Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Free alternatives to MS Word - for Windows, Mac and Linux

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Written by Vera C. Last updated on .

Desk space with laptop, mouse, and other work accessories

Yes, there are free, legal alternatives to MS Word available. Best of all, they can read from MS Word format and write to that format also. So you still have the ability to read, edit and save your existing Word documents when you use these free word processing programs.

This is ideal if you've recently gotten a new computer but understandably don't want to pay a monthly subscription fee to install and use MS Office. That's right, you can get the same word processing functionality for free.

How is the word processing software safe, free and legal?

The 3 options mentioned below are all safe, free and legal because they are open source software. Open source means that the code is available for anyone to use, no license key or registration required.

Download safe open source software, not a cracked version of Microsoft Word!

Not all free software is safe, free and legal, but the ones mentioned on this page are. Whatever you do, do not download a "free" version of MS Word. Besides being illegal, the other problem is that pirated or cracked software is almost always loaded with malware which could steal all your passwords. If you find a website that says you can download Microsoft Word for free, don't use it! There is no safe and legal way to get Microsoft Word itself for free. Instead, use one of these alternatives to MS Word which are described below.

The top 3 safe, free and legal alternatives to MS Word

These are all available for Windows, Mac and Linux, so this works no matter what computer you have.

Please know that each of these are typically installed in a bundle (still free) that includes other office-style software from the same makers in addition to the word processor, the same way as Microsoft Office does. For these free alternatives, this usually includes spreadsheet software similar to Excel, a drawing program and slide show. So don't worry if you do the installation and find that you have additional software besides the word processor, that's normal. All of it is safe, free and legal - I've been using the entire suite of software for my various needs.

If you don't like the additional software and just want the writing part of it, then depending on your operating system and how you set up the installation, it may be possible to install just the word processor part of the software and not the others. But they're intended to be installed as one bundle, and most people find it useful to have the other software in case they need it for spreadsheets and other things.

1. LibreOffice Writer

I've put LibreOffice Writer in the number one spot for a reason - it is almost identical to MS Word in terms of menus, layout, etc. So if you're accustomed to MS Word, you'll find it easy to use LibreOffice Writer. This is what I'd recommend as the top choice.

Screenshot of blank document in LibreOffice Writer

On its website, the developers describe it as a "near drop-in replacement for MS Word" which I can attest is an accurate description. To sum up, I'd call this the all-around best free word processor out there.

Compatibility

  • Available for Mac, Windows, Linux
  • Can read from and save to Microsoft Word (.docx) format

The main formatting and menu bar is pretty much identical to MS Word. Depending on how much you use advanced features, you may notice a few slight differences in where features are located, but I haven't seen anything it cannot do that MS Word can do.

LibreOffice Writer can even do advanced things like numbering pages in different sections of one document with a different numbering system. This doesn't come up often, but it's nice to know that the software has these advanced features.

Besides being almost identical to use as MS Word, another reason I recommend LibreOffice Writer is the ease of installation.

Documentation and support

If you ever get stuck using it or need some guidance with anything, you can check the clear and helpful online documentation, or if you can't find what you need there, ask your own question at the LibreOffice Community Assistance Forum and get support that way.

2. Calligra Words

Calligra Words is a good solid choice as a word processor, but its menu layout does not quite resemble MS Word, unlike LibreOffice. Calligra Words initially looks less complex, not more complex, so if you're using it to do basic word processing, you'll be fine using it right away. Conversely, it might have a steeper learning curve at first if you're wanting to find every last feature that you'd use in MS Word, due to the different menu layout.

Screenshot of a new document in Calligra Words

Compatibility

  • Available for Mac, Windows, Linux
  • Can read from and save to Microsoft Word (.docx) format

Calligra Words can be a bit annoying when you save a file for the first time. When you save, it won't automatically pick a default file format to save to (unlike LibreOffice which defaults to an odt file). So you have to specify a format in the Calligra Words save dialog when you save it, such as odt (or docx if you want MS word compatible) - there's a lot more format options as well.

