Office and Email
Office software, which typically includes a word processor, spreadsheet editor, and email client, is probably one of your must-haves. Microsoft Office and Works aren’t the only office suites though. There are also free alternatives, great if you have a computer that didn’t come with office software or only free trial.
The most popular alternative is OpenOffice.org (OOo), a free and open source office suite. It includes Writer for the word processor, Calc for spreadsheets, Impress for presentations, Draw for graphics and diagrams, and Base for databases.
OOo might not look as slick as Microsoft Office, but it includes most of the same core features. The look, feel, and features of OOo resembles older versions of Microsoft Office (2003 and earlier), so there's no trace of the Ribbon interface that Microsoft has moved to in Office 2007 and 2010.
Though OOo uses different document formats (such as .odt for Writer), it’s compatible with Microsoft Office formats. You can open, create, edit, and save to the older Microsoft formats (such as .doc for Word). But you can currently only open and edit the newer formats (such as .docx for Word), and then save as the OOo format. Most formatting in the documents convert between the two formats, but some advanced formatting could be lost.
OOo supports saving documents as a PDF, which only recently became supported in Microsoft Office 2010 and 2007 with an add-in.
OOo doesn’t include an email and calendaring program like Microsoft Outlook, but there are free options here as well. Consider Thunderbird for emailing and Sunbird for a calendar and scheduler. Both of these programs come from Mozilla, the same company behind the ever-popular web browser Firefox.
If you want to keep everything in the cloud, the best suite currently available is from Google. Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar keep all of your documents, appointments and emails in the cloud, but Docs still maintains compatibillity with Microsoft Office, Microsoft Works and OpenOffice. You can also sync your local calendar with Google Calendar as well as your phone (iPhone and BlackBerry included).