September 26, 2005

Review: StarOffice 8

Author: Jem Matzan and Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

StarOffice is a suite of interoperable "office" programs that use the same software shell as their basis. The programs include a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing application, presentation creation program, and database front end. All are feature-rich and capable of providing adequate desktop functionality for business and home use. The latest version, StarOffice 8, is not perfect, but it is an excellent value for businesses that do not depend on proprietary Microsoft formats for production work.

StarOffice is based on the OpenOffice.org source code, and is very much like OpenOffice.org 2.0, with a few enhancements:

  • Better writing tools: StarOffice's spell checker is marginally better than the one in OpenOffice.org, and the built-in thesaurus is markedly better. Neither application offers a built-in grammar checker.
  • Clip art: StarOffice 8 includes clip art images for use in documents.
  • Proprietary fonts: In addition to the open source font support built into OpenOffice.org, StarOffice 8 includes fonts for compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, and the StarSymbol font with about 1,700 symbols -- OpenOffice.org's OpenSymbol has less than 600.
  • Commercial support: Sun Microsystems offers phone support to help StarOffice customers install and use StarOffice.

New in version 8

Significant new features in version 8 of StarOffice include:

  • XForms support: An XML editing facet has been added to StarOffice Writer, making XML forms easier to create and maintain.
  • The OpenDocument format: This standard format is now the default for all documents, spreadsheets, drawings, and presentations that StarOffice creates. The entire suite is still backward-compatible with the old StarOffice/OpenOffice compressed XML format.
  • Digital signature support: If you have a certificate installed on your computer, you can digitally sign documents using this feature.
  • Native graphics toolkit support: If you're on GNOME, StarOffice will use your GTK theme. If you're on KDE, it'll use your Qt theme. On Windows and Solaris, it uses whatever theme you have installed.
  • Database wizard: This tool, part of StarOffice Base, makes it easier to create new HSQLDB databases or import existing MySQL, ADO, Oracle, ODBC, or JDBC databases.
  • Mail merge wizard: Makes it easier to print copies of a document with multiple recipient addresses.
  • Format paintbrush: Like Microsoft Word's format painter tool, this feature lets users select formatting from one area of text and apply it to another.
  • Support for Microsoft Office 2003 password-locked files: You can now import password-protected Microsoft Office 2003 documents. Previously, only Microsoft Office 2003 could do this.
The Java dependency issue and the new installer

StarOffice 7 relied on a binary file for installation. Execute the binary, and the installer opens a new window to show you the installation steps and progress. The new version abandons this program in favor of a Java-based installer, which limits installation to systems that have a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) on their machine. Even if you have a JRE (or JDK) installed and properly configured for your system, the Java installer might not run. If you installed (or tried to install) one of the StarOffice 8 betas from the Sun Web site, you could have some trouble with some leftover installation files in the /var/tmp/ directory.

We tried to install StarOffice on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Advanced Server and got a long list of Java errors. We switched to a system running 64-bit Gentoo Linux on an AMD64 machine and, although the 64-bit Sun Java Development Kit version 1.5 was installed and working well enough to install and run such Java programs as LimeWire, Azureus, and Eclipse (and even to develop Java programs with Eclipse), the StarOffice installer errored out with a "cannot attach to native process" error.

We had better luck with a SUSE 9.3 Professional install; the installation went off without a hitch. That won't be true for many Linux-based systems. The suite installer is basically a front end for installing RPMs, so users who happen to have a Debian-based desktop such as Linspire, Mepis, Ubuntu, or Xandros will have to go through considerable hassle to install StarOffice 8.

Lacking a Java environment, you can install StarOffice 8 on a GNU/Linux machine by using the RPM packages that Sun provides on the StarOffice CD. If your distribution does not natively support RPMs, you'll have to convert them to tar.gz packages by using rpm2targz, unpack the resulting tar archives, combine the untarred directories, then move them to their proper destinations. In all, it takes about 30 minutes longer than using the installer, and it's all manual labor.

