Over a year and a half ago, I examined Google Pack (see my review), an odd assortment of free downloadable applications provided by Google to Windows users. At the time, there was a lot of speculation that Google was moving towards a so-called "Google PC," which would be stocked with Google and Google-friendly software, so the Google Pack seemed like an obvious way to preview what such a PC might look like. I wasn't impressed: I rated Google Pack a woeful one out of five stars and complained that the software package was like a downloadable version of the "crapware" that PC makers still largely insist on foisting on customers. More problematic, the Pack's anti-virus and anti-spyware applications were woefully out of date at the time, which could give users a false sense of security. I have rarely disliked software so much.

But hey, times change. This morning, I caught whiff of news that Google was now offering the commercial Sun StarOffice suite--typically a $100 purchase for end users--for free via its Google Pack. So, for the first time in a long time, I took a look at this odd little collection of software. It's still in beta--what Google software isn't?--despite being on the market for a full 20 months. And much has changed since that terrible day in January 2006 when I first evaluated the Google Pack. Let's see whether it's more worthy of your time and effort now than it was back then.

Installing Google Pack

As with last year's edition, you still visit the Google Pack Web site to first choose which components you want and then download the suite's installer. The site actually examines your system to determine whether you have any of the software in the Pack, so you won't need to re-download components you've already installed. There are now 12 components, which range from Google toolbars for both Firefox and Internet Explorer (IE) to the massive Sun StarOffice productivity suite, which is a new addition weighing in at 142 MB. When I examined Google Pack in early 2006, there were 13 components. You can find out what's missing (and what's new) in the next section.

Google Updater closely resembles the version from last year. It's a simple Web-like front-end that downloads and installs each software component you selected. This is actually a pretty nice feature, as each application is installed in an automated fashion, so you don't need to go through separate wizards for each one. On the minus side, be sure to visit the Preferences pane in Google Update and expand the Advanced Options link to reveal an option called "Other," which "allows Google to collect anonymous usage statistics to help [them] improve [their] software." Google's privacy violations are notable, so I recommend unchecking that.

Depending on what you chose, you may have some work to do after completing the Google Pack installer. Many of the applications in the Pack install their own system tray icons (often annoying) and some require some simple configuration or updating. Fortunately, that latter point doesn't appear to be as much of an issue as it was last year: Only Norton Security Scan was horribly out of date (go figure), and even it auto-updated to the latest definitions without any intervention on my part.

What's new, what's missing

Last year's version of Google Pack included 13 software applications, while this year's version includes 12. So some things have changed. Indeed, even the applications that are have continued in the Pack have all been updated. Here's a breakdown of how the suite has changed in the last year and a half:

Early 2006 August 2007
Adobe Reader 7 Updated to Adobe Reader 8
Ad-Aware SE Personal Replaced by Spyware Doctor Starter Edition
GalleryPlayer HD Images n/a
Google Desktop Updated to latest version
Google Earth Updated to latest version
Google Pack Screensaver Updated to latest version
Google Talk Updated to latest version
Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer Updated to latest version
Mozilla Firefox 1.5 with Google Toolbar Updated to latest version (Firefox 2)
Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition Replaced by Norton Security Scan
Picasa 2 Updated to latest version
RealPlayer 10.5 n/a
Trillian n/a
n/a Skype
n/a Sun StarOffice 8

Frankly, the three applications that are missing this time around are no big loss. GalleryPlayer HD Image wasn't even an application per se, but rather a sample set of low-resolution desktop images that acted as an advertisement of sorts for GalleryPlayer's expensive service. Meanwhile, Real is busy replacing RealPlayer 10.5 with a completely new version, RealPlayer 11, that lets you download Web videos from You Tube and other places and burn them to disc. This might be valuable to you; if so, check out Real's Web site for more information. The third application, Trillian, lets you aggregate multiple instant messaging (IM) accounts into a single UI. I'm not particularly interested in such a thing--I can barely handle one IM account--but you may be. It's still out there.

Meanwhile, the other applications are either improved and updated since last year, or replaced by different software (as in the case of the anti-virus and anti-spyware solutions). And of course there are two new additions, Skype and Sun StarOffice 8.

Improved since 2006

The following applications were updated since the original release of Google Pack in early 2006.

Adobe Reader 8

Adobe gets a lot of flak for various reasons, and certainly I'm no fan of the way the company doesn't ever update its various Elements products (except by releasing new versions every year), but I actually really like Adobe Reader 8, and after a few months of using a third party alternative (FoxIt Reader), I've switched back. Yeah, there are some oddities--like the "Send to FedEx Kinko's" toolbar button that's enabled by default, and the "Open" toolbar button that is not--but Adobe Reader just kind of does its thing, and does it well. Sorry, Adobe detractors, but I like this one.

