Customizing general OpenOffice.org settings
OpenOffice.org includes dozens of options for how it behaves. Available from Tools > Options, they are divided into general settings for the entire office suite and settings particular to each application. General settings are available under the general headings of OpenOffice.org, Load/Save, and Language Settings.
Frankly, the logic with which options are arranged in tabs under these headings is a little elusive. For that reason, when looking to customize OOo, you should not just look at any tab whose name seems related to your purpose, but scan all of them for additional features. This necessity becomes obvious when you consider four common use-cases: setting automated features, reducing memory requirements, setting security options, and enabling assistive options -- although none of these by any means exhausts the array of options that OpenOffice.org makes available.
Setting automated features
Users are divided about OpenOffice.org's automatic features. Some, especially inexperienced users, rely on them heavily. Others can't wait to turn them off. Many of the automated features, such as AutoCorrect, are controlled from within the applications, but you can control a few of them from the general office suite settings.
One of the most contentious automated features is the automatic spell checking. It is controlled from Language Settings > Writing Aids > Options > Check spelling as you type. While you are at the list of options, you can also set other characteristics of spell checking, such as whether words that include numbers are checked (probably not, if you work anywhere in the computer industry), or whether all paragraphs are checked regardless of language (probably not, since for most people, checking in one language at a time makes concentration easier).
Load/Save > General also has some automation, in the Save pane. In this pane, you can set whether the document properties window opens each time you save, whether a backup copy is saved, and whether -- and how often - AutoRecovery information is saved. One that I always prefer to turn off is the warning when you save in a non-native format, such as MS Office, but others with less experience may prefer to turn that option on.
However, by far the most controversial automated feature is the Help Agent, which is controlled from OpenOffice.org > General. The Help Agent, as you may know, is the indicator that opens in the bottom right corner whenever you perform an action for which help is available. In OOo, the Help Agent is toned down considerably from the infamously obnoxious Clippy of MS Office that performs the same function, and some beginners may find it useful. However, there are lots of actions that have entries in OOo Help, so many people soon tire of even OOo's subdued version.
Reducing memory requirements
OpenOffice.org has a reputation for slow performance. QuickStarters that load part of the office suite into memory when your desktop opens and the last couple of releases have improved the situation considerably, but OOo really requires at least 1 gigabyte of RAM to perform well. However, on less-well equipped machines, you may want to reduce the memory requirements and boost performance slightly by turning off options that enhance but are non-essential.
A useful place to start is with the automated features mentioned above. Once you have turned them off, your next stop should be OpenOffice.org > Memory. This tab contains the settings for the number of Undo steps that OOo uses, as well as the number of objects cached, the memory allotted to each, and the time that objects remain in the cache. By turning all these settings down, you should be able to improve performance considerably, especially if you are working with large, graphics-heavy documents.
In addition, on the memory tab, you can choose whether to enable the QuickStarter for your desktop. Enabling it will make OpenOffice.org load faster, but if reducing memory requirements is your main consideration, you may want to endure the slower load time in favor of zippier performance overall.
Another place where you can reduce memory overhead is OpenOffice.org > View. Icons in the menu, font previews and font history -- the placing of recently used fonts at the top of the list -- are all convenient, but each adds to the memory requirements. You can also turn off font anti-aliasing by setting it to 0.
You can further augment your memory savings by carefully selecting your work methods, such as linking to graphics when you insert them, instead of embedding them. Linking graphics sometimes makes for slower scrolling through a document, but keeps the file size small. In the same spirit, if you are writing documents of over 15 pages, use the master document feature to divide it into smaller sub-documents, so that you are working with smaller files, then only combine the sub-documents when you are ready to print.
Admittedly, none of these configuration choices or work methods is likely to alter OOo's performance drastically on low-end machines. However, the cumulative effect just might make OOo bearable when it otherwise wouldn't be.
Setting security features
OpenOffice.org > Security includes settings for warnings and actions when saving or printing. Of these options, the most useful is probably the one that recommends password protection when you save a document. The tab also includes settings for opening documents in read-only format and for recording changes automatically.
However, most of the security settings control how documents with macros open. If you click the Macro Security button on the tab, you'll notice that the default setting, which asks for confirmation before OOo opens a document containing macros, is only ranked as medium security. If security matters to you -- and it should -- you should consider other settings. Maintaining a list of trusted sources is better than the default, and enabling only macros from trusted file locations better yet. Needless to say, the lowest setting, which enables all macros, is a triumph of convenience over wisdom, and should not be used at all. In fact, since the interface stresses that the lowest setting is not recommended, I wonder why it is even offered.
Enabling assistive options
If you are visually impaired, OOo includes several options, most of them available from OpenOffice.org > Accessibility tab. The options in the tab include a setting for having a cursor in read-only documents to aid reading, but the most useful ones customize OOo for high-contrast viewing. From the Accessibility tab, you can set whether OOo uses your operating system's high-contrast mode, as well as its automatic font color when displaying documents. In addition, you can choose to use system colors when opening File > Page Preview.
OpenOffice.org > View has further assistive options. From there, you can increase the scale of OOo's menus and widgets -- although, practically speaking, at a scale much beyond 175%, jagged edges become obvious and everything becomes harder to read. You can also combine the scale with options for large or high-contrast options.
If you are a regular help user, you might also appreciate the option in OpenOffice.org > General for setting the help formatting to one of several high-contrast modes.
The general options for OOo don't stop with these use-cases. Regular users of fields will find that filling out the personal information in OpenOffice.org > User Data gives them more options. Other useful options include OpenOffice.org > Print > Print to file, which creates a postscript file when used with a postscript printer driver, and OpenOffice.org > Color, which allows you to add to the default colors available in OOo -- a feature that is especially useful when you constantly need a company's standard colors for branding purposes. Another useful option is the Paths window, which you can modify to ensure or prevent the saving of resources such as graphics and templates. And, personally, whenever I'm setting up OpenOffice.org, I soon go to the Appearance window for the sole purpose of changing the default color for notes to something bright and garish so that I can quickly find them in the editing window.
When you first starting using OpenOffice.org, the general options may seem so numerous as to be overwhelming. Fortunately, the defaults are mostly intelligent -- or at least acceptable -- ones, and most users can safely ignore them at first. However, once you feel comfortable with the software, take the time to become familiar with them. Chances are, you'll find at least a couple of options that are exactly what you're looking for.
Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for the NewsForge and Linux Journal websites.
Bruce Byfield (nanday)