Let me start by saying that I like Office®. But it's not cheap, and with money being tight for many, and the need for more and better data and analysis on the rise, I felt like it was time to give the free alternative a look. You can download your own copy of OpenOffice at www.OpenOffice.org.
It has most of what Microsoft Office has: A word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a database (Base), a drawing product (Draw), a presentation product (Impress), and an equation editor (Math). What it does NOT have is an e-mail program like Microsoft Outlook. Considering that Windows comes with a built in, basic e-mail client, this may not matter to you. But, all things considered, it has what you need, and the price is right. In my estimation, OpenOffice could potentially replace Microsoft Office for most day-to-day usage.
If you’re familiar with Microsoft Office, then the word processing application in OpenOffice should be instantly comfortable (except there is no grammar checker). It uses many of the same keystrokes used by Microsoft products, which makes switching easier because you don’t have to re-learn shortcuts or functions.
As for Calc (the spreadsheet application), I found that it worked just fine on its own. That is, when working with spreadsheets created within Calc everything works as expected. There are some problems when converting MS Excel files containing charts to the OpenOffice format. Many times the charts will be in the wrong place or mislabeled. Also, charts based on pivot tables may come over blank. And Calc doesn’t support nearly as many columns or rows as Excel.
As a test, I built a few simple spreadsheets with some calculations and formulas and then opened them in WinTOTAL’s Worksheet view. Everything came over fine, including the formulas. The current version of OpenOffice (version 2.4.1) opens Microsoft Office 97 through Office 2003 files. An upcoming release will be able to open documents created in Office 2007.
One key thing that OpenOffice has over Microsoft Office (any version) is a built-in PDF creator. This makes it possible to author a document and immediately create a PDF without having to install a 3rd party tool such as Adobe Acrobat. This is a feature I wish Microsoft could implement in Office. Does OpenOffice have all the functionality of Microsoft Office? No. But it's not a bad suite of tools. If money's tight and you need Microsoft Office, OpenOffice is a good alternative.