Google Desktop

While I feel that Microsoft's Windows Desktop Search add-on for Windows XP and Vista's Instant Search feature are superior to Google Desktop, there are some good reasons to check out this intriguing add-on. One of the best is the new version of Google Desktop's Sidebar, which is much like the Windows Sidebar in Vista and features a very large and often high-quality collection of Gadgets from which to choose. Indeed, with my recent move to Google's Gmail, Calendar, and Picasa Web Albums services, I had expected that Google Desktop's Sidebar might be able to replace Windows Sidebar on my PCs. Ultimately, I did stick with Windows Sidebar, but this is something you might want to try out.

Note, however, that Google Desktop performs somewhat more slowly on Vista than it does on XP, largely because Microsoft doesn't allow Google to turn off the Instant Search indexer in Vista. This will be partially alleviated by Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), though that release isn't expected until 2008.

Google Earth

Google Earth is an oddball application. It's sort of like Google Maps on steroids, but with snazzier special effects. Formerly a third party application called Keyhole, Google Maps' most compelling feature is its ability to zoom into locations from space, or to zoom from one place on earth to another (either of which can be quite breathtaking. But once you do that a few times, the magic kind of wears off. I just don't see the point of this at all.

Google Photos Screensaver

If you're into photo slideshow screensavers, you should give this a whirl: It works equally well in both XP and Vista, and lets you choose between photos you manage in Picasa (see below), Picasa Web Albums (Google's online service for hosting photos), specific folders on your PC, and photo feeds, which are basically RSS feeds that point at photo collections online. And you're not limited to just one of those choices at a time: You can mix and match. Even if you haven't bought into Google's various photo-related products, this is a neat screensaver, and it offers a variety of transition effects.

Google Talk

I never quite got the point of Google Talk and now, almost two years later, I still don't get the point. Google Talk is a Jabber-based instant messaging client that is still completely incompatible with virtually every major IM system on the planet. I guess the theory was that Google's many Gmail users would begin using Google Talk for IM, but this hasn't happened, despite some attempts at integrating Google Talk into the Web-based Gmail interface. My advice is to simply ignore this one. I have.

Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer

Die-hard Google fans will want to check out Google's IE toolbar, though arguably the release of IE 7 last year made this less pressing, as that browser already includes features like pop-up ad blocking. Still, it may be worthwhile for the other features, like form auto-fill and spell-check, the Web-based Bookmarks, and the customizable buttons, which I've used to great effect in Firefox (see below). The only issue, of course, is that the Google Toolbar takes up extra space in IE, whereas in Firefox you can actually integrate it directly into the existing toolbars. But hey, that's Microsoft's fault, not Google's.

Mozilla Firefox 2 with Google Toolbar

Mozilla has updated Firefox to version 2.0 (see my review) since last year, and while it's not a huge upgrade despite the moniker, it's a must-have release for any Firefox user and, in my opinion, the browser that everyone should be using. Firefox 2 is even better with the Google Toolbar, and that's especially true if you're a heavy Google user as I am: You can integrate the Google Toolbar directly into the Firefox Navigation toolbar (or any other Firefox toolbar) to save onscreen real estate, which I love. Long story short: Firefox 2 is a winner, and Google Toolbar makes it even better. (Actually, there are some amazing Google and Gmail add-ons for Firefox out there as well, but I can see where Google wouldn't offer them to users. I'll discuss these soon in my upcoming "Living in the Cloud" series.)

Picasa 2

I've always really liked Picasa 2, and two things have occurred in the last several months that have made this my go-to photo application. First, Microsoft released Windows Vista, which, while wonderful, including a horribly broken photo acquisition wizard. So I use Picasa for acquiring photos from my digital camera now. Second, I've decided that I need to backup my personal photo collection in the cloud, so I've purchased 25 GB of space on Google's Picasa Web Albums service, and I'm using Picasa to upload my photos. So far I've uploaded about 22 GB of photos, or 4 and a half years worth, and I've got a bit more to go. (I might need more space.)

Beyond my personal needs, Picasa is top-notch. It includes virtually all of the photo management and editing tools you'll ever need. And heck, it's free, so just give it a shot.

Security software replacements

This year, Google replaced the two security-related applications in Google Pack with new options. The results are about as mixed as they were a year ago, and given the excellent free tools that are available now, there's no reason to settle for these two cast-offs.

Spyware Doctor Starter Edition

I wasn't previously familiar with Spyware Doctor Starter Edition, but it's not horrible: Unlike Norton Security Scan (see below), it does stay resident on your system and so can provide some form of real time protection against spyware. That said, as the free Starter Edition, this product only provides some protections, but not others like startup and browser protection. For this reason, it makes sense to look elsewhere for your anti-spyware needs. I use Microsoft's Windows Defender and find it more than adequate, and I especially like the way it integrates into Windows Vista. But it always makes sense to occasionally run additional spyware scans with a second tool, and this isn't a horrible solution for that. But then the Ad-Aware product offered in the original Google Pack fulfilled that need as well. You can find the latest version here.

Norton Security Scan

Whereas the original Google Pack featured a hollowed-out version of Norton Anti-Virus called Norton AV 2005 Special Edition, this year's rendition includes the equally appalling Norton Security Scan (NSS), which is a free tool Symantec offers to manually scan and remove virus and other malware from your system. The problem with NSS, therefore, is that it will not stay resident on your system and protect you against threats in real time. Instead, you must remember to manually run it in order to achieve some form of protection.

