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VNU Net: Sun StarOffice 5.1 [Software Review]

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.

Conclusion
Still an adventurous choice, but a good choice.