September 22, 2003

StarOffice 7 is far faster and friendlier than SO 6

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I started using StarOffice (SO) long before Sun bought StarDivision,
around version 5.1. I wrote one complete book in OpenOffice.org (OOo)
Build 641 and 1.0, and I have edited several books in StarOffice.
OpenOffice.org and StarOffice have been my primary tools for
exchanging documents with Microsoft Office users for nearly five years.
And now I will use StarOffice 7 as my "daily driver,"
because even though it doesn't have a lot of features I need that
previous versions didn't, it is faster. Lots faster. Like Porsche vs.
Hyundai faster.

I'm not just talking about how fast the program starts up, but how
fast it does things once it gets going. Even large documents seem to
spring to life in a flash. I try to stay laid-back and unrushed, but
like most online reporters and editors I live in a world of constant
deadlines. Sometimes a fraction of a second waiting for a file menu
to appear can seem like forever, and I've had plenty of those
"forever moments" with both OpenOffice.org 1.0 and
StarOffice 6. Now I don't have them. When I click on an icon,
something happens right now.

The icons are cuter in this new StarOffice. Not a lot cuter, but
enough to be noticeable. They've moved around a little, too, notably
the text color icon, which is now 11 spaces to the right of the text
size and style selection windows instead of next to them. I am not in
love with this change, but it is no big deal. I'm sure I'll adjust to
it soon enough.

This
is how SO 7 looks while editing a text document
(below):

Groovy new features!

You can't put out new software without new features. Just making
something faster and smoother is not enough for any software
marketing department ever known to the human race