After the installation, we noticed that StarOffice puts files and symlinks in some very non-standard locations. For example, we found that /usr/bin/soffice was actually a symlink to /etc/staroffice8/program/soffice, and /etc/staroffice was actually a symlink to /opt/staroffice8.

Writer

StarOffice developers claim better Microsoft Office compatibility with every new release, but like all programs that are not Microsoft Word, Writer will never convert every single document perfectly. The latest version will handle most documents without trouble, especially if they don't have much special formatting. StarOffice 8's Microsoft Office compatibility seems to be better than the majority of its competitors, and it's certainly better than the previous version.

On the other hand, if you're designing documents for output to PDF or for print, StarOffice 8 is a superior choice to Microsoft Word 2003 because of its extensive selection of paragraph styles and PDF export abilities. The ability to export to PDF was already in StarOffice 7, but version 8 adds hyperlinks, document outlines and notes, tables of contents, PDF controls, and tagged PDFs.

There are a number of things that we like in SO 8. We've always liked the way that OpenOffice.org and StarOffice handle styles, but until now it hasn't been possible easily to assign hotkeys to styles. With SO 8, if you're working on a document that has a lot of special styles, it's easy to assign a hotkey (such as Ctrl-2 for a second-level header) to a style and avoid the mouse altogether. It might take about a few minutes at the beginning of a project to get all the keybindings you want, but that's better than all the time it takes to highlight text and then go to the style dialog and select the style you need.

In addition to the aforementioned format painter, Writer also has a simpler word count feature (it is not new -- it's just easier to get to and can count words in selections in version 8) and the ability to have nested tables. On the other hand, it lacks grammar-checking, a feature that's part of Microsoft Word.

One significant new feature in StarOffice 8 is the ability to import WordPerfect documents into Writer. It's not -- if you'll forgive the pun -- perfect, but it's a noble first attempt. We opened large documents and letters on custom letterhead from the WP10 era and found bullets and ordered lists rendered improperly, horizontal lines eliminated, and custom graphics placings lost. But the important parts -- text and all text formatting -- stayed intact in all of the documents we opened.

The button bar has been redesigned for "usability," which appears to be another way of saying to look more like Microsoft Word.

One of the features that we need to use frequently when exchanging Word docs with publishers is the "Accept or Reject Changes" feature. SO 8 still lags behind Word here. In Word, you can simply right-click on a change in a document and accept or reject it. In SO 8, you have to launch a clumsy dialog to sift through the changes and figure out which one you're dealing with.

Despite some minor gripes, we think StarOffice 8 Writer is the best word processing program available for GNU/Linux right now.

StarOffice Writer - click to enlarge

Calc

Calc is StarOffice's spreadsheet program, and like Writer, it has been "improved" to be more compatible with Microsoft Excel and its users. Calc's DataPilot tool, which is similar in functionality to Excel's PivotTable tool, has been overhauled. Calc's row limit has also been increased to 65536 to match Excel's, making it possible to import any Excel worksheet.

If you've had spreadsheets with a large number of rows, you've probably found that it's a pain to keep scrolling through the spreadsheet. Calc allows you to create an Outline that groups a selection of rows together. This lets you hide rows to increase the amount of screen real estate for other rows while you're working. Calc also allows you to "freeze" column headers so that always appear on the screen, and to split the worksheet to allow you to scroll the worksheet in one pane while another pane remains fixed. Users who handle a lot of data will find this to be very useful.

Calc makes it easy to create charts and graphs from data in spreadsheets. We liked the variety of chart types that were available, and how easy it is to make a chart using the Autoformat Chart wizard. If the automatically-generated chart isn't quite to your liking, OpenOffice.org lets you customize look and feel of the chart pretty extensively.

As with Writer, Calc's interface has been updated to resemble Excel more closely. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the user. The OpenOffice.org team and Sun are obviously looking to sway users of Microsoft Office, so this is probably going to make those users feel more "at home" when using Calc.

The acid test for many users is how well Calc handles Excel documents. We threw a number of Excel documents at Calc, and it handled them pretty well overall. There were a few formatting oddities, but Calc should be able to handle Excel documents that aren't overly complex.

