Microsoft's titan of a word processor is used almost everywhere by almost everyone, but what if you don't want to shell out money for your word processing needs? Here are our favourite alternatives to Word. They're all free, they're all capable of working with the ubiquitous .docx format, and they all offer some very useful features on top as well.
Microsoft does offer a stripped-down online version of Word free of charge with your OneDrive account, so if you're committed to Office that should be your first stop. If you're looking outside the blue box, though, here are five alternatives worth your time:
1.) LibreOffice (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)
If you're looking for a solid, dependable desktop tool in the mould of Word then LibreOffice is one of your best bets. Its Writer component is a more-than-capable replacement for Microsoft's program despite a slightly old-fashioned appearance, and it comes with all of the features you're going to need such as auto-save, change tracking and a commenting. Word users will feel at home right away, particularly if they're familiar with older versions of the Microsoft product.
The look of the software is fresh and clean, and the quick access toolbars make editing and formatting straightforward. Importing and exporting Word documents works fine — though it's not perfect all of the time — and there's also the option to export your documents as PDFs. All of the usual word processor mainstays, from spelling and grammar checks to header and footer support, can be found in LibreOffice.
There are some basic wizards you can play around with to create standard letters, agendas and so on, and the autocomplete feature is something a lot of users will find helpful. More complicated document layouts are handled with aplomb, or at least as well as they're handled in Word, while the only significant feature you might miss is the format painter functionality that's built into Microsoft Office.
LibreOffice split from OpenOffice four years ago, with the latter suite of products eventually taken over by the Apache Software Foundation. OpenOffice has got plenty going for it too, and is very similar in look and feel to LibreOffice thanks to their shared history; give OpenOffice Writer a whirl if LibreOffice doesn't grab you. A lot of the differences between the two packages are minor.
2.) Google Drive (Web)
Google Drive/Docs is improving all the time, and Microsoft is feeling the heat, forced into releasing its own free-to-use web-based suite of products. But Google's effort feels more intuitive and comfortable on the web than Microsoft's app, perhaps as it's been built from the ground up as an online tool rather than an adaptation of existing software. Now that QuickOffice has been merged with Google Docs, opening and editing Word files is more seamless than ever before, and you shouldn't run into problems working with contacts who are using Word.
There are all the usual benefits of using a cloud app as well: access to your files from anywhere, no need to save your documents, and the ability to collaborate on work with other people in real-time. It's more lightweight in terms of features than the desktop edition of Word, so don't expect to be able to pull off advanced layouts or mail merges using the online app.
That lightweight approach has its advantages though: Drive's word processor is quick and simple to use, and some of its best features — such as the option to research topics on the web in a separate sidebar — leave Microsoft's word processor feeling a bit out of date. For those who've grown up online, Google's software feels much more natural, but power Word users will bump up against limitations.
3.) AbiWord (Windows, Linux)
One of the very few word processors you can get hold of without an attached office suite, AbiWord might look like it was last updated in 2004 but it's got everything you're going to need from a desktop word processor. It recently added an online component called AbiCollab to make it easier to store documents on the web and collaborate with other users.
AbiWord's list of features reads like a checklist for the definitive word processor program: spelling and grammar checking, headers and footers, table and column support, templates, footnotes and so on. All of the standard character and paragraph formatting options are here too so you can get your documents looking the way you want them too.
The application itself is compact and lightweight—worth considering on older, slower systems—and there are a pile of plug-ins available on the web to enhance the software even further (by adding in auto-translation capabilities, for example). The ability to add annotations is one of the newer features added to the AbiWord code.
If you're after a capable and free word processor but don't want the hassle of a bundled office suite then AbiWord is ideal. It's perhaps not as slick and modern-looking as some of the other options, but it gets the job done with the minimum of fuss.
4.) Zoho Docs (Web)
Zoho Docs may not be as well-known as Google's online office suite, but it's actually far more comprehensive in some areas. As well as the word processor, you get finance, HR, and customer support tools, making it an all-in-one business solution you can run through a browser. Personal users are welcome too, and get 5GB of storage space for free.
The word processor itself has a clear and friendly interface, managed via a Word-style tabbed menu along the top of the screen — it feels more like a desktop program than Drive does. Unfortunately it doesn't have the extensive pile of Google Web Fonts offered by its competitor, but there's an adequate selection that will meet most people's needs.
You can import and export documents saved in the .docx format, while collaborating on documents and reviewing changes is intuitive and painless. If mail merge is an important feature for you then Zoho Docs can handle that too. Images, tables, symbols, shapes, links, YouTube clips and document metadata can all be neatly dropped into your text as required.
The integration with other Google products and its polished mobile apps make Google Drive a convenient choice for online word processing, but Zoho Docs has plenty to offer, particularly if you're running a small business and want access to a full suite of complementary tools. There's also a desktop sync tool available to install on Mac or Windows for getting your files into the cloud more easily.
5.) Scribus (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)
Scribus is officially a desktop publishing package but we're including it here as a free option for those who need a Word replacement for more advanced layouts: think posters, flyers, newsletters and the like. It does a decent job of packing in a lot of features without being too overwhelming, though it might take you some time to adapt from the standard Word workflow.
Once you get into the DTP mindset — as in, you need to create a text box before you start doing any typing — the strengths of Scribus soon become apparent. The application has no problems with tables, oddly shaped selection boxes and flowing text around objects, but you won't get some of the standard word processor features like the ability to create outlines and a table of contents.
As we've said, this is a Word alternative specifically for those looking to get creative with their layouts. You can use it as a standard word processor but you'll need to launch the Story Editor module to apply most of your formatting and paragraph style effects. If you don't mind this way of working then Scribus has a lot to offer wordsmiths.
Scribus was first released more than 10 years ago, so there's a wealth of features and expertise to fall back on. It can punch above its weight in terms of a direct comparison with Adobe InDesign or QuarkXpress too. While text can be imported from Microsoft Word, you can't export it back in the other direction, so it's not suitable for situations where you're sending documents back and forth between people. [Field Guide]