StarOffice 6.0 beta

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Pros

  • Free
  • runs on Windows and Linux
  • handles basic business productivity chores
  • excellent online support.

Cons

  • Lacks collaboration features
  • no database, no PIM
  • some problems with Microsoft Office file compatibility
  • doesn't run on Mac OS.

Like its version 5.2 predecessor, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 6.0 is a fully-fledged office suite that won't cost a thing when you download it from the Internet. It's not nearly as feature-packed as Microsoft's Office XP -- StarOffice lacks that expensive suite's data sharing, Web collaboration, and integration. But for people on a tight budget, StarOffice 6.0 will be well worth considering when it ships in final form in April or May 2002.

Based on what we've seen in this beta release, StarOffice 6.0 can handle most day-to-day office tasks for free - unless want the CD and manuals, which, based on the pricing of previous versions, will cost about £30 (ex. VAT). We predict that once Sun has worked out some of the integration kinks, StarOffice 6.0 will give Microsoft Office a run for its money.

Downloading and installing StarOffice 6.0 takes just a few moments (the beta's download file is only 80MB). But like every other suite, the full version requires serious disk space. A standard installation demands 240MB, while the minimum install needs 158MB (Microsoft Office's default install requires at least 210MB). To save space, you can choose a custom installation that lets you skip some of StarOffice's applications, such as the spreadsheet or the drawing module.

StarOffice's multiple personalities finally make it available to most computer users. The Windows, Linux (kernel 2.2.14 or higher), and Solaris (Sun's own OS) versions share file formats, making it simple to swap documents with people running any of these OSs. Better yet, StarOffice also supports Windows 95, whereas Microsoft Office XP no longer does. The biggest downside is that StarOffice still lacks a Macintosh edition. Sun should get its act together and give Mac owners an alternative to Microsoft Office.

Happily, StarOffice covers most of the office suite bases. It comes with a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc) and a presentation program (Impress). However, unlike Microsoft Office, Lotus SmartSuite or Corel WordPerfect Office, the StarOffice beta doesn't come with a database. Instead, Sun includes a tool that acts as a conduit between its applications and external data sources such as SQL databases, spreadsheets and your email address book. Don't even bother looking for Web page creation tools equivalent to Microsoft's FrontPage.

But StarOffice has some neat tricks up its sleeve, even with this limited list of applications. Our favourite is its XML-based file format. This not only creates small file sizes (a 200-page document that chews up 477KB in Word is just 135KB in StarOffice's XML format), but it's also the foundation of document sharing between the suite's different OS editions.

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This free suite includes a number of improvements from version 5.2. The Help window has been completely redesigned for easier access and searchability, while Print Preview now appears in the current window, not in a new window as before. StarOffice 6.0 supports Asian languages (including Japanese and Chinese), lets you email documents as attachments directly from its applications (using the File > Send command), and puts an icon in the taskbar system tray for one-click access to the suite's applications.

But don't fool yourself: this is no Microsoft Office XP clone. Compared to Redmond's suite, StarOffice is poorly integrated and barely makes use of the Web. For instance, you can't create a spreadsheet within a word processor document (as you can with Word and Excel); instead, you must drag and drop a copied section from Calc to Writer. And if you're thinking of using StarOffice to collaborate with co-workers or use the Web to share documents, think again.

Writer and Calc are the cornerstones of this suite, and both do a solid job handing documents and spreadsheets respectively. The 6.0 versions provide some new features, most of which should have shown up long ago, such as the ability to set hanging indents in text and tables in Writer.

Writer matches up well against Word for light to medium-sized text tasks, such as creating documents, and even boasts some advanced tools. For instance, it includes AutoCorrect (which automatically checks and corrects your spelling), nifty WordCompletion (which finishes words for you), multicolumn layout, a save-as-HTML feature, a mail merge for addressing letters and envelopes, and the ability to make bibliographical entries. Alas, Writer is still missing a macro creator -- a serious omission that makes it virtually impossible to customise or automate repetitive chores.

Calc suffers from similar shortcomings. Although, for some, it's a credible substitute for Microsoft's spreadsheet, it lacks a few of Excel's advanced features. These include Web Query, the ability to import data from Web tables into your spreadsheet, and AutoRepublish, which keeps Excel data fresh on your Web site. Calc does offer a slick chart-making wizard, though, and DataPilot, an Excel-like PivotTable tool that lets you completely reorganise columns and rows.

Impress, StarOffice's slide show maker, won't make PowerPoint veterans ditch their software, but it's a slick presentation maker in its own right. It supplies more than 50 slide transition effects and lets you create new presentations with an easy-to-use wizard. You can also export your show to HTML for posting on a Web site (very nice), and package a presentation into a single file for sharing.

Sun makes a big deal about StarOffice's compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. That's smart, since Office is the established standard. Not so smart, however, is StarOffice's translation accuracy. With simple documents, such as lightly formatted Word documents or straightforward Excel spreadsheets, StarOffice is usually on the mark, though the beta version does create some pagination differences between a Word document opened in Word and the same one opened in StarOffice's Writer. Give it something more complex, and it often struggles. When we opened a Word document with tables, two small charts, a footer and minimal headings in Writer, it looked very different from the real thing, with one nearly blank page stuck into the document, and the table all on its own on a separate page. We hope the final version fixes these problems.

Expect complaints from Office owners if you trade documents more complex than plain text. If you're looking for a low-cost (as opposed to no-cost) suite that translates Microsoft's file formats more accurately, consider Corel's WordPerfect Office.

Whereas many free applications have taught us not to expect extensive technical support, StarOffice's support options (based on that available for version 5.2) are better than some paid-for programs. Sun's online support includes discussion forums, searchable problem/solution databases, and fee-based email and phone support. Various Web sites, such as StarOffice.com (Web site) (not affiliated with Sun), also provide message boards and tools.

The beta version of StarOffice 6.0 gives committed Office XP users no reason to switch. However, if the gold code fixes the glitches, small-business owners, home office users and college students should download StarOffice 6.0 right away.

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