Free alternatives to the juggernaut word processor
Microsoft Word has been the go-to word processor since the early 90s. It’s a program that anyone who’s ever used a computer will recognize and for good reason—it’s both capable and common. Documents with .doc (or .docx) extensions are ubiquitous and widely recognized as the file format of choice for formatted text files. Although it’s relatively affordable in its modern incarnations—$139.99 for home use or $6.99 a month as a subscription service (as part of the Office suite)—freeware alternatives abound and for once, they’re more than capable.
All of the word processors we tested have the basic features you’d expect from any software dedicated to text—spell check, text input, font options, and basic formatting. The difference, in this case, is in the details. Some of the software is more feature-rich with advanced options for macros, text wrapping, and even add-ons. They’re all compatible with the standard document formats and should work interchangeably.
The real question is, which is the best? Read on to find out!
Microsoft’s own Word Online is probably the most obvious choice. Available as part of Office Online , Word Online gives users a stripped-down version of Word. All of the standard features are here. You can type up your papers, essays, and documents in the relatively familiar interface. Try to incorporate more advanced formatting and you’ll run into some problems.
It may look familiar, but it's a far cry from the feature-filled Microsoft Word.
It’s interesting that nearly every basic function of Word is replicated in the online version, except that some of the editor’s most useful features are stripped away. Insert an image into a document and you’ll have rudimentary control over its size, but you can’t control text wrapping, cropping, or simple image correction. Likewise, heading into the Page Layout tab grants you access to margins, orientation, size, indents, and spacing, but important features like columns are noticeably absent. Going further, Word Online doesn’t give you direct access to local files and documents. To open pre-existing documents, you’ll first have to upload them to your OneDrive before they’re accessible in Word Online.
If all you’re doing is writing up a basic document—for a school paper or a cover letter—you’ll be fine with Word Online. Documents are automatically saved to your OneDrive account and can be downloaded as .docx files when you’re finished with them. Although it works for most tasks, Word Online is clearly meant to be a stepping stone to the full product. Unlike some of the other word processors we tested, it’s a stopgap solution that exists as a convenience, but also as a gateway into the paid ecosystem of Microsoft Office products.
Final Verdict: It's a word processor, but only in the most basic sense. Think of it as a step above WordPad, but clearly inferior to Microsoft Word.
This is the freeware word processor to beat. Favored by many for its relative simplicity and ease-of-use, Google Docs has been wildly popular since it was first made available to Google Apps users in 2007. It’s come a long way since its initial versions and is now a fully capable word processor that’s available to anyone with a Google account.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Google should recognize Google Docs. It's the online word processor of choice for more than a few people.
As with all of the other word processors, it lets you type in your words and edit them. Inserting images is easy, and manipulating text is a cinch. The interface is kept simple and the tools available to users are adequate. Columns aren’t officially supported, but inserting a borderless table can have a similar effect.
Collaboration is one of the app’s major selling points. Working on a document with multiple people at the same time isn’t a problem with Google Docs. Each and every user currently viewing a document are displayed in the top right of the interface. Built-in chat and rudimentary revision tracking go a long way towards making multi-user documents reasonable. Add in the simple things like labeled cursors—you can see where your friend’s cursor is currently placed—and Google Docs works wonders for projects that involve multiple authors.
The recent addition of add-ons has made Google Docs even more capable. Plugins like Track Changes and EasyBib Bibliography Creator add features to the software that are otherwise unavailable or inadequate.
What makes Google Docs particularly appealing—and possibly a bit off-putting—is that there’s no paid upgrade or hidden monetization. Google’s happy enough that you’re working within their ecosystem and don’t need you to pay a monthly subscription or a one-time fee to access the software. The main drawback to Google Docs is that there’s no desktop client. Dedicated apps exist on most mobile platforms, but the only way to access it on a PC is through a web browser. It works well, but it lacks some of the advanced features that power users look for in a word processor.
Final Verdict: It's free, it's quick, and it's easy. It's also missing some essential features that powerusers will likely miss—namely a desktop client. If you know you don't need any advanced features, you can't go wrong with Google Docs.
Click through to the next page to see what we thought of OpenOffice Writer, LibreOffice Writer, and Kingsoft Writer.
