Sun's StarOffice 5.2 beta

Available free by download from Sun's Web site (www.sun.com/staroffice/), StarOffice is a cross-platform, total office product that runs on Windows (9x/NT/2000), Linux and Solaris. The StarOffice suite is ideal for the home and business user, and this new Beta focuses on compatibility with Microsoft Office 2000 and improved ease of use. General additions to the suite include the ability to spell-check up to 20 languages, easier file navigation and a faster and more stable environment.

StarOffice is easy to set up and occupies about the same amount of disk space as Microsoft Office 2000 Standard. For Linux, a Pentium computer with at least 32MB of RAM is required. We tested StarOffice on a Pentium 200MHz with 32MB of RAM, running RedHat 6.2. Performance was acceptable, but 64MB of RAM is advised.

A command window at start up allows for any kind of document to be created. For additional functionality, StarOffice can be integrated with your desktop environment to allow you to access other Linux commands from within the suite.

The word processor, StarOffice Writer, is everything you would expect from a standard authoring tool. The application has its own native format, but working with Microsoft Office Word documents is very smooth. The layout is clean, but it may take time for Microsoft Word users to adjust, for many of the commands are less obvious.

StarOffice Calc, the spreadsheet application, has improved filters for working with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Other improvements include DataPilot table features and improved hyperlink handling and export capabilities. A new currency conversion AutoPilot will convert currencies in documents to and from many European currencies. The AutoPilot tool works across the entire suite and can be applied to guide you through such processes as creating letters and tables and applying mathematical functions.

Presentations and large display graphics are handled by StarOffice Impress. This is compatible with Microsoft PowerPoint, although it is not as user-friendly as that software when it comes to modifying an existing presentation. Impress has some new useful features - such as the StarOffice Player - that can be installed to run StarOffice Impress on computers without the entire suite. The Webcast support utility will allow you to export a presentation to be delivered as a webcast using Perl or ASP scripts. A new compression utility means presentations can be compressed and saved across multiple disks.

In addition to the standard office tools, StarOffice incorporates drawing and chart applications as well as an e-mail client. The suite has a Web page creation tool similar to Netscape's Composer. There is also a scheduling and task manager program, for which improvements include support for drag-and-drop moving of appointments and more e-mail reminder options. The database application included is called StarOffice Base: it has the new Adabas D database engine, which can be downloaded separately. Improvements to this include the ability to front-end Microsoft Access 2000, Oracle and SQL servers. ODBC 3 is also supported.

The download itself will take a while, with the single file for Linux being approximately 90MB. The StarOffice 5.2 Beta release is a functional cross-platform productivity suite that's easy to use. Compatibility with Microsoft Office 2000 is definitely one of its strongest attributes. If you're looking for an office suite for Linux, then StarOffice 5.2 - due for final release by the winter - is certainly worth a try.

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Rodney Gedda

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