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VNU Net: Sun StarOffice 5.1 [Software Review]

Mar 02, 2000, 01:22 (17 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tim Anderson)

By Tim Anderson, VNU Net

A great performer that will challenge Microsoft once usability problems have been resolved.

StarOffice is free and runs on Solaris, Linux, Windows and OS/2.

Now owned by Sun Microsystems, StarOffice seems to be an attempt to undermine Microsoft Office, and also as preparation for a new era in Office productivity when you might run applications and open documents from a central location accessed over the web.

StarOffice likes to make its presence felt, and by default installs a feature called Integrated Desktop. This takes over your whole working environment, and offers to become the default browser, email client and news client, which makes sense if you want to move seamlessly between Windows and Linux.

Whether or not you choose the Integrated Desktop, StarOffice takes integration further than other office suites. Instead of offering a suite of applications, the software feels like a single application with different document types. If you are working in a text document and then start a new spreadsheet, you end up with two floating document windows that share the main menu and toolbars.

StarOffice's main document types are word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database and HTML document. Other editors include chart, image, and formula. The feature list is huge. For example, the word processor has paragraph styles, tables, fields, auto complete and auto spell-check, thesaurus, the ability to insert charts, object linking and embedding objects and Java applets, index and table of contents support, headers, footers and footnotes, versioning, integrated drawing tools, multiple columns and database integration.

The advanced features are implemented thoroughly. Look into paragraph styles, for example, and you find a dialog with 12 tabs, including control over hyphenation, widows and orphans, drop capitals and so on. Macro enthusiasts can open the StarOffice programming environment, which uses Starbasic - a language similar to Visual Basic.

This richness of features means that in theory companies could move from Microsoft Office to StarOffice without losing features. Some things are actually better in StarOffice. StarSchedule, for example, is a server-based calendar that can be shared over a network using HTTP, a trick that is beyond Microsoft Outlook unless you install Exchange. Note that you need the CD version to get the scheduler.

The two big problems with StarOffice are usability and documentation. If you look at the evolution of the major Office suites, you will see that for several years the focus has been more on usability than features. While StarOffice is up to the mark on features, it is well behind on usability.

The user interface is too busy, with toolbars and help windows on all four sides of the working area, along with floating, docked and pop-out tools.

There is no shortage of wizards, templates and online tips, but the overall effect is cluttered. In such a feature-laden package the quality of documentation is critical, and it is not easy to find your way around StarOffice. You also have to learn StarOffice jargon and stability is not what it should be, so save your work frequently.

This is a fantastic package for an unbeatable price, but it does need to mature before the typical office user will really want to use it. However, with a little more development it has the potential to take on all comers.

System Requirements
Windows 95 or higher, Linux 2.0.x or higher, OS/2 Warp 3 or higher, Solaris 2.5.1 or higher. 64Mb RAM and 100Mb of free disk space

Good Points
Value, number and depth of features, team scheduler and cross-platform.

Bad Points
Quirky, cluttered interface, poor documentation and erratic online help, some bugs.

Still an adventurous choice, but a good choice.

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