Once upon a time, OpenOffice.org was the go-to choice for anyone reluctant to use Microsoft Office. It was a shining example of open-source, freeware software. In 2011, the project was closed down by Oracle and the trademarks and code were contributed to Apache to be re-used as the basis for Apache’s own OpenOffice project . For all intents and purposes, the software is just as good (if not better) than it ever was. The Open Document Format (.odf) has come a long way and is the default extension for many freeware suites.
The sidebar might look a bit out of place, but it's a great way to make better use of horizontal screen space.
In its current state, Apache OpenOffice is a stellar office productivity suite and OpenOffice Writer is no exception. It’ll do everything you’d want an editor to do albeit with a slightly dated interface. Perhaps as a consequence of its open-source nature, the software looks like it belongs on a distribution of Linux and not on Windows 7, 8, or even OS X.
Getting past the dated exterior, OpenOffice Writer really can do pretty much everything and anything you’d want a word processor to do. Development on the project has slowed down a bit since Apache took over, but it’s clear that Apache is still actively working on the software. Version 4.1 was released in late April and represents the 23rd release of the software.
Final Verdict: It looks old and feels a little stale, but it's a fully-capable word processor that's both open-source and completely free. The legacy of OpenOffice.org continues in Apache's re-release.
Start-up LibreOffice Writer and you’ll probably be a bit confused. It looks almost identical to Apache OpenOffice Writer. It doesn’t have a sidebar—at least not by default—and the icons are all slightly different, but inside and out, it’s pretty damn close to a carbon copy of Apache’s word processor. It makes sense because as an open-source project, all of the code for Apache OpenOffice is available for other organizations like The Document Foundation to replicate. What does this mean to you? It means that LibreOffice will incorporate all of the features developed by Apache while also including features unique to LibreOffice—like embedded fonts.
Yeah, it looks a whole lot like OpenOffice, but it's got more than a few features that set it apart.
All of the things we like about Apache OpenOffice Writer carry over to LibreOffice Writer. There’s very little difference between the two, but LibreOffice gets a slight edge because it essentially mixes and matches the work of two separate communities of developers into a single, enhanced word processor and office suite.
Final Verdict: It's a slightly more attractive version of Apache OpenOffice with a few added features. You can use either interchangeably, but LibreOffice is definitely a spectacular word processor.
Kingsoft Writer is developed in Hong Kong and it’s pretty clear from the offset that it’s a Microsoft Word clone. The 2013 update even manages to copy the ribbon system made popular by the latest versions of Microsoft Office. Fortunately, Kingsoft has done a great job of replicating Microsoft Word while also innovating by adding new features like tabs to manage multiple documents within the same window, and an increased reliance on sidebars to capitalize on the popularity of widescreen displays.
Clones usually aren't very good, but Kingsoft Writer is an exception.
What makes Kingsoft Writer particularly nice is that it works almost seamlessly with documents created and edited in Microsoft Office. Sure, OpenOffice, Google Docs, and LibreOffice can convert and manipulate Microsoft Office documents as well, but formatting issues and small quirks abound. One of the apps main selling points is its compatibility with files from Microsoft Word.
It might sound like a spectacular bargain with its Microsoft Word-like features and interface, but it's crippled by some major omissions. The word processor lacks any sort of multi-language support—although separate versions for different languages are available—which means that you're limited to English-language spell-check and autocorrect.
Although a paid version is available for $69.95, only a few features are stripped from the free version. Users who need macros, online updating, or the ability to switch between skins on the fly will need to spring for the paid version, but everyone else should be just fine.
Final Verdict: If you're OK with what amounts to a polished clone and don't need anything but English, Kingsoft Writer is a great word processor. Add in the fact that it'll be almost instantly familiar with anyone who's used Word and you've got a worthy alternative.
There’s something to be said for using Microsoft Word. If you can afford it, you can’t go wrong with the tried-and-true word processor that’s been around about as long as modern computers have. That said, there are plenty of options available for thrifty consumers and diehard supporters of open-source software. As great as Google Docs is for collaboration and simple word processing, we have to go with LibreOffice Writer as our go-to, free word processor for its comprehensive feature set and the fact that it works as a native application. It’ll do everything you need it to do, and it’ll do it all for free—just keep an eye out for formatting issues when working with .doc and .docx files worked on in Microsoft Word.