is available in the online version we're reviewing here, as a desktop product for Windows/Mac/Linux, in a server edition, and ThinkFree Office Show is available in an iPod version.

ThinkFree Office is composed of three main components: Write—the word processor, Calc—the spreadsheet, and Show—the presentation program. These core products appear to be most in demand by the majority of office software users. Of course your mileage may vary, so if you truly need clones of Access, InfoPath, Outlook, OneNote and Publisher (as found in Microsoft Office Pro), look elsewhere. If you need the calendar, mapping software and Encarta encyclopedia along with word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software in Microsoft Works 2006, well, you just need to spend $99 on Works 2006. Just do yourself a favor and define your needs clearly before you turn away, keeping in mind that the main strength of ThinkFree Office is that it's web based.


ThinkFree Office provides an important selection of utilities including Speller (for spell checking), a large Clipart library, and a Help Viewer. The files you create are stored online on a secure, private, backed up data storage array. Kickstartnews contributing reviewer Mark Goldstein and I reviewed ThinkFree Office through high speed DSL, high speed cable and half-speed ISDN lines. ThinkFree Office worked identically well in all the Windows, Mac and Linux browsers we tried including Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7, Firefox 1.5.8 (Windows, Mac and Linux), Opera 9 (Windows and Mac), Safari 2.0.4 (Mac only), and Konqueror (Linux only). Basically, ThinkFree Office works in everything as long as Java is enabled. You'll find Java on/off controls in the Options menu or dialog in the browser of your choice.

The initial impression of ThinkFree Office is slightly uncomfortable. It looks so much like Microsoft Office—with menus, fields, controls, features and functions in almost identical positions—that it's hard to believe it wasn't developed by Microsoft. Nevertheless, the similarities help you get into it immediately. As long as you have a reasonably fast network or internet connection, you won't notice much of a difference in speed either. Typing in Write is pleasantly responsive, entering formulas and data in Calc is quick, and Show operates at essentially the same speed as PowerPoint.

You'll find slight lags when you use your mouse to click on certain functions and controls. In Show, for example, there's a distinct 1-2 second response delay when changing between the Outline and Slide tabs. File loading from your ThinkFree home page is also a bit pokey mainly because everything you create online is stored on a secure server which has to decrypt the file you asked for and then load it into the viewing or editing window. There is a small speed trade-off, no question about it, but it's a gap which is going to narrow quite a bit more as network speeds, internet access speeds, the 'net itself and browsers get faster and faster. We noticed a distinct slowdown when we were on the half-ISDN line, and while ThinkFree was still usable, the experience wasn't pleasant. Take this one off your list if your internet access is half-ISDN or slower (54Mbps modem, dial-up internet of any kind).

The list of features and functions in Write, Calc and Show is very long. As far as I can tell after a couple of months of regular use, ThinkFree Office fully accommodates all of the formatting and document creation needs I normally expect and require. That covers, financial spreadsheets, data comparison spreadsheets, memos, correspondence, faxes, research documents, basic marketing collateral, training presentations, product presentations and research data presentations. Not bad for a free online office suite that makes your files available to you anywhere in the world as long as you can access an internet connection through a java-enabled browser.

The features which stand out during day-to-day use include printing directly from the online application menu, a Save As PDF command in the File menu, publishing directly to the blog of your choice, read only and read/write file sharing via e-mail, and the fact that you can access a document in ThinkFree anywhere you've got a browser and internet access. There's also a Publish feature which has nothing to do with desktop/network printing or your own blog, but rather publishes a selected document on the ThinkFree public blog. I got a nasty surprise when I inadvertently published a test document containing some rather 'choice' language. Luckily, deleting the original document from your ThinkFree file list also deletes the item from the public blog. Interestingly, you have an opportunity to attach a usage license to a published document (mostly Creative Commons variants, but there's an All Rights Reserved selection as well). The Save As PDF command does not require an Acrobat installation on your computer, so you're getting a good quality Adobe PDF document creator for free as well.

What's the catch? Frankly, and all conjecture aside, there's no real catch that we can detect right now. Mark noted that the advertising positioned next to the document page while you're using ThinkFree is quite obvious. He's right, but we both found that the static ads did not actually distract us from getting anything done. The only issue that might be considered a catch is the fact that ThinkFree Office is still being touted as a beta. For the record, we doubt that anyone will lose any files of any kind, and ThinkFree Corp appears to be taking this concern very seriously. On the other hand, smart users will always make their own backups, and the ubiquity of CD/DVD burners makes backups awfully easy to do even when traveling. Accidents happen, so we say be smart. If you've got a gmail account with all its attendant free storage space, why not simply send yourself all your ThinkFree documents?

If you're wondering how a relative newcomer like ThinkFree Office is fairing against Microsoft Office, you don't have to look far. A comparatively tiny number of people are using ThinkFree Office. The product should actually have a relatively broad appeal, and those who use it should enjoy both its functionality and the stability of the online environment in which it operates. Microsoft is fully aware of ThinkFree's presence, but has little to fear at this point in particular because the shiny new Microsoft Office 2007 has been radically redesigned. For people who have to access active documents while traveling, ThinkFree represents something that Microsoft just can't touch right now. Options such as GoToMyPC and PC Anywhere require direct access to a PC that's been appropriately set up—not the most convenient situation, and effectively useless when you can't get your own laptop online. The fact remains that most hotels still don't offer universal wired or wireless high speed internet access in every room, and if you have to get online internet cafe-style, forget about GoToMyPC and PC Anywhere. To get into ThinkFree Office, on the other hand, all you need is a Java-enabled browser.

Cons: It's all free, so it's also natural to expect some bugs (and it's still a beta product after all). You can download any of the documents to your local hard drive (or wherever you choose). Unfortunately, complex downloaded Write documents don't retain much of their formatting when loaded into Microsoft Word, so it's best to print directly from the ThinkFree application menus while you're online. Keep in mind that Microsoft Works, that oft derided suite of programs, is actually an incredibly good value. If you don't really have a need for a web based office suite but you need to keep costs down, Works 2006 is really an amazing package.

Pros: No crashes, lost documents or any other anomalies during two months of testing and use. Create complex documents, spreadsheets and presentations using a comprehensive set of formatting and graphics tools apparently lifted straight out of Microsoft Office. Surprisingly speedy operation. Document sharing is as simple as clicking a couple of commands. You can share through an existing blog or via e-mail, or publish to the open ThinkFree blog. Fills an important need for online document creation. Great for many business travelers (imagine not having to worry about hauling a laptop to meetings, instead logging on to ThinkFree from your client's meeting room using his computer and network). Lots of creative possibilities and lots of solid business possibilities. It's free. Recommended.

KSN Product Rating:

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