StarOffice 5.1 nudges Microsoft

Tired of paying top dollar for Microsoft's software? It's no Office 2000, but the latest version of Star Division's underdog office suite offers everything most office drones need: word processing, spreadsheets and charts, presentations, a database, HTML editing, vector and bitmap graphics editors, e-mail, calendar, and task management. And it's free for personal or non-commercial use.

Even businesses will find it a bargain. Compared to Office 2000 Professional's $500-plus street price, a version of StarOffice 5.1 costs a mere $US169 directly from StarDivision. And the suite offers one feature Office doesn't; it runs under Windows, OS/2, Sun's Solaris, Java, and most importantly, Linux.

But while StarOffice lets you have the upstart operating system and your Office documents too, it isn't 100 per cent compatible with Microsoft's applications. Most of the incompatibilities I noted in a recent review of StarOffice 5.0 are still present in the new version.

Compatibility: close

Though StarOffice imports and exports Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, don't plan to use StarOffice to collaborate on documents with Microsoft Office. One of the biggest compatibility problems I found with StarOffice 5.0's StarWriter application is unchanged. Although the program imports Word 95 and 97 documents, it doesn't import existing revision marks. StarWriter marks document revisions by multiple users in different colours just like Word, but you must save the file in the program's native .sdw format to preserve the revision data. Save the file as a Word document, and revision tracking data (although not the revisions themselves) vanish.

Elsewhere, StarWriter leaves a die-hard Word user longing for home. StarWriter's right-click context menu puts lots of text formatting options at your fingertips, but not Copy and Paste. I like being able to select text, then use those common commands from the resulting menu. And I've gotten accustomed to the way Word underscores misspelled words. I don't even need to formally spell-check most documents, since I can spot mistakes at a glance.

The thing I miss most is Word's outline view, which allows me to gradually organise my random notes and research into a coherent narrative, navigate complex documents, and see their structure at a glance. StarWriter's Navigator utility lets you browse through documents and modify their various elements, including heading levels and sections. But it's not the same as Word's on-screen hierarchical view. StarDivision has done such a good job of emulating other handy Microsoft Office features -- like Outlook's shortcut bar -- I hope a future version will steal a few more.

Transition troubles

Giving up Office for StarOffice may not be a smooth move in other areas, either. In the Linux version I tested, I was unable to import my existing Outlook and Outlook Express 5 messages. However, you can import mail from Outlook Express 4 and other StarOffice accounts. I had no trouble importing appointments and tasks into the StarSchedule clone of Microsoft's Schedule+ and Outlook's personal information managers. The program also imports Lotus Organizer ToDo, calendar, and anniversary data. However, I had no luck getting my Outlook contacts into StarOffice's address book.

All told, StarOffice is impressive. I'm not ready to give up on Office yet, but businesses and individual users who can't afford its blue-chip price tag have an alternative in StarOffice. Just be prepared for less than 100 per cent compatibility with your existing Office files. And if you're looking to escape from Microsoft's clutches altogether, StarOffice is your vehicle. With little training time, I researched, wrote, and e-mailed this story to my editor entirely in StarOffice. Here's hoping StarOffice 5.2 or 6.0 is even better.

Star Division

http://www.stardivision.com

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