StarOffice 6.0

staroffice6-lead.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    7.0 Very good

Pros

  • Runs on Windows, Linux, and Solaris
  • handles most basic office-suite tasks, such as word processing
  • uses XML file formats that reduce file size and let you share documents across operating systems
  • licence lets you install the suite on up to five systems.

Cons

  • Costs £53
  • no Macintosh version
  • lacks collaboration features
  • no database, dedicated Web page maker, PIM or email client provided.

The free ride has officially ended. In the past, Sun Microsystems distributed StarOffice, its fully-fledged office suite, for nothing. But StarOffice 6.0 will cost you £52.99 (inc. VAT) -- a small sum compared to Microsoft Office XP's £200 to £500 price tag, but a big jump from free. However, don't shun StarOffice because of the cost. Although it can't match Office XP feature for feature (it lacks data-sharing and Web collaboration tools, for example), this tortoise could eventually catch up to the Microsoft hare. If you only need the office-suite basics and want to install your suite on more than two systems, it can't hurt to try StarOffice. You may like it.

With StarOffice 6.0, Sun steps into uncharted territory -- charging money. But that doesn't mean that Sun is getting mercenary. The company gave most of the code to an organization called OpenOffice.org. That group created a free, slightly stripped-down StarOffice look-alike called OpenOffice 1.0. Check it out if you really don't want to pay for Sun's suite.

So why bother paying £53? For one thing, StarOffice offers traditional technical support, via telephone or email calls or email, unlike OpenOffice.org. In addition, StarOffice comes in versions for Windows, Linux and Solaris. These varied OS versions share file formats, so it's simple to swap documents with people who run different operating systems. Better yet, StarOffice still supports Windows 95, which Office XP abandoned. However, the StarOffice line-up lacks a polished Macintosh version, so anyone who owns a Mac or regularly swaps office files with Mac users should, ironically, stick with Microsoft. Fortunately, OpenOffice.org offers an embryonic Mac OS X edition.

Installing StarOffice takes just a few moments. But like most office suites, 6.0 requires serious disk space. A standard installation demands 215MB, while the minimum install needs 130MB; Microsoft Office's default install, by comparison, requires a minimum of 210MB. To save space, you can choose a custom installation that lets you skip some of StarOffice's applications, such as the spreadsheet or drawing programs.

StarOffice covers most of the office-suite bases. You'll find a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation program (Impress) and a drawing tool (Draw). However, unlike Microsoft Office, Lotus SmartSuite and Corel WordPerfect Office, StarOffice doesn't ship with a real database. Instead, Sun includes a data-source administration tool that extracts data or data-containing files, such as spreadsheets, from its own applications as well as from outside data sources such as SQL databases, spreadsheets and your email address book. Not only is StarOffice missing a database, don't even bother looking for a Web authoring tool such as Microsoft’s FrontPage, or a PIM/email client like Outlook.

But even with its limited functionality, StarOffice has several slick tricks up its sleeve. Our favourite is the fact that, because Sun built the suite on the XML-based file format, StarOffice 6.0 generates small file sizes. For example, a 540-page document that chews up 1.2MB in Microsoft Word is just 338K in StarOffice Writer's XML format. And the XML format also makes it possible to share documents among the suite's different OS editions.

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Version 6.0 also improves upon 5.2. StarOffice 6.0's redesigned Help window permits easier access and searchability. Also, as in Microsoft Office, StarOffice's Print Preview now displays in the window in which you're working, instead of launching a new window. StarOffice 6.0 comes in versions for Arabic, Danish, Dutch, French, German, and -- at last -- Asian languages, including Japanese and Chinese. It also connects to the default emailer on your system, so you can send email documents as attachments directly from any application by using the File > Send command. StarOffice even plants an icon in the Windows Taskbar system tray for one-click access to the suite's applications.

Despite its enhancements, StarOffice 6.0's toolset can't touch Microsoft Office XP's. For example, StarOffice barely makes use of the Web and ignores businesses that rely on workgroup collaboration. You won't find the tools you need to collaborate with co-workers via online discussions or save files to a shared Web work space. Nor does StarOffice offer the tools you need to recover files after a crash, as Office XP does.

But unlike Office XP, StarOffice's license is per user, not per system. You can legally install your copy of StarOffice on up to five different PCs that you use. Office XP lets you install on only two machines -- a major bone of contention among XP users.

