For many people, Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are indispensable. But for others -- particularly those picking up the tab -- they're an expensive investment that can be used only on a limited number of devices per license. If you don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for a simple word processor, you're in luck: We'll highlight a number of substitutes that provide similar functionality at no cost at all.
What do you really need?
The Microsoft Office suite contains a variety of programs that you may never even open. The best-known items in the package are, of course, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Some other programs that are used less frequently include Outlook, Access, OneNote, and InfoPath. Knowing which programs you need and don't need is the first step to finding suitable substitutes for the full-priced software suite.
When will you need it?
A secondary point to evaluate is what you will be using your Office or Office-substitute software for. Will you be going back and forth between devices, one of which that has the full Microsoft version? Do you require that your programs be accessible in offline mode? Making a list of your absolute musts will help you choose between the varieties of word-processing substitutes on the market.
Take advantage of trial periods -- more than once
Take it for a 90-day test drive. Microsoft offers free 90-day trials for every variety of its Office Suite, from Professional to Student. After your 90 days are up, the software will be locked until you provide a valid code, which you can obtain by purchasing the full version either online or in stores.
Windows users: Extend your test drive to 180 days. The trial period of Office 2013 is 30 days, but a handy tip from the How-To Geek can renew this period up to five times, for a total of 180 days free. Just remember to run through this process before your trial expires; for maximum value, set up a calendar alert on the 30th day.
Students: Get Microsoft 365 for 90 days. Microsoft 365 is a package that integrates the great parts of Office Web Apps (Microsoft's answer to Google Drive) with the steadfastly reliable parts of the traditional Office Suite. Currently, Microsoft 365 is largely marketed to businesses looking to integrate social networking and cloud-based technology into their existing interfaced. However, if you're a student with a valid .edu account, you can sign up for a free 90-day trial of this powerful Office package.
Students and employees. If you are an enrolled student, check with your IT department for discount codes or institutional licensing agreements that allow you to get Office for free or at a discounted rate. Even if you aren't a student, the company you work for may have negotiated high volume licensing agreements; it never hurts to ask.
Free alternatives to Microsoft office
There are many programs that will provide the same functionality as Microsoft Office free of charge, though most won't be as pretty. Still, each of these programs will get the job done -- and many provide additional functionality that Office can't match.
Google Docs: If you have a Gmail account, you can take advantage of Google spreadsheets, word documents, and presentations. These documents update instantly, allowing for simultaneous collaboration, and they're stored in the cloud, so you can access them from anywhere as long as you have Internet access. If you have a Chrome browser, you can even access the documents offline.
Apache OpenOffice: The original open-source alternative to Office, OpenOffice offers a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress), database management app (Base), drawing app (Draw), and formula editor (Math). Its files can easily be read with Microsoft Office, so you needn't worry about sending your files to a spendthrift Word or Excel user.
LibreOffice: Founded in 2010 by many of the same developers who worked on OpenOffice, LibreOffice has much the same functionality as its predecessor and is compatible with Microsoft Office. It supports more languages than OpenOffice does and is constantly rolling out new features. (It also boasts a prettier interface).
The Motley Fool recommends Google and owns shares of Google and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.