Overall, Calc seems like a fine spreadsheet application, suitable for most users.

More on page 2...

Math

StarOffice Math converts mathematical formulas from notation to symbols. These symbols can then be inserted into documents. This is handy for more complex notation, which isn't easy to do in Writer. Unfortunately, it's not terribly intuitive in Math, either. For example, if you want to insert a special Greek character, Math provides a symbol "catalog" -- just click on the symbol you want to use, and then click Insert. But if you're mixing symbols from Math's catalog and other characters, this becomes a hassle because you have to close the catalog each time you want to enter normal characters.

However, it's possible to insert special characters without using the catalog feature. For instance, to insert the Greek character Delta (Δ), just use "%DELTA" instead. As far as we could tell, there are no significant enhancements made to Math in version 8.

Impress

Past versions of Impress, the suite's presentation software component, have been a little bit clunky -- though we've never really cared for Microsoft Office's corresponding PowerPoint either. But the version of Impress with SO 8 is probably our favorite presentation program so far. Impress has been redesigned for usability, and while it has undergone cosmetic and technical changes to better accommodate Microsoft PowerPoint users, it actually does seem to be easier to use.

StarOffice Impress - click to enlarge

Sun includes a fair number of presentation templates in this release. If you need to knock out a presentation in 20 minutes using Impress, it shouldn't be much of a problem. Some of the templates are a bit homely, however, and the default "technical presentation" template seems a bit loud for a technical presentation.

The Impress interface has changed a bit since earlier versions of StarOffice and OpenOffice.org. The default layout presents the user with a set of thumbnails on the left side, a Tasks pane on the right side, and a tabbed interface in the middle that lets the user choose between several working views. We particularly like the Slide Sorter and Outline views, which make it easy to arrange and work on the text for a presentation without being distracted by the layout of the slides.

While working with Impress we learned how easy it is to move objects between applications in SO 8. For example, it was easy to move a section of a spreadsheet we created in Calc into an Impress presentation. We selected a number of columns and rows in Calc and then dragged the selection into Impress. However, we were surprised to find that we'd actually moved the section from Calc to Impress. When we went back into Calc, we found that the section was blank. That wasn't the behavior we were expecting. Copying and pasting, rather than just dragging the desired section, worked just fine.

Microsoft PowerPoint compatibility has been significantly enhanced, and Impress has been retooled to accommodate more PowerPoint-like slide transitions and drawing shapes.

Draw

StarOffice also comes with a vector drawing application dubbed, surprisingly enough, Draw. This is an application for creating simple artwork. It features a variety of default shapes, a clip art gallery that contains some so-so clip art, and basic tools for creating line art. It's somewhat similar to Microsoft Publisher, but Publisher is definitely more full-featured than Draw.

The only major enhancement to Draw over earlier versions that we could discover is an improved custom shapes tool. Users can now hand-edit the custom shapes using modifier handles.

If you need to whip up a flowchart or something simple, Draw should do just fine. For more complex artwork, users would probably be better off with Inkscape. Surprisingly, Draw doesn't offer the option to import Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) files, though it supports a number of other esoteric image formats. Draw will export to SVG, however.

StarOffice Database Wizard - click to enlarge

Base

Base is a database frontend that is totally new to StarOffice. Previously, StarOffice used a watered-down version of Adabas -- Adabas D -- as its Microsoft Access stand-in. It's certainly much easier for end users than creating databases in MySQL or PostgreSQL -- though it is possible to work with MySQL databases using StarOffice 8.

We found Base easy to use, for the most part. We created a few sample databases using the wizards, and then created forms to enter data into those databases. Base will let you shoot yourself in the foot, so to speak. The first time we created a database, we created a primary key -- but the primary key did not auto-update. After we finished creating the database, we used another Base wizard to create a form to enter data into the database. This was easy enough, but we didn't add a data entry field for the primary key -- so we couldn't update the primary key using the form, and couldn't save data without a primary key.

Unfortunately, Base took down StarOffice 8 entirely several times when we tried creating reports from the databases. This wasn't consistent, but it was the only operation that actually caused any problems for StarOffice 8.