Although StarOffice lacks a database of its own, it does include an acquisition tool that extracts data from SQL databases and spreadsheets. The setup process takes a while, though. You must first register whichever data source you're using -- a cumbersome process that requires two separate dialogue boxes. By contrast, in Word 2002, a wizard walks you through the whole data-query process. Since most users will use this tool primarily to mine email or PIM address books in order to mail-merge addresses for form letters, we find this process unnecessarily complicated. Microsoft Word's mail merge function, in comparison, is straightforward.

StarOffice also lacks a dedicated Web authoring tool, although the word processor can serve in a pinch -- you can create pages, and then save them as HTML. However, StarOffice won't help you publish these pages to a Web server.

Since Microsoft Office file formats rule, StarOffice faces a huge compatibility problem. The suite lets you import and edit DOC and XLS files, to name a few, but we can't vouch for StarOffice's formatting accuracy. With simple files, such as lightly formatted Word documents or straightforward Excel spreadsheets, StarOffice usually performs adequately. But Writer had problems paginating a lightly formatted, although very long, Word document. Try to convert a document full of heavy formatting and styles, and StarOffice 6.0 may choke. When we used StarOffice to open Word documents with tables, charts and rigorous formatting for forms, the StarOffice version looked very different from the original. In some cases, Writer stuck blank pages into the document or truncated and displaced lines of text.

And yet, whereas many low-cost suites skimp on technical support, StarOffice offers a surprising number of support options. Sun's online support includes discussion forums, searchable problem/solution databases and email and telephone support. Phone support allows you one free incident, with as many calls as it takes to solve that problem. After that, sadly, you must pay $25 (£17.11) per incident. If you regularly require help, Sun offers package pricing for support incidents, but the details are still unclear. Also, various Web sites, such as StarOffice.com (not affiliated with Sun), as well as the already-mentioned OpenOffice.org, provide message boards and tools.

StarOffice 6.0 won't give Microsoft Office users who are equipped with Office 2000 or XP any reason to switch. Likewise, the move to a paid-for structure negates one of our strongest arguments for using StarOffice as an alternative office suite. If you just need an inexpensive suite, however, StarOffice provides you with all of the fundamental applications -- a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation maker and an illustration program.

Writer and Calc v Word and Excel

Writer (StarOffice's word processor) and Calc (its spreadsheet) provide the backbone for this suite. Although the 6.0 versions sport some new features, such as the ability to set hanging indents in text and tables in Writer, most of these features should have shown up long ago. Let's see how these applications compare to their Microsoft Office counterparts.

StarOffice Writer

For most text tasks, Writer meets Word and WordPerfect head-on. You can create complex documents that contain, for example, tables of contents, footnotes, and bibliographies. Also, StarOffice contains a deep set of advanced tools. For instance, like Microsoft Word's own tool, Writer's AutoCorrect automatically spell-checks as you type, then inserts correct spellings -- so when you type 'fro', Writer automatically changes it to 'for'. Also StarOffice's mind-reading WordCompletion feature finishes words for you as you type the first few letters. Type polytheism once in a document, for instance, and Writer remembers the word and completes it as soon as you've typed 'p-o-l-y-t'. Word's AutoText feature is primitive by comparison. It comes with just a few entries (Writer has hundreds), so you have to build the mind-reading vocabulary yourself. Writer also supports multi-column layout, includes a save-as-HTML feature, offers mail merge for addressing letters and envelopes, and can make bibliographical entries and create tables of contents with the best of them.

Alas, Writer still lacks a macro recorder. Instead, it offers a script-style programming language called StarOfficeBASIC. StarOfficeBASIC's complexity makes it virtually impossible for the average user to customise or automate repetitive chores. Bad move. In addition, you can't create a table within Writer that uses spreadsheet functions, such as adding columns, as you can with Word. Instead, you must copy, then drag and drop a section of a spreadsheet from Calc to Writer. In any case, experienced Word users will need time to adapt to Writer's interface. You'll have to search through menu options to find the tools you need. The edit-tracking feature in Writer, for instance, lies within the Edit menu, while Word tucks it under Tools. That may be a picky point, but it sums up the Writer versus Word battle. Writer can do most text jobs, but it's not Word. Writers who were weaned on Word will want to stay there.

