January 19, 2001

How close are we, really? Review of StarOffice 5.2

Author: JT Smith

- by Tim Hanson -

As Linux users, each of us has done his or her share of advocacy. Each
of us has, when asked whether or not Linux has a particular feature or
runs a specific type of software, stared blankly at the questioner,
unable to talk past the obvious: While Linux makes a great server it
lacks desktop applications.

Particularly embarrassing has been the question about productivity
software, the programs that make offices run all over the world.
Typically, the person doing the asking uses Microsoft Office, the set of
applications which has captured nearly all the market. More often than not,
the questioner knows or thinks s/he knows the answer and is just setting
us up for some rhetoric. Can we give someone a realistic alternative?
Can we say, "Yes, there is a suite I can tell you about. It does
everything MS Office does and more. It is more flexible and more stable.
Best of all, it's free, as in 'Free at Last!'." How close are we,
really?

I have been a Linux user a couple of years now, long enough to have
become familiar with my desktop system, with Linux, and the SuSE
distribution. Having let my C skills rust and without time to get current
again, I remain a simple user, a home networker with three computers and a
firewall. I have become adept enough to require Windows only for
Quicken and online banking. I have been using an ancient copy of Wordperfect
Office 8 for Windows for personal spreadsheet needs and to write an
occasional letter.

I wanted a complete move to Linux for all needs, but GnuCash isn't far
enough along in my opinion, and I heard stories of StarOffice bloat.
Applix and the Gnome tools are out of the question for now because most
of my work is in Wordperfect's formats; I know of no usable filters, and
I'm certainly not starting from scratch now. Koffice is not mature and
I tend away from KDE. Wordperfect Office for Linux doesn't appeal to
me because of its uncertain future under present management. Besides,
StarOffice was sitting there on one of the six SuSE CDs, itching to be
used.

I tried StarOffice last year, a couple of versions back with a less
capable system; I found it slow and unstable with an oppressive license.
Now that some disadvantages have been eliminated, I decided on another
attempt two weeks ago.

A typical review of StarOffice begins when the reviewer bemoans the time it
takes to load the program, progresses to his or her dissatisfaction with
the integrated desktop, and pretty well goes downhill from there.
You'll not hear any of that from me. Even with the above well-known faults
I found Star Office for Linux to be, well, not bad.

Here's my perspective: I work as a CPA for my federal government
employer. I have a standard issue Micron 266mhz laptop with 96mb ram and a
4 gig hard drive. It was respectable two years ago when I signed for
it, and it is acceptable now. The operating environment consists of Windows
NT, Microsoft Office 97, a few security programs, and agency specific
calculation software. I use Outlook for email, Internet Explorer for
the intranet. I keep my schedule on Outlook. The agency has
standardized on Exchange servers. Because I work with personal records of U.S.
citizens, security is fairly tight, well, supposedly considering the 50 "I
LUV U" emails I got just like everybody else. I am not allowed to keep
any personal software on it; I may access no personal Web sites.
Microsoft Office is my daily environment. With few exceptions I can be
seen using an Office application nearly every workday, sometimes all
day. Like my co-workers I have become a proficient user of this product.

My accountant's work papers consist mainly of Excel spreadsheets pasted
as tables into Word documents, with surrounding text. I have a
thorough knowledge of day-to-day work using office productivity software,
rather than a geek's understanding of the internals. My skills are
duplicated by thousands if not millions of office workers worldwide. My
evaluation of Star Office carries this context.

My home PC is no cutting-edge wonder. It's a 550mhz AMD K6, roughly 45
gig of hard drive, a 19-inch monitor. I keep Windows on a separate,
slower computer, having little tolerance for dual booting.

Up front, here's what I did to make Star Office behave itself: I
spent less than the street price for Wordperfect Office, either Windows or
Linux, which would be a quarter what I would have spent for a full
blown Microsoft Office license, and with that money I bought an extra 256mb
SDRAM, for a total of 384mb. That's it. StarOffice still takes too long to
load, but with Linux's stability and the new memory, I'm not loading it
more than once per week, if that. Disk grinding due to swap is zero.
Day-to day, StarOffice sits resident without complaint on its own page when I'm
off doing something else. It has its own page because I have several,
thanks to my window manager. With Windows, you only get one.

For those reviewers crying, "OhMyGawd! Slow To Load!" or "All That
Swapping!" or "Memory Hawg!" this solution is obvious. Memory is cheap and
getting cheaper. To those who moan about the integrated desktop,
millions of us who work in an office environment use an equivalent, Windows,
every day and won't see anything wrong with StarOffice as it stands.
For a productively user it's not a problem nor an issue.

