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TECH Q&A

Is Microsoft Office worth its weight in tuition?

By Doris Schuk , Duluth, Minnesota

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My daughter is starting college, and I was wondering if we should spend money upgrading to the latest version of Microsoft Office for her notebook computer?

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Tech Expert Chris Pirillo President, Lockergnome.com

Expert Answer:

Dear Doris,

Depending on your daughter's needs (is she pursuing a degree in business, or is she an art major?), you do have options. If her needs are fairly simple, you can most likely get away with using a free alternative like Google Docs or OpenOffice.org.

While some have tested the freebies and found them to perform at a slower pace than their Microsoft equivalent, you might be surprised at how much distance you can get out of them.

Let's make some quick comparisons. Microsoft Office is a suite of applications that can be purchased in various flavors: Office Professional or Office Home and Student are likely your two top choices. The Professional version offers more features, but let's keep it simple and focus on the latter.

Office Home and Student includes Excel (for tables, data analysis, and spreadsheets), OneNote (for note-taking and sharing) , PowerPoint (for business and school presentations), and Word (for word processing, composition, and that sort of thing).

Google Docs offers its own equivalents to each of these minus OneNote, while OpenOffice.org has something to match each component of Microsoft Office plus a database organizer (probably not much of a bonus unless your daughter's an IT major). Both free options were designed to be compatible with Microsoft's file formats (.doc, .xls, .ppt, etc.), but "compatible" can be a pretty relative term.

Let's say your daughter has composed what looks like a perfect term paper in OpenOffice.org's Word equivalent, Writer, at home on her desktop. If she doesn't have a printer and has to take that .doc file to the school's computer lab, she may have to open it in Microsoft Word.

Sure, chances are that the file will open, but will formatting have to be tweaked for a successful printout (and in time for class)? If this (as just one example) is the sort of problem you'd rather avoid entirely, then take advantage of your daughter's student discount and get the full Microsoft Office suite.

If she can handle the occasional snag and treat it as a learning experience, then the free alternatives should be just fine.

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