This is obviously unacceptable, except as an emergency tool. Fortunately, there are a few free anti-virus solutions out there that work just fine, and they of course stay running and resident on your system at all times. I use and recommend something called Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, but you should also check out Avast! Anti-Virus Home Edition, which is also free and is actually rated a bit higher than AVG. (I just find Avast! slightly more intrusive.)

New to 2007

In the latest Google Pack edition, Google has added two new applications (well, an application and an application suite). Both are excellent.

Skype

Skype is an excellent PC phone application, which lets you communicate with other people around the world, usually for free. You can make Skype-to-Skype calls, typically from PC to PC (using headsets preferably), but increasingly on mobile devices as well. You can also make Skype-to-phone and phone-to-Skype calls, even internationally. I use Skype to record the Windows Weekly podcast with Leo Leporte, and it generally works quite well. And it's free, so what the heck. We've been in France for the last few weeks and while we've not yet used Skype to make any personal or work-related calls, we've used it to check our phone messages back at home. Great stuff.

Sun StarOffice 8

This is the big one. Sun StarOffice 8 is a full-fledged, commercial office productivity suite that is roughly on par with Microsoft Office 2000 (though it lacks a client email and personal information management solution like Outlook). Though StarOffice is the basis for the free OpenOffice.org office productivity suite and is thus very, very similar, StarOffice is, in fact, commercial software, sold at retail and licensed to businesses, governments, schools, and other institutions worldwide. The inclusion of OpenOffice.org in Google Pack would have been a big deal, as it would have provided the clearest signal yet that Google is prepared to confront Microsoft head-to-head in one of its most important markets. That Google has gone with StarOffice instead, and is giving it away for free, turns things up a notch, so to speak. This is a shot across Microsoft's bow.

Now, StarOffice, like OpenOffice.org, doesn't quite match the fit and finish, let alone the functionality, of Microsoft's latest Office versions, like Office 2007 and 2003. But unless you're independently wealthy or have just acquired a new PC, it's unlikely that you have one of these suites anyway. The real advantage of StarOffice (when acquired through Google Pack) and OpenOffice.org is that they are absolutely free, while providing the 90 percent of Microsoft Office features that most users will need. No, it's not likely that StarOffice/OpenOffice.org will ever steal serious market share from Microsoft Office, but so what? If you need to work with native Office document formats, these suites will give you what you need and do so in a pretty familiar environment of Office-like toolbars and menus. Indeed, I used StarOffice Writer, the suite's word processing application, to write much of this review.

Put simply, StarOffice is exactly what you'd expect a free Office clone to be: Very close to the original, but with some fit and finish issues and functional lapses. For example, like Microsoft Office, StarOffice supplies on-the-fly spell-checking and indicates potentially troublesome words by underlining them with a squiggly red line. (Fun fact: The word "Microsoft" is tagged as a potential mistype.) And as with Office, you can right-click on such words to choose a replacement (if you did indeed mistype it and the correct word is in the application's dictionary) or add it to the dictionary. In StarOffice, this right-click menu looks like something out of a late 90's UNIX application; it's weird-looking and non-standard. And when you do go to add a word to the dictionary, a fly-out menu reveals that there are, in fact, three dictionaries to choose from: soffice.dic, sun.dic, and standard.dic. Its unclear which of these you should choose, what the difference is between the three, and why you're even forced to make such a choice.

And then there are the missing features, of which there are many. Obviously, you don't get the wonderful Ribbon user interface that Microsoft debuted in Office 2007, though there's no reason Sun couldn't go that route in the future if they'd like. But StarOffice doesn't include some basic Office functionality too, and depending on your needs, you may miss some things. There's no on-the-fly grammar checking, for example.

StarOffice 8 consists of five applications, StarOffice Base (database), Calc (spreadsheet), Draw (graphics), Impress (presentations), and Writer (word processing), and while none are compelling enough for you to switch from Office (unless you're still using a pre-Office 97 version somehow), they're certainly Good Enough. And did I mention this whole thing was free? You really can't beat the value here. Sure, it's not as impressive as Microsoft Office, but why should it be?

How it all adds up

While most SuperSite readers will want to eschew the entire Google Pack download and cherry pick only those applications they want or need, there's certainly more value here this year than there was when the suite first debuted. The security applications remain the weak point, which is especially appalling when you consider the high-quality and free anti-virus and anti-spyware applications that are currently available. That said, Picasa, Adobe Reader, Skype, and even StarOffice are all worth trying, and everyone should be using Firefox 2 by now. Overall, Google Pack has evolved from an utter dud into a slightly more compelling offering. The sum of the parts, finally, eclipses the weakness of those awful security applications.

It's hard rating something like this. There are some duds, some true superstars, and a bunch of applications that fall somewhere in the middle. Obviously, depending on your needs, you may not want any of this stuff. But for the first time, amazingly, its worth checking out Google Pack. I like the automated installer and updater, and virtually anyone will find something decent here.