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Tomorrow sees the launch of Microsoft Office 2010, the latest version of the ubiquitous productivity suite. Whether or not Office is the suite of your dreams remains to be seen, but there's no getting past the fact that it's not cheap, particularly for those of us who have to purchase software for ourselves. Even in the most basic Home and Student, download-only form it's going to set you back £75 or more, and if you want to use the app for business purposes then you're looking at a minimum cost of £190 or so, and potentially more.
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The fact is that many of us don't actually need Office at all. The old maxim that 80 per cent of users only use 20 per cent of the features still holds true, and while Office's sprawling feature set and position as the industry-standard business app make it the default choice for the big corporations, the rest of us have other options to explore.

For a few years Office had the market pretty much to itself, but there are now some strong alternatives available, and several of these are completely free to download and use. Some, like OpenOffice.Org and IBM's Symphony, are fully-featured Office alternatives with enough power for even the most demanding users. Others, like Google Docs and its lesser-known rivals, ThinkFree Online and Zoho, consist of online applications which give you tools for handling the most common Office tasks, plus rich features that can help us share work with others. You might find that you can get all the Office apps you need without having to pay a single penny.

Microsoft has even realised the threat from these free alternatives in launching its Office Web Apps, which we'll be covering in our Office 2010 review tomorrow. Here, however, we're going to cast our expert eye over the five most popular non-Microsoft free alternatives, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and take a look at whether they might work for you.

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