It's easy enough to pick your desired format from the options in the save menu, but it can be frustrating to have to actually do it each time you save a new file. If you're new to this, you won't know which is the recommended format (which is odt), and you'll otherwise just have to guess. On the flip side, this feature is actually helpful if you plan to work mostly in docx format (for example if you're editing a document that will be sent to a MS Word user). Forcing you to pick a save format prevents you from accidentally saving as odt, which would be unreadable to your colleague using MS Word.

Documentation and support

Unfortunately Calligra does not have a particularly comprehensive source of documentation or forum which is geared towards the average end user, unlike LibreOffice. You may find it easier to search your specific question about Calligra Writer on a search engine or on YouTube and get a tutorial from there.

3. OpenOffice Writer

OpenOffice Writer is extremely easy to use for those familiar with MS Word - it's another near drop-in replacement. The reasons it's last on my list is that:

  1. There are questions about its compatibility with the current MS Word format (more details in the compatibility section below)
  2. I struggled to install it (on Linux - you will likely have an easier time of it on Windows or Mac)

There are official instructions for installation, but these were not easy to find. Regardless of operating system, some of the information on the installation instructions will look confusing to the average end user, for example:

As of release 3.4, a JRE (Jave Runtime Environment) is no longer packaged with OpenOffice. However, you may still need a JRE for full functionality. (See Java and Apache OpenOffice). Please ensure that your system has at least Java 1.6 installed for full functionality.

Huh?! Most people don't know if they have Java 1.6 or not, and if not, then you're faced with the problem of trying to install 2 new things.

So while OpenOffice Writer looks easy to use, it did not appear to be the easiest when it came to installation. You could always try doing a standard installation and see if it works out for you right away. If installation doesn't go smoothly for your computer I'd recommend not wasting any more time on it and simply use one of the other two options mentioned above.

Compatibility

  • Available for Mac, Windows, Linux
  • Not guaranteed to be compatible with the current version of MS Word. According to the official documentation for OpenOffice Writer v 4.1, OpenOffice Writer can read from and save to the older version of Microsoft Word format (.doc which is for MS Word 97/2000/XP). This is a serious limitation if you wish to read from or save to the modern version of MS Word format (.docx which is for MS Word 2007-365)

Documentation and support

OpenOffice Writer has an excellent source of official documentation - my only criticism is that it's not in a convenient format that resizes to your screen, instead it's in PDF format. You can alternatively opt to view it in ODT format but this poses similar problems as for PDF. It would have been much better if they'd given an HTML or Wiki format that you can browse easily online without resorting to resizing. For most people this won't be a dealbreaker, but if you have vision problems you may find their documentation format frustrating.

If you need help with a question that isn't covered in the official documentation, you can go to the official OpenOffice user forum, where you can get help from the community of other users.

Why online word processors are not recommended

You may be wondering why online-only options such as Google Docs are not on this list. By this, I mean word processing programs that you access through your internet browser (e.g. Safari, Edge, Chrome). Even though it might at first seem appealing to have a free word processor without having to install anything, there are several reasons to avoid this:

  1. You're dependent having an internet connection with an online word processor. If your internet goes out, you won't be able to read or write your documents. You won't have that problem with the open source software that is installed on your computer.
  2. Online word alternatives lack most of the features that are in Microsoft Word. By contrast, the free open source software mentioned here has all the tools that you'd expect in MS Word.
  3. Online word processors can be laggy and won't always let you type fast. This is because your computer has to communicate with the internet to do this - this means it's always going to be slower than the open source options I mentioned above that you would install on your computer.
  4. The company who owns the online word processor can see everything you type. If you have a private document, you don't want Google (or whatever online company) to see everything you've written. With these open source software options mentioned above, the information in your documents stays in your computer.

If you're looking for a free Microsoft word alternative, go for any of the 3 options that are described in detail on this page. Do not use an online word document such as Google Docs.

Conclusion

You definitely have options when it comes to free word processing software similar to MS Word. These are, in order of best recommended to least recommended: LibreOffice Writer, Calligra Words, and OpenOffice Writer.

Do you also need free productivity software to help keep your work on track? Here you can find out the best open source productivity software - all safe, free and legal.


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