You could shell out your hard-earned money for Microsoft Office, or you could check out some free solutions that work even better.
Photo by CLF
When my generation of students learned how to use computers in our primary and high school computing skill classes, Microsoft Office (or even Microsoft Works, if you weren’t so lucky) was pretty much the only way to get through a class project or paper. Most of us went through high school using Office, even as other (in many cases better) options slowly became available.
Old habits die hard, and most people I know still use computers the way they were taught a decade ago. They type every paper, presentation, spreadsheet and class note into an Office application, even though better options are available for free. I’ve been integrating other programs into my workflow and weaning myself off of the old ways, and this semester, I’m cutting ties entirely. Here’s how you can use two free applications, Google Docs and Evernote, to end your Office addiction and move your computing to the cloud.
It still isn’t very commonly used on university campuses, but Google Docs has come a long way in recent years to the point that it’s now a totally viable option for writing most papers. The interface is familiar enough to anybody who has been using Microsoft Word for awhile, and it includes all the major tools you need. You can change your font, insert footnotes, highlight text, create tables, add comments and just about anything else you would need to craft a perfect paper.
Don’t confuse Google Docs for a simple Office imitator though; it actually has a number of features that Office either doesn’t offer or doesn’t implement nearly as well. Since your files live online instead of on your hard drive, you can access them from any computer with an internet connection; perfect if you find yourself in the library without your laptop. If you’re planning on being offline for awhile, you can export your files in a number of file formats (including .doc) for offline editing with Open Office, a text editor, or even Word if you’re so inclined. Since Google keeps all of your files (including old versions) in a simple, searchable interface, you’ll never again need to worry about tracking down a lost word document.
In addition to the document editor, Google Docs provides Excel and PowerPoint alternatives. I’m not an Excel ninja, and I’ve been told that Google’s version it isn’t ideal for advanced users in your upper-level accounting classes, but it should work just fine for 95 per cent of students. You can even use an iPhone or iPad to edit Google spreadsheets in a pinch, no apps required.
The presentation editor is, in this student’s opinion, easier to use than PowerPoint and is ideal for information-rich, no-frills presentations for your classes. If you really can’t live without chequerboard slide transitions and “whoosh” noises to go with your flying images, then you’ll want to stick with PowerPoint. If you’ve grown out of this phase, then the Google Docs alternative is as efficient as they come. My favourite feature is the ability to easily find and embed YouTube videos and images from Google Image Search on your slides. It’s much easier than the PowerPoint alternative, and looks great to boot.
To say Google Docs is better than Office at collaborating would be an understatement. If you want to email a paper to a friend to proofread for you, you can just share the Google Docs link instead of attaching a file. This eliminates the all-too-common problem of mixing up different versions of the same project. The recipient can insert comments or even, if you allow it, edit the document directly. If that weren’t enough, you can watch the changes happen in real time. Just imagine talking through your term paper with a friend over Skype while you watch them fix your typos and make comments in the margins – LIVE!
Where the Google Docs really shines though is with group projects. Every member of your group can use Docs to simultaneously edit the same document or add slides to the same PowerPoint-style presentation. It really is easier to work as a group when everybody is contributing to the same body of work, rather than trying to combine different files into a cohesive unit in the final hours (or minutes) before a presentation. When I first suggested this to a group that wasn’t familiar with Google Docs, my suggestion was met with scepticism. The learning curve was well worth it though, as we delivered the most cohesive presentation in the class and earned a grade to match.
I’m a big fan of typing class notes. It’s now nearly ubiquitous in larger lectures and is becoming increasingly common in smaller classes. Unfortunately, most digital note takers seem to be adopting the program they know, Microsoft Word, instead of a more efficient note-taking app. My personal favourite, Evernote, was far and away my favourite program last school year. (Ed. note: Microsoft’s OneNote is an extremely popular alternative that works very similarly to Evernote, but you can’t be free.)
You can type all of your class notes directly into the Evernote desktop client, which keeps everything organised, tagged and searchable. It’s hard to overstate how superior this is to having different .doc files for each class meeting or lecture, particularly when you have a test coming up. In addition to keeping everything organised, Evernote allows you to access your notes from any computer or smartphone with an internet connection, freeing you from your laptop if you want to sneak in a quick cramming session.
The coolest feature is Evernote’s ability to detect text in images and make it searchable. This means you can import a crappy PDF file from your library’s website into Evernote and suddenly gain the ability to scan through it for keywords. If you have a professor who likes to shower you with handouts, you can take a picture of them and send them to Evernote instead of stuffing them in your notebook. If you prefer to take notes by hand, you can always scan them in after class and still enjoy the program’s benefits. With a little discipline, it’s possible to catalogue an entire semester’s worth of material using Evernote. By comparison, using Microsoft Word is archaic and inefficient.
The biggest obstacle when ditching Office is generally going to be opening files that others send you. If you’re using Gmail, you’ll always have the option to open Office files straight in Google Docs, which is incredibly easy, but occasionally messes up the formatting. Beyond this, your best bet is probably Open Office, a free, open source Office alternative. I wouldn’t pick it over Google Docs for content creation, but it should work just fine for opening files in a pinch with minimal loss of formatting. You can’t beat the price either.
It’s clear that there are free alternatives to Microsoft Office that replicate Word, PowerPoint, and Excel’s important features and do a number of things better. Breaking free of the old ways isn’t always easy, but you’ll never look back after you take the plunge.