EasyOffice Premium 3 and StarOffice 6 beta

Microsoft Office is the big gun of office suites, but its high price (Office XP Professional, purchased new, costs $1288) and its aggressive copy controls may encourage consumers to seek alternatives.

I looked at two low-priced suites trying to nose into the office suite tent: Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 6 (currently free as a beta download; its previous shipping version cost about $US40) and a shipping version of EasyOffice Premium 3, $US40 from E-Press.

With a full complement of well-integrated applications, each offering a standard Windows interface and almost all the features of Microsoft Office, StarOffice 6 has the look of a replacement package. The word processor falls short of matching Microsoft Word's feature list by only a grammar checker and macro recorder; its tools include as-you-type spell-checking, built-in charting, styles, a nice set of templates, HTML manipulators, and completely customisable toolbars and menus.

StarOffice's spreadsheet application is similarly well endowed, with a DataPilot feature to help create useful Excel Pivot Table-like views. (Pivot Tables select parts of a worksheet and then move the parts around for different views.) Based on a wizard-like system, the presentation manager offers a full set of special effects, and can automatically create a presentation from a word processing document. All applications can default to save in standard Microsoft Office 97/2000/XP file formats.

On the downside, the lack of macro-recording tools limits users' ability to customise, and the software's dialogue boxes and help topics are thick with technical jargon. Third-party training materials and support are minimal. StarOffice is best suited for technically oriented firms that use a mix of Windows, Linux and Solaris operating systems (it's available for all three).

EasyOffice Premium 3 has a lot less going for it as a Microsoft Office alternative. Although it offers voice recognition and speech synthesis tools, a bookkeeping application, and contact management - as well as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs - it stacks up more as a competitor for the less powerful Microsoft Works.

EasyOffice can open and save files in Microsoft Office formats, but its main applications lack integration, and its feature sets are limited. For example, charts are available only in the spreadsheet and can't be pasted into a word processing document. And the interfaces of the various applications aren't standardised. Macro capabilities and toolbar and menu customisation are missing.

Corel's WordPerfect Office 2002 ($1299 for the Professional Edition) remains the best Microsoft alternative. However, some users - particularly technically oriented SOHO businesses - might want to take a look at StarOffice 6, in view of its affordability.

E-Press EasyOffice "Premium 3

A limited feature set, lack of integration, and a "quirky interface disqualify it from the list of fully-fledged office suites.

Price: $US40, URL: www.e-press.com.

Sun Microsystems StarOffice 6 beta

This suite is fully-featured, but has a fairly "challenging learning curve and limited third-party training and support.

Price: Free in beta version, URL: www.sun.com/software/star/staroffice.