StarOffice Calc

Although Calc offers a credible substitute for Excel, it lacks Excel XP's advanced Web- oriented features. For example, Calc can't imitate Excel's Web Query, which lets you import data from Web tables directly into your spreadsheet, or the AutoRepublish feature that keeps Excel data fresh on your Web site. When it comes to more mundane, offline chores, however, Calc does fine. Calc lets you use plain English to create formulas (such as SALES - EXPENSES = X), format columns and rows to their most efficient width or height, and build charts with a very slick Autoformat Chart wizard.

We also like Calc's list of advanced features, even though several proved difficult to use. The Stylist, a formatting tool you'll also find in other applications in the suite, lets you modify individual cells or entire worksheets with format styles (any font/style/size/paragraph combination) you create. However, this tool couldn't be less intuitive, and the Help file offers scant guidance. An Excel-like PivotTable tool, new to version 6.0, lets you completely reorganise columns and rows to summarise and cross-tabulate data, while you can use StarOffice's data acquisition tool to cull data from outside sources, such as SQL databases and even other spreadsheets. Calc also includes a Create Scenario builder, similar to the one in Excel, that creates multiple tables in which you can tweak your data to generate and compare what-if scenarios.

As with previous versions, Calc lacks Excel's strong collaborative features, especially those that rely on the Web. Although you can save Calc spreadsheets to HTML, when you upload them to a Web site, they become static -- team members can't edit or add info to them. Excel, by comparison, lets you turn worksheets into interactive online editions that can be posted on a Web site, and then returned to the spreadsheet after editing.

Impress v PowerPoint

StarOffice's second-tier applications include a presentation manager and a drawing application. As with so much else in this suite, they're adequate, but they won't give Microsoft any sleepless nights.

StarOffice Impress

Impress, StarOffice's slide-show maker, won't convince PowerPoint veterans to defect, but it's a slick presentation maker in its own right. Impress lets you create new presentations with an easy-to-use wizard. It's easy to reorder your slides and modify the look of a single slide by dragging and dropping it. You can also change your presentation's design, as you can in PowerPoint, but only through a well-hidden command (Format > Styles > Slide Design). And you can embed objects, such as video clips, into a presentation slide. Impress also supplies more than 50 transition effects, including fades and wipes, to insert between slides.

Better still, you can easily save your completed show to HTML for posting on a Web site (very nice) and package a presentation into a single file for sharing with others. In earlier Impress editions, Sun offered a free slide-show player that colleagues must download in order to view your presentation; we'll have to wait until version 6.0 launches to see if Sun will continue this practice.

Unlike PowerPoint, Impress lacks a slick wizard to help you pack up all the files your presentation links to and distribute them to others. And Impress doesn't offer a preview pane, such as PowerPoint does, that shows thumbnails of slides at the side of the work area. One bright spot: Impress opens easily and plays PowerPoint presentations, complete with all formatting and transitions.

StarOffice Draw

This next application is really the odd one out. StarOffice bundles Draw, an illustration program, into its office suite. Why? We can't say. Office XP doesn't have one. Microsoft Works includes a simple image editor but doesn't venture into the realm of drawing tools. But StarOffice offers a full-featured vector-based drawing program that lets you create object-based illustrations, flowcharts and organisational charts (at least the last two are office related). However, Draw is, of course, no match for professional tools such as CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator.

Draw holds no surprises: you create shapes, edit them, and drag them into place. Nor does it include pre-built organisational-chart shapes, as do Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Instead, you have to build each chart manually, which is a major pain. On the bright side, Draw's integration with the other StarOffice applications lets you spell-check any text in your illustration. You can also insert a spreadsheet table into a drawing and export the finished project into several popular image formats, including TIFF, GIF and JPEG. Frugal graphic designers may appreciate spending £53 to buy an illustration tool, especially because similar ones usually cost more than £200. Sadly, if you're not a designer, Draw probably won't do you much good.

In sum, StarOffice 6.0 pulls out almost all the stops. It's head-and-shoulders above version 5.2, and its applications are slowly catching up with those of Microsoft Office. True, StarOffice needs work: it still translates Microsoft's file formats poorly and lacks an integrated email client. But, if you're looking for a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office, for £53, you'll have a hard time finding a sweeter suite deal.

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