StarOffice shines with low-cost apps

Looking at a product such as Star Division's StarOffice productivity suite, there's an elephant in the closet that's pretty hard to ignore. Namely, a particular office suite product from some folks in Redmond, that has enjoyed a bit of success in this market. But, StarOffice 5.0 manages to stand well on its own merits; even those committed to Microsoft Office should take a close look.

If you have users working on diverse platforms, StarOffice is an option for standardising everyone on one office suite. Star Division jumps on cross-platform with both feet, supporting Windows, OS/2, Linux, and Solaris, with Mac OS and Java-based versions coming soon.

StarOffice has all the applications users would expect, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation software, but they do not exist as separate applications. Rather you launch and access them via a single interface that reminds me of a combination of Windows Explorer and Active Desktop in Windows 98, complete with its own Start button. This means that StarOffice on a GUI-less Linux system will still be friendly to the most command-line-phobic user.

Besides the productivity tools you expect, Star Division has tightly integrated Internet functionality with the suite. You can browse the Web, edit and publish HTML, and write and send e-mail straight from StarOffice with no intermediary.

In addition, StarOffice throws in an address book, calendar, and to-do list, all of which can synchronise with Microsoft Outlook or a Palm handheld.

The features in StarOffice are quite good. For example, I found the thesaurus in StarWriter to be superlative, optimal, and unsurpassed. It wasn't simply coded at the last minute to meet the specifications drawn up by the marketing department. I'm a word person, though, so that's a feature I appreciate. Of course, as a word person, there were a couple features I missed, such as the ability to have revisions automatically appear in another colour, and the handy cursor highlighting tool.

Opening some book chapters in StarOffice that I have been editing in Microsoft Word nearly stopped my heart, as all the annotations had disappeared. There are workarounds for this problem, but they were inconvenient. As a rule, you will find most of the basic features in StarOffice, but you would be well advised to do an inventory of the critical features users need, just to make sure.

Many office suites are criticised for their bloat, incorporating too many features at the expense of disk space and performance. StarOffice is not a waif -- with a 150MB install on Windows -- but that's not so bad considering how many applications are squeezed into the product. It really boils down to this: any feature you use is critical, while any feature you do not use is bloat.

Bringing in documents from Microsoft Office -- for the most part a smooth process -- had a few hiccups. For instance, StarCalc, the spreadsheet program, handled my Excel expense and budget reports with no calculation errors, but the formatting was off. Formatting errors turned a one-page document into two pages, and I lost my check boxes. Also, when I opened Word documents, I was invariably chided that I had Fast Saved those files and needed to go back and resave them.

The ambitious IT manager considering a migration to StarOffice also needs to consider issues such as training users. StarOffice is similar enough to other office suites that users should adjust, given a little time. Certainly, it's not much different than upgrading to the new version of an office suite. Invariably, features change and users struggle for a while. Migrating documents might prove more problematic, because there are some formatting troubles.

But all these caveats are balanced by the compelling bottom-line issue. StarOffice costs less than half the price of many competing products, with discounts for large installations. Overall, StarOffice proves to be a viable option for those looking for an office suite at an attractive price. Before you upgrade users to the next version of your current office suite, download a free copy of StarOffice. You just might find an Internet-ready suite that won't break your budget.

Stars in the Office

StarOffice includes the following applications.

-- StarWriter, StarWriter/Web (word processing, Web editing and browsing)-- StarCalc (spreadsheet)-- StarImpress, StarDraw (presentation and drawing)-- StarBase (database)-- StarMail (e-mail)-- StarSchedule (calendar)-- StarDesktop (desktop interface)THE BOTTOM LINE: GOODStarOffice 5.0This office suite serves up cross-platform productivity applications that make good use of Internet technologies at an eye-popping price. Though there are issues to consider in migrating from another suite, StarOffice is worth considering as an alternative during your next office-suite upgrade.

Pros: Competitive pricing strategy; nicely integrated suite of applications; good cross-platform support; good Internet functionality.

Cons: Conversion of other file formats less than perfect; lacks some useful features.

Star Division: www.stardivision.com.

Price: $US50 -- Available for download. The package is expected to be available for sale in Australia soon.

Check with Cetus Technology www.cetustech.com.au Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, OS/2, Linux, Solaris.

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Sean Dugan

PC World

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