Should I use Microsoft Word on a Mac or a cheaper alternative?

Ed doesn’t want to pay an annual subscription for Office 365 and he’s looking for a compatible rival

microsoft office 2016 word on a mac

I chose Microsoft Word for Mac when I switched to a MacBook Pro some years ago. As a writer, I have a very large number of Word files, but with Microsoft moving to an annual subscription model, the cost of remaining with Word is looking prohibitive.

Is there is a cheaper way of carrying on with Word, or, failing that, an alternative word processor with which I’ll still be able to open and edit my existing Word documents?Ed

Microsoft would prefer both Mac and Windows users of Office to move to the online version, Office 365, but it’s still entirely up to you. In fact, you can already use some Microsoft Office programs online, including Word, without paying Microsoft a penny. All you have to do is create a Microsoft Account using any working email address – it doesn’t have to be a Microsoft email address – and you can use online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint with free online storage in OneDrive. This is exactly the same as Google’s online suite. The main difference is that Microsoft’s programs are better, except for multiuser simultaneous editing.

Microsoft’s free suite also includes OneNote, Skype, Calendar, People, Tasks, Photos, Sway, Flow and Forms. I expect this list will continue to grow in the future.

So, if you want to use Word, you have three choices: the online version (free), the desktop program (one-off payment), and Office 365 (annual subscription). Office 365 includes online, desktop, tablet and smartphone versions for both PCs and Macs, Android and Apple’s iOS.

Why use Word?

Word is powerful and flexible, but you pay for that utility.

There are many reasons for using Word. The best is that you like using it, because of its power, rich feature list, ease of use or whatever. That’s why I’ve used it for a couple of decades.

The second reason is that you need it to read old files, which is one of your problems. This depends on the complexity of your files. If your documents include multiple columns, embedded images, custom fonts, footnotes and similar features, you can more or less forget about using anything else. But if your documents are simple text files, then a lot of programs will load them.

I tried to avoid this problem by saving all my files in Microsoft’s .rtf (rich text) file format, which almost any word processor can read. Being text based, it’s hopeless for storing images, but it’s perfect for texts with simple formatting. But I found I still needed Word to compare files, and to cope with the publishing industry’s use of styles, comments and “track changes”.

The third reason is that we live in a world where Microsoft Office is the de facto standard for business documents, and you absolutely have to be able to read them accurately. This applies in spades to files that use VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) and macros, and to Excel spreadsheets where errors can have career-ending financial consequences.

This isn’t going to change in a hurry because Microsoft Office is also a platform with hundreds of add-ons and plug-ins, it’s supported by thousands of books, video tutorials, websites and consultants, and it’s what most office workers already know how to use.

And when time is money, the cost of sorting out incompatibilities and usability issues is far higher than the cost of Office. If you’re paying staff, say, £20,000 to £60,000 a year, and can’t afford £100 a year for Office 365 – less for a boxed version – then you have bigger problems.

Decide where you are on the spectrum from “I like it” to “can’t live without it”. If you are not a business, you can certainly live without it or use the free online version. But even if you switch to a free alternative, you’ll spend time learning a new interface and handling your old documents.

Boxed Office

The traditional advantages of buying boxed copies of Office were that you could use it on two PCs (a desktop and a laptop, but not at the same time) and that you could transfer it to a new PC. Boxed copies have more or less disappeared, but if you own one, you need to keep the code marked on the box to reinstall it. If you lose the DVDs, you can download the software. If you lose the activation code, you can’t get a new one without giving Microsoft proof of purchase.

Cheaper versions of Office are locked to the PC on which they were originally installed. That means you’re unlikely to get the full 10 years we used to get by moving Office to new PCs, and perhaps explains Microsoft’s attempts to reduce its 10-year support lifecycle.

In fact, Microsoft has only announced mainstream support for Office Home & Student 2019 for the five years up to 10 October 2023, with extended support marked “Not Applicable”. I suspect Microsoft will support it until 14 October 2025, which is the end of support date for Office 2016, and that Office 2022 (yes, there will be one) will only get five years.

A further complication is that Microsoft only supports the last three versions of MacOS.

Office Home & Student 2019 looks like a bargain at £119.99 or less, but that’s a single-installation version. You can divide the price by the number of years you expect your 2012 MacBook Pro to last. It will be more than the usual £12 a year.

Office 365

Office 365 includes online access and cloud storage.

Office 365, launched in 2013, is the cloud-based version of Office, but usually provides access to the full desktop programs as well. Extra features over the Home & Student edition include Outlook, the desktop email and organisation program, 60 minutes of Skype calls, apps for Android and Apple iOS smartphones and tablets, and 1TB of online storage instead of 15GB. Windows users also get Microsoft Publisher and the Access database.

It’s not a bad deal for £59.99 a year – or £49.75 if you get the activation code by email – if you use the storage. (Google charges £57 a year for 1TB, and £24.99 a year for 200GB of Gdrive.)

However, the family version, Office 365 Home, is far better value. This costs £79.99 a year for up to six users, including friends. Everyone gets their own terabyte of storage, up to 6TB in all. For a family of four, it’s only £20 per year each. If you can share the cost, it’s terrific value, because each user can install the full Office on multiple PCs and Macs. There’s no need to buy three or more single-machine copies to install them on a desktop, laptop, 2-in-1 tablet and so on.

Also, Microsoft claims that Office 365 is better than Office 2019. First, the 365 programs have more and better features, because they are continuously updated. The Office 2019 versions are fixed. Second, Office 365 has various collaborative and AI-based cloud features. It’s not clear how useful most of these are to solitary users, apart from instant translation.

Alternatives to Word

Lots of programs claim they can read Microsoft Word .doc and .docx formats, and some can also write or export them. As mentioned, the success rate generally depends on the Word features you use. You will need to load and “save as” a few of your most complex documents to see how much of the formatting survives. If you only write plain texts, you should be fine. Just keep your original files, instead of overwriting them.

You could start with Apple’s Pages, because it’s free, and you may have it already. Otherwise, your best bet is LibreOffice 6.2.2, which now has its own optional ribbon interface. LibreOffice is both open source and free, so it will only cost you the time needed to try it.

The less-well-known German suite SoftMaker Office has a ribbon interface and uses Microsoft Office file formats by default, without conversion. It has a free version and a subscription version (£49.90 a year), but you can buy the full SoftMaker Office Professional 2018 for Mac, Windows or Linux for £89.99, after a 30-day free trial.

I don’t regard Google Docs as an alternative because it’s online only, and you’d mostly be better off using the free version of Word online. Of course, nothing stops you from using both.

I was also going to suggest WPS Office, the suite owned by China’s Kingsoft, but it only has Windows, Linux, Android and iOS versions, not MacOS. WPS used to claim 100% compatibility, and it’s actually pretty good. Unfortunately, the free version includes advertising, which I found unbearable, and the Premium version isn’t worth $29.99 a year. Users who like it could consider a “lifetime” purchase for $79.99 (individuals) or $119.99 (businesses), but try SoftMaker first.

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