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The Best Office Suites for 2021

Go back one millennium, and the term office suite meant a bunch of rooms in a brick-and-mortar building where people gathered on weekdays to type letters, hold meetings, calculate earnings, design advertisements, and waste time at the water cooler. Today, most people understand an office suite to be a batch of applications on your computer or mobile device that you use to do all those tasks, either alone or with collaborators, and not just during the workweek). Office suites haven’t replaced the water cooler, but your company’s business messaging app might have. 

Microsoft 365, the current name for what used to be Office 365, is the colossus of office suites and the one that much of the world uses by default. That doesn’t mean that Microsoft 365 is necessarily the best suite for your specific purposes, however. We’ve surveyed work-a-like and work-almost-alike suites from Google, SoftMaker, Corel, and The Document Foundation to help you pick the best one.

Pricing Differences

Some office suites, such as LibreOffice and Google’s consumer-level apps (Docs, Sheets, and Slides), are free. SoftMaker also offers a free version. Others, such as Corel WordPerfect, require you to pay a one-time cost. Google Workspace is a subscription-based service, while Microsoft 365 and SoftMaker Office both offer standalone and subscription-based versions. The cost of a subscription depends on how many devices you need to use the software on, as well as which apps you need.

With any subscription-based office suite, your apps automatically stay up to date with all the latest features and security updates. That’s an important benefit, but if you don’t really care about getting the absolute newest updates, then you might prefer to purchase a standalone version. Many office suites offer the latest version to existing users at a discount, so you might not need to pay full price when you decide it’s time for an upgrade.

What Do You Get in an Office Suite?

Three apps remain the core of every office suite: a word-processor, a spreadsheet editor, and a presentation app. Depending on the suite, and, in some cases, depending on which version of a suite you choose, you also get a mail and calendar app, a database manager, PDF-editing software, a note-taking app, website creation tools, and any of a dozen miscellaneous apps and services that cover anything from web conferencing to form-building.

One thing that all of today’s suites have in common is that their core apps—the word-processor, spreadsheet, and presentation app—share much of their underlying code. That means, for example, that the drawing tools in the presentation app are typically also available in the word-processor and spreadsheet apps. Also, the core apps typically share a similar interface, so you can move from one to the other without difficulty.

Cloud or Local Apps

One important decision to make before you choose an office suite is whether you want to work online, offline, or both. Both types of software have advantages. For instance, online apps allow you to collaborate with others and can help ensure that your files are available everywhere. Local apps are typically more powerful and reliable, however.

Corel WordPerfect, LibreOffice, and SoftMaker Office all lack web versions and confine you to working on documents on your local machine. Google’s commercial and consumer apps, by contrast, are web-first experiences. For instance, all the apps within those suites are available via a browser and every document you work on is saved to cloud storage. Although you can work on Google Docs files offline, that’s not as viable a solution as downloading full-featured local-disk versions of apps.

Microsoft 365 offers the best of both worlds. By default—though it’s easy to change this—Microsoft’s apps save documents to its cloud storage service, Microsoft OneDrive, which allows you to keep copies of your documents both online and in the cloud simultaneously. Microsoft makes it easy to edit and access your documents either online through a browser or locally through top-notch desktop apps.

Apple doesn’t specifically offer a suite of office apps, but macOS, iPadOS, and iOS users get the Pages word-processor, Numbers spreadsheet app, and Keynote presentation app; we’ll review the latest versions of those apps soon. Like Microsoft’s suite, Apple’s apps are available through a web browser, desktops, and mobile hardware, but Apple, unlike Microsoft, doesn’t provide Windows or Android versions of its office apps.

File Conventions

For better or worse—and I think, on the whole, it’s mostly for better—Microsoft 365 sets the standard for document formats; all other suites let you save documents in Office’s file formats.

The only document formats that every suite we reviewed can handle are Microsoft’s Word and Excel formats. You can set up your non-Microsoft apps to save in those formats, but you’ll typically need to swat away message boxes and other warnings when you do. If you only share documents within an organization that’s standardized on non-Microsoft formats, this isn’t an issue. In fact, some security-conscious users or businesses may prefer to keep potentially sensitive documents exclusively in LibreOffice’s open-source formats. However, if you frequently send documents to recipients outside your organization, watch out for compatibility problems.

Google’s apps handle file types uniquely. You can download Google’s documents in standard formats, such as those used by Microsoft 365 or LibreOffice, but the originals that are saved to the cloud can only be edited in Google’s web and mobile apps (with some special exceptions).

Should You Use an Alternative to Microsoft 365? 

When deciding on an office suite, you should consider whether you are picking one for yourself or your whole organization. If it’s the former, use whatever feels most comfortable. If you do choose anything other than Microsoft 365 and plan to send your files to anyone else, be prepared to set up your suite to export files in the standard Microsoft Office formats.

If you’re choosing an office suite for a small business or a large organization, then matters get more complicated. Microsoft 365 is the most effective, reliable, and easiest to use of all the suites, but it has two disadvantages: It’s expensive and you may have strong reasons to avoid proprietary software.

If you insist on open-source software, then LibreOffice is your only serious choice. That software suffers from a clunky interface with menus that can confuse even expert users. If you want free software, and you only use a Mac, then you can use the free copies of Apple’s apps that come with your machine. For free software on any other desktop OS, consider SoftMaker Office’s free version. If you’re content with cloud-only software, then Google’s apps are powerful and intuitive. If you’re in an industry or research field that uses WordPerfect, then Corel’s suite is the only choice. 

Microsoft 365 clearly leads the field, but it’s not for everyone. Unfortunately, there’s no clear preference among the Office alternatives, but you can test all the alternatives—and Office itself—with free or trial versions.

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