Skip to content

Using Office on netbook computers, part 2

We continue our look at using MS Office on the small netbook devices. A look at what office suite software to install on the netbook.

This week we continue our look at using MS Office on the small netbook devices. In part one we had some buying suggestions for a netbook, now let us look at what office suite software to install on the netbook.

Issues to consider are:

  • Cost
  • Software that can run efficiently on the relatively slow processor and limited memory. It can be frustrating to wait while the software catches up to one’s typing.
  • Software that can display effectively on the smaller screen resolution.

MS Office or not?

The first question is whether to install Microsoft Office at all.

Some netbooks come with Microsoft Works which may be sufficient if you just want very simple word-processing. At the very least, give it a try before spending money on something else.

You could try using the online suites – Google Docs will let you edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. It has the virtue of transferring a lot of the ‘grunt’ work from your slow netbook to the Google servers.

Keep in mind that the next version of Microsoft Office will include the release of something similar to Google Docs. This will be released later in 2009 or early 2010.

Google Docs can work offline but any online suite option assumes you have an Internet connection – when travelling that’s not always the case or the price of connection is too high. We prefer to be able to use the computer anytime and not be reliant on an internet connection.

That leads us to consider the office suite software options.

The main non-Microsoft suite option is OpenOffice v3 available for free download. There are word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation and database programs. They’ll take a little getting used to for MS Office users but not a lot. OpenOffice v3 is designed for a minimum screen size of 1024×768 (same as Office 2007). OpenOffice v3 can read the new Office 2007 document formats but not write to them. One virtue of OpenOffice v3 is the traditional toolbar instead of the controversial ribbon interface in Office 2007.

WordPad is a very simple rich text editor which comes with Windows. The WordPad with Windows XP can read and save to .doc (Word 2003 and before) files. Vista’s WordPad can’t handle .doc files at all. WordPad with Windows 7 will somewhat compatible with Word 2007 .docx and OpenDocument .odt files.

In terms of interface, some people find the differences between Office 2003 and Office 2007 greater than the differences between Office 2003 and OpenOffice 3

Which Microsoft Office?

If you’re switching between a desktop and portable computer, it’s easier if you’re running the same software on both beasties, or at least similar versions of the same software. This is why most people would prefer to run Microsoft Office (in some form) on all their machines.

Over time, Microsoft Office has become more and more complex on the assumption that computers are becoming faster with more memory. Netbooks reverse that assumption somewhat, but that doesn’t mean MS Office won’t work on a netbook.

For most documents and Office applications, a netbook has enough CPU ‘grunt’ to handle your needs, especially if you’ve taken our advice and maximized the RAM memory on the netbook.

Microsoft Office can work on small netbook screens. Office 2003 has a minimum recommended screen size of 800×600 which is fine for a netbook. Office 2007’s system requirements state a minimum 1024×768 screen size which is a bit higher than most netbooks.

All that does NOT mean that you have to use Office 2003 on netbooks – in fact Office 2007’s ribbon interface has some features which make it ideal for netbooks.

Do you need to buy MS Office?

Before you rush off to buy a copy of Microsoft Office, consider if you need to buy anything at all.

Perhaps a copy of Office you’ve purchased can be installed on the netbook as well. A standard license for Office lets you install it on two computers, one desktop and one portable device to be used by one person. The Home and Student edition can be installed on three computers.

Or maybe you have an ‘old’ copy of Microsoft Office around? If you’ve moved to newer versions of Office over time, you might have an old version available to install on your netbook. When you buy an upgrade version of Office, the license terms mean you can’t use old the MS Office license (the one you use to qualify for the cheaper upgrade price) any more. However there’s no direct mechanism for Microsoft to enforce the upgrade license rule and disable your upgraded Office licence.

If you do install an earlier version of Microsoft Office, make sure you download and install the most recent service pack and any other updates because the CD you purchased is almost certainly way out of date. In addition, install the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack so you can view and print any Office 2007 documents that come your way.

Outlook and other email software

While Word, Excel and Powerpoint should work fine on a netbook computer, Outlook is a major resource hog that could run unacceptably slowly on a netbook with a slower processor and limited memory.

How slow can Outlook get? That depends on the level of use and the size of your Outlook data file (PST/OST). For most people Outlook will be a bit slower on a netbook but not unacceptably slow (especially if you have the maximum RAM installed).

On a less powerful computer, you might want to consider whether to install Outlook at all, both for performance and price reasons.

As with the main office suite, you might choose to move your email, calendar and contacts online or look for software to install on your netbook.


The main focus of the main computer companies is online options like Windows Live Mail, Yahoo Mail or our choice, Google’s Gmail. With these services you can access your email from a web browser or sometimes download the mail to an email program on your computer.

However the last thing most of us need is another email address. Gmail has powerful features to import mail from other accounts and reply using the non-Gmail address.

Most email accounts have an option to access via a web browser, and this includes email addresses with ISP’s. Check the online documentation for your email host. If they don’t have a web option then use a free service like to grab your email and put it on a web page.

Email Software

Personally we prefer to run email software on our computer so that we can compose, reply and refer to messages while offline (like on a plane).

Outlook Express or Windows Mail come with Windows XP and Vista respectively. Both have been superseded by Windows Live Mail which can work with non-Microsoft email accounts and has calendaring support too.

Mozilla Thunderbird is a free, open source email client, add the Mozilla Lightning calendaring extension for extra features.

Buying Office for your netbook

If you want Office 2007 on the netbook check out our Buying Office section of for advice on getting the best value for money.

If you don’t want Outlook on the netbook, then the Home and Student edition is enough and is usually available for around US$100, sometimes less.

About this author