Base is a handy application, but it's the least intuitive of the StarOffice applications, and the least stable. StarOffice does have a recovery feature that can help users in the event that StarOffice takes a nose dive, and it works very well, but it's not something we'd like to be using on a regular basis.

Miscellaneous features

Enterprise Edition features
The StarOffice Enterprise Edition includes features for business users not in the standard retail edition. The first is a program that analyzes existing Microsoft Office files and calculates the amount of work and money it will take to migrate them to StarOffice. The second is a tool to assist in porting Microsoft Office macros into StarOffice. This includes a kind of Visual Basic API emulation layer, although this feature is listed by Sun as requiring an "ongoing effort," which implies that it requires significant user input.

The new suite supports a few features that bear mentioning even though they don't fit within the realm of a specific SO 8 application. The first, and one of our favorites, is StarOffice's PDF export capabilities -- a feature Microsoft Office still lacks. StarOffice 8 and OpenOffice.org, on the other hand, create nice-looking PDFs natively.

StarOffice also supports digital signatures for documents. This is a great feature, in theory. Unfortunately, the online help doesn't provide much guidance in terms of actually setting up certificates for signing. The suite also doesn't seem to support GnuPG keys, which would seem to be an option that many Linux users would want.

The suite also supports "versions" for documents in native StarOffice formats. This means that it's easy to save a version of a document, work on it a while, and compare the document with previous versions -- and reject changes that you've made to a document if necessary. This is a mighty attractive feature for those of us who've deleted a few paragraphs or pages and then later regretted it.

Conclusions

With each new office suite and word processor release we become more concerned that software companies like Sun Microsystems, Corel, and even community projects like OpenOffice.org are more interested in competing with Microsoft Office than they are in developing excellent software. The new features and enhancements in each release are all about doing what Word does or mimicking Excel. Why not just worry about adding features and improvements that users want, rather than play catch-up with Microsoft?

StarOffice 8 leaves us with that catch-up feeling. It is a good office suite -- better than Microsoft Office for the money, and better technically in many ways -- but it's trying too hard to be like the market leader. We'd rather see an intelligently designed office suite with a fresh approach than one that can do everything that Microsoft Office can.

In fact, the biggest competitor to StarOffice 8 in many ways is not Microsoft Office -- it's OpenOffice.org. There are a few features you'll find in the Consumer version of StarOffice that aren't in OpenOffice.org 2, but not enough to be compelling. The Enterprise version of StarOffice 8 may be a different story, though the "enterprise" features are really only going to be interesting to larger organizations -- if you're not thinking about deploying SO 8 for a large number of users, stick with OpenOffice.org.

For those users who are already using StarOffice 7 or OpenOffice.org versions prior to OOo 2.0, the decision to upgrade is probably a no-brainer. Since SO 8 is backward-compatible with earlier versions, and includes a number of improvements, there's little reason not to upgrade -- unless you happen to be using a Linux distribution that doesn't include a JRE.

If you need to send a .doc or .xls file to someone to make money, you might not want to take a chance on StarOffice 8, even though it works perfectly most of the time. On the other hand, if you can send your documents in rich text format, PDF, or OpenDocument, or if you're only creating documents and spreadsheets for internal use, StarOffice is the perfect solution. Businesses that only need an office suite for print media will find great value in StarOffice 8. And those who have standardized their businesses on GNU/Linux or Solaris will find that StarOffice 8 is practically the only choice for a top-tier office suite.

Purpose Office suite
Manufacturer Sun Microsystems
Architectures GNU/Linux, Solaris 8, 9, and 10, and Microsoft Windows 98/NT/ME/2000/XP on x86, and Solaris 8, 9, and 10 on SPARC
License Proprietary, though the majority of the code is licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License
Market Home and business desktop users
Price (retail) $99.95 retail, $69.95 as a download from Sun. The Enterprise edition is $35 per user, purchased through Sun or a Sun partner. Available in mid-October.
Previous version StarOffice 7
Product Web site Click here
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