Getting beta all the time

Thanks to the delay between me writing this and the issue hitting the shelves, the title of this month's column may not be appropriate any more, but it was too good a headline to turn down. On the docket this month: OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta, and a nifty drive imaging utility called g4u.

Plays well with othersOpenOffice.org is becoming well known enough that I expect this may be the last time I provide a bit of context for those of you who've been hiding under rocks.

When Sun Microsystems bought the StarOffice suite of applications several years ago, the company licensed most parts of it under an Open Source license and kick-started the OpenOffice.org community. OpenOffice.org development is driven by Sun, with added participation by coders at other companies and even a few stalwart volunteers. Following a stable release of the OpenOffice.org suite, Sun bundles it up with a few extras and a support package, and voila, you have the latest and greatest StarOffice, a commercial offering.

OpenOffice.org 2.0, which recently went into an official public beta release, represents an enormous step forward for the office suite that comes preinstalled on most Linux distributions (the current release is 1.1.4).

First and foremost, the suite now inherits the look-and-feel of the desktop it's running under, so it no longer sticks out like a sore thumb, visually. And this is a cross-platform behaviour: if you're running OpenOffice.org under the Gnome desktop environment on a Linux box, then it will inherit the current Gnome theme, use standard Gnome Open and Save dialogue boxes, and so forth. If you fire the suite up under Microsoft Windows, it will look like a Windows app, sport Windows file dialogue boxes, respond nicely to drag-and-drop, and genuinely behave how you'd expect it to - see screen shot.

I've been using development builds of OpenOffice.org 2.0 since last autumn, always saving documents to Microsoft Office formats, since that's the standard here at PC World HQ. In that time, I've had only a couple of small problems sharing documents with co-workers using Microsoft Office. We're talking about very slight formatting inconsistencies, here - not anything that prevented work from getting done.

Here's a tip for those of you who are stuck in a Microsoft-dominated workplace like mine: set your OpenOffice.org apps to always save to Microsoft formats. Select Tools-Options. In the dialogue box that pops up, select General from the "Load/Save" section on the left - see here. Now look to the "Default file format" setting on the right. To make word processing documents always save as Microsoft Word ".doc" files, select Text document under "Document type", and then choose Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP from the "Always save as" drop-down list. Similarly, to save all spreadsheets as Excel .xls files, select the Spreadsheets document type, and "choose Microsoft Excel 97/2000/XP from the "Always save as" list.

A few snags

There's only one feature in which OpenOffice.org will completely fail you in its attempts to be compat­ible with Microsoft Office: macros.

Microsoft Office uses Visual Basic for Applications as its macro language; OpenOffice.org uses a similar form of Basic, but with different objects and methods. Consequently, a macro written in one suite has to be entirely rewritten to work in the other. If a document that depends on macros is going to be shared, everyone must get with the same program - literally. I've got a spreadsheet here at the office that I would like to spruce up with a macro to apply colour coding to certain cells based on certain criteria, but I've switched to OpenOffice.org and am not looking back, while my colleagues are still using Microsoft Office. So for now, in that spreadsheet that I share every day, everything will just have to stay black and white.

You might assume that Open­Office.org's interface more or less mirrors that of Microsoft Office, but this is actually not the case. If you've been using Microsoft Office for so long that its menus have become second nature to you, you'll hit a few snags when you start working with OpenOffice.org. For example, if you want to alter the headers and footers that print on your sheets in Excel, you select File-Page Setup. In the OpenOffice.org counterpart Calc, you select Format-Page. If you ask me, a formatting command fits better in a Format menu than a File menu anyhow, but the point is that during your first few weeks of working with OpenOffice.org, you may spend some time fishing around for things that you know must be around somewhere - see this screen shot

OpenOffice.org 2.0 should be available by the time you read this, so the Windows version is probably on this month's cover CD, but you'll have to download the Linux version from www.openoffice.org. I've used the beta on both Windows and Linux, and have found it to be dependably stable, so you should have no problems with the final version.

Disk imaging for free

Next up on my to-do list is installing the Hoary Hedgehog (also known as Ubuntu 5.0.4 - a Linux distro that's closely tied to the non-profit Debian project) on my trusty IBM Thinkpad. It's a job that I approach with some trepidation: several distributions have failed to play nicely on that machine, and one of them was the previous version of Ubuntu, which didn't like the laptop's power management routines. To be fair, the machine is several years old, doesn't support ACPI power management, and its APM implementation seems a bit off.

Anyway, the point is, I want to give the new Ubuntu a shot, but I also want to be able to get back to the status quo - a severely hacked-up Mandrake 10.1 that's working reasonably well - if all hell breaks loose.

Luckily, I discovered g4u (short for "Ghost for Unix"), a free utility that boots from CD and will image an entire hard disk or a single partition to a file on another machine (see screen shot). You don't need any special software on the second machine, just an FTP server. Any Linux distribution worth its salt provides one of those, as does Windows XP Professional. You'll find it at www.feyrer.de/g4u/ or on our cover CD.

So you pop your g4u disc into a drive, boot it, point it at a hard drive or a partition, and tell it what server to save the drive or partition image to. G4u uses a command-line interface, so it doesn't offer point-and-click simplicity. But there are only a few different commands available, and the program provides useful error messages if you do something wrong or if something bad happens (if the connection to the FTP server is lost, for instance), so it's easy enough to feel your way along. There's a handy tip at g4u's site for keeping the size of your image files small, so you might want to check that out, too.

I've now got a file on my desktop PC at home that represents all the data on my Thinkpad's hard drive. So, if the Hoary Hedgehog proves to be untameable, I'll pop g4u back into the Thinkpad's drive and have it pull the old data back into place, as though nothing ever happened.

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Matthew Newton

PC World
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