Windows users might have some trouble. I have heard it is much slower
over Windows, and Windows' single page must make things inconvenient.
I have not tried the Windows version and probably won't do so. I think
any Linux user has a ready answer for those who don't like the Windows
version, don't we?

I had some trouble moving some of my documents. Specifically, Quattro
Pro native spreadsheets didn't want to cross. My attempts to have
Quattro Pro save them in Excel 97 format, to be read by the StarOffice filter,
proved unsuccessful. I ended up saving them Quattro native to a floppy and
having Excel on the work laptop convert them. After that, StarOffice picked
them up as Office documents. I had to redo some of the date formats, but
as big a pain as this was, it only had to be done once. As a test, I
saved some of them and some StarWriter files in Microsoft format,
which MS Office picked up without complaint. If you're converting from
Wordperfect or Quattro Pro for Windows, find a friend with Office on a
computer and somehow get him or her to spend a Saturday afternoon with
you, converting them. Hopefully this will be less a problem when StarOffice 6,
the XML aware version, becomes available later this year.

The email client works well enough. Multiple POP servers aren't a
problem, nor is mixing with IMAP servers. The mail client has the standard
features expected from this type of software, including threading,
quoting replies, a nice filtering utility, and the rest. Email is not
terribly cutting edge but everything is here, as one would expect. I
didn't try it with an LDAP server, but it has the capability. I'd like to
see it mature into real groupware, including the task manager, schedule,
and address book in a unified whole.

The browser is clunky but usable and the weakest link in the chain,
but configuration allows the use of an external browser for those who
frustrate easily. For day-to-day surfing it's too slow, but for reading
help files in HTML or following a link found in some email it works
fine. Many Java applets break, but they haven't been freezing the
browser. Hopefully more of the Mozilla code will find its way here. I'm
still using Netscape 4.* for most of my surfing, but I have the HTML
version of Grokking the GIMP more or less permanently on the desktop using
the StarOffice browser. I also use it extensively for the resident
versions of HTML HOW-TO documents. For these limited uses, it comes in
handy.

From what I can see after two weeks of reasonable use, StarWriter and
StarCalc are every bit as clean and usable as their MS Office
counterparts. Editing text is a snap, as is putting together spreadsheets
quickly. I miss the "Group Mode" of Quattro Pro, but there are workarounds
I've learned from not having this handy mode in Excel, either. My
caveat is that I use spreadsheets as an accountant, with lots of date
functions, plenty of interest and time value work, formatting en route to a
word processing document, and little else. I haven't probed the depths
of all the functions; if major parts essential to what mathematicians
do are missing, I'm sure someone will let me know. As it stands, the
average office worker doing financial or managerial accounting, working
up projections of business-type data, performing "what-if" analysis,
writing correspondence, etc., will feel right at home.

Printing is not a problem. I print to a HP Laserjet 1100, and in all
cases printed text looks exactly like screen text, with no hint of
roughness, even on larger font sizes. Screen fonts are smooth and easy to
read, free of the "blotchy look" of earlier StarOffice releases. I'm very
impressed.

Those are the major applications I use. The presentation software
appears to work, although I haven't used it on an actual presentation yet.
Designing test pages revealed no surprises. I could use a friendly
interface for entering data into the address book; otherwise it is useful
for creating form letters and reports. I have never used the graphics
program, preferring the GIMP.

All in all, this isn't bad. The developers at OpenOffice
need most of all, in my opinion, to work on
making the email client, task manager, and time planner an integrated
groupware product competitive with like offerings from Microsoft and
Lotus. The browser needs to be updated to incorporate upcoming Mozilla
1.0 code. Note that in my suggestions I do not advocate the unbundling
of applications as a priority. As a user, I couldn't care less how long
it takes to load, as long as I don't have to load it very often. It
doesn't matter how much memory the program uses, as long as I have
enough.

Finally I am able to recommend an alternative to Office for many
users. In my opinion, many people who feel they need Microsoft Office to
work productively can move to Star Office with little trouble. I was
surprised at how quickly I was able to work productively with this
program, and all this without the high cost, the restrictive licensing
arrangements, the hassle of working with proprietary software.
At last I have an answer when someone asks me, "Does Microsoft Office
run on it?"

Hanson is a CPA, working for the government, a daily user of office
productivity software. While he has never made his living in the computer
business, he has been a hobbyist since the early '80s. He has, at
one time or another, owned a personal computer from every generation
since the Atari 8-bit, and still has a working Radio Shack PC-2.

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