Updated: October 14, 2020
The world of non-Microsoft Office office suites is like an archipelago of very small islands. Similar yet different, and ultimately, all too small and fragmented to present a cohesive and complete answer to those in need of an office set of applications, free or paid. Indeed, one of the chief reasons why a user may decide to keep running Windows is their dependency on Office.
This link may never be broken, but there are tons of efforts to make a change, with varying degrees of success. For example, LibreOffice comes with tons of cool things and features but suboptimal Office compatibility. My latest LO 7.0 review prompted a barrage of emails, with people making all sorts of suggestions. Topping this list was SoftMaker Office, which has a paid Pro release, available for a 30-days free trial. The last time I tested this software was back in 2013, with my Linux office comparison, so it's time for a fresh test. Let's see what gives.
Get up, Set up
As you may have surmised from the two paragraphs above, this test will be focused on the Linux side of things, because this is where the biggest source of friction is - as there's no native Office bundle available, apart from the online version. SoftMaker offers their software for all three major desktop operating systems, and promises seamless compatibility with Microsoft Office. Sounds like a great thing, but check, we must.
The installation took a while, but it completed without problems. Running the applications is less obvious than I expected. For example, on KDE neon, rummaging through the system menu, I discovered that using the search string SoftMaker doesn't really find the relevant applications. This is because the three components are named TextMaker, PlanMaker (Excel-like) and Presentations. Somewhat confusing, I must say.
On first launch, you will be asked to select a layout. The suite offers two+ major modes - classic file menu and Ribbon-like interface, with three sub-flavors each, plus touch-optimized UI with larger buttons. Looks rather interesting, and somewhat less crowded than the many layouts in LibreOffice. I decided to try the Ribbon option.
Make it so
I started with TextMaker. It opens with a Welcome document. The layout feels a bit busy, with the document navigation on the left (although it can be quite useful), styles on the right, and a tabbed, multi-doc main pane in the middle. The Ribbon looks all right, quite consistent and easy to use.
TextMaker does a decent job overall. The workflow is very Microsoft Office like, the Ribbon is fairly responsive, and you get a good set of useful tools and features. No major complaints so far.
I fired up PlanMaker next. I found it reasonable, but not as refined. This is another thing I've noticed across a whole range of suites. Most place extensive focus on the writing component, less on the spreadsheet and presentation ones. But Excel is one of the most powerful tools in the Office suite, and few other applications offer equivalent functionality, even if we ignore the strict document compatibility.
For instance, chart management. When I created my first semi-random chart, PlanMaker gave it a wrong title. It took me a little while to smooth and polish the look & feel of my work, something that is usually much easier and faster in Excel. That said, PlanMaker has decent performance - better than most other spreadsheet tools in non-Microsoft suites.
However, something PlanMaker does well - it lets you place individual charts as sheets. Office does this, too, but many programs don't, and it's super-annoying, because if you have tons of graphs and charts, and you fiddle with your data ranges, it can be impossible finding these again. So, nice.
All in all, decent if not ideal.
Last but not the least, Presentations. I found this one the least glamorous of the three. Chief reasons: 1) performance was a bit meh, sluggish response here and there, especially when you start a slideshow and transition between slides 2) lackluster templates 3) adding new slides (with Ctrl + M) would always prompt me to choose the slide layout instead of adding a blank one or using the layout from the one above. This is a major time waste.
I then noticed that if you want to add notes to your slides - something people often do to sort of remember what they wanted to say, then this functionality feels rather cumbersome. There's no automatic pane where you can scribble text, and when I did find an option in the menu, it looked out of place.
Not ideal. Maybe a little better than LibreOffice, but not as smooth as Microsoft Office. The chief problem is that the styles list jumps up and down on text selection, so if your desired end state style is outside the short list shown in the sidebar, the Styles menu will jump, and you will need to scroll down to find and apply the desired style, which is a waste of time and mouse clicks.
There is a drop-down menu of currently used styles available in the Ribbon interface, so that saves time, but by default, it won't have too many presets. This surely helps, but it can be better. There's also no style search, either.
Microsoft Office compatibility
This intrigues me the most. I won't go into my usual philosophical rant - why one may need Office and why 100% document fidelity is critical, for home and business use. Anyway, I decided to open the same templates I used for the LibreOffice testing. The results were less than ideal, I'm afraid - definitely not seamless.
So what do we have here? In the first template, there's no restaurant logo (with stars) above the chef's head. The image scaling is better than in LibreOffice, but elements are missing. In the second template, the logo is missing, and the word FASHION is broken over two lines with a hyphen. In the third template, things look a little better, as LibreOffice didn't open this one at all. But the image alignment and aspect ratio aren't ideal.
Opening these documents also took a long time - 5-6 seconds to show the preview, and then another 5-6 seconds before they rendered on the screen. Not sure why. Now, this is just a small sample, and I've selected these templates randomly years back. So far, apart from Microsoft Office, no software opens these as the expected layout ought to be.
Glitches and problems
Alas, there were too many. For example, trying to create a new document in TextMaker: the open dialog overflowed my screen. Completely. And there was no way to move it, or to blindly choose anything but the new document template. Weird. We already mentioned responsiveness and open issues. Finally, you cannot manage tabs with the middle mouse click by default (I mean tabs, no).
SoftMaker Office 2021 has some rather nice capabilities. Good consistent looks, well-implemented Ribbon, decent performance in PlanMaker and solid-ish chart management. It also has some negative qualities, like slow file open for DOCX/DOTX files, less than ideal Office compatibility, clunky styles management, less than ideal setup in Presentations, and a few odd visual glitches that feel like pure bugs.
The program has come a long way since I tried it the first couple of times, so that's quite commendable, but like most software in this space, it cannot really replace Microsoft Office for all needs and usecases. If we judge by the strictest of requirements, one missing logo or one missing line of text can be infinite damage in a printed brochure or a work presentation. Not something people can afford. Of course, compatibility with Microsoft Office isn't the only thing, but it's critical. On top of that, if anything, I'd like to see better, faster style management and more attention given to the non-text components of the suite. All in all, decent but not stellar. Worth testing, so you can decide whether the price warrants the benefits. And we're done.