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9/20/2005
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Review: Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 8

With most of the features for a fraction of the price, StarOffice 8 promises improvements on its already efficient office suite with Windows-like functionality.

How do you compete against Microsoft in the office- productivity software market? You could give up, like WordPerfect did long ago. Or you could try harder, as Sun has done. Sun Microsystem's StarOffice 8 Office Suite gives users a similar word- and number-crunching experience to Microsoft Office, but adheres to open standards, runs on Linux and Solaris (as well as Windows), and costs less than $100.

I put aside my copy of OpenOffice.org Office Suite on my Windows XP laptop (IBM ThinkPad, Intel Pentium M 1400 MHz, 512 MB of RAM) and installed StarOffice 8. Although StarOffice takes up a little more room on a hard disk (320 MB versus 147 MB for OpenOffice), it comes with office-productivity tools that rival those of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access. StarOffice supplies Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation) and Draw (self-describing) applications and now includes an HSQLDB database engine comparable to Access.

Open Documents

One of the first things I noticed is version 8 uses a new file format: OpenDocument. ODT is an XML format specified by the OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) OpenDocument 1.0 schema. It facilitates file sharing and reduces file sizes. Word documents requiring 2,307 KB and 13,204 KB of disk, for instance, used just 1,542 KB and 6,063 KB, respectively, in StarOffice as ODT text files.

The OpenDocument schema defines a common XML structure for text documents, spreadsheets, charts, drawings and presentations. That makes ODT files easy to transform using XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation) or any other XML tool. I could easily import, read and save text documents whether they originated in versions of StarOffice 6/7 or various versions of Word. Excel and PowerPoint files were just as easy to convert into StarOffice Calc and Impress files.

Importing documents into StarOffice and its ODT format takes a bit of time. That 13,204-KB doc file took Writer 28 seconds to import and open--long enough time to refill my coffee but not long enough to add cream and sugar. Once I saved the file in ODT format, Writer could open it as fast as Microsoft Word opened its corresponding doc file (in about 7 seconds). The Enterprise version even has a utility to estimate how long the migration from Office to StarOffice will take.

Text Painter

StarOffice Writer gives end users most of the tools they need to process documents. The Word-like interface includes many, if not all, of the tools found in Word. The process for inserting objects--such as special characters or URLs--is similar to that of Word, for example, as is the process of formatting text and pages. To format special sections of a document differently, you can use StarOffice's new paintbrush formatter.

I love this feature and use it often to change small sections of a document. Rather than create sections and section breaks to do the job, I used the paintbrush to replicate the text styles I want. To test this function in Writer, I highlighted the formatted text and clicked on the paintbrush menu button and the cursor changed into a paint can. I then moved to the page of the document that needed the same special format, highlighted the text, and clicked once. My formats were replicated on the new text. Right on!

Extras

Writer makes it easy to add digital signatures from the file menu using certificates from trusted sources like VeriSign. I also easily exported a document in Adobe Acrobat format and controlled the level of compression used for images and maintained PDF tags in the transformation. As a result, the table of contents, hyperlinks and notes translated from my ODT file to the new PDF format. Headers of my document turned to PDF bookmarks, hypertext links stayed consistent in the text, and notes changed to comments. The only negative was that the added formatting increased the size of my PDF file.

Good
• OpenDocument format
• Mail merge wizard
• Low price

Bad

• Does not support VBA or MS APIs
• Macro converter for VB Scripts only in Enterprise version
• Innovation follows the leader

StarOffice 8, contact vendor for pricing. Sun Microsystems, (800) 555-9SUN, (650) 960-1300. www.sun.com/staroffice

Power users may miss their Visual Basic scripts. StarOffice does not support VB application programming or Microsoft's APIs. But this is a blessing in disguise. Viruses are occasionally generated in VB and perpetuated in Office document macros. Not a problem with StarOffice. It uses Basic macros, and the Enterprise edition has a Macro Migration Wizard to convert VB macros in Word and Excel for those who can't live without them.

If you struggled with the mail-merge function in StarOffice 7, you'll be happy with this upgrade. A wizard guides you through all the steps--from writing the letter to selecting and manipulating the data source or address list.

Database Design

A friend once confided that he feared everything would some day be in a database. I didn't disagree, and I have been in search of an easy-to-use, intuitive database program ever since. I was thrilled to hear StarOffice had switched from the Adabas D program that came with StarOffice 6/7 to an HSQLDB engine.

Version 8 comes with a database wizard reminiscent of that of Access, and I was able to easily create a database following its instructions. In addition, I could connect to MySQL, Oracle, ODBC and JDBC databases at the click of a mouse. Connectors for up to 15 different data sources are available.

For testing purposes I created and registered a new database with StarOffice. Registering a database informs StarOffice where the data resides, how it is organized, and how to get at it (which connector to use). Tables, queries, forms and reports are laid out in a graphical view with wizards. I created a table using one of the many table templates for business and personal use that provides entries for anything from addresses and physical assets to employee records to business transactions. Once your table is set, wizards help you build forms to input data and design reports.

Among the suite's other offerings, StarOffice Draw now supports a richer set of drawing shapes to import Office documents using AutoShapes. Impress can now import and view animated (audio and video) PowerPoint slides. And StarOffice now can import password-protected Word and Excel files.

If you can do without VB Script and Microsoft APIs in your office-productivity suite, StarOffice is a wonderful alternative to Microsoft Office. As for me, I'll continue to follow its progress.

Sean Doherty is a senior technology editor and lawyer based at our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. Write to him at sdoherty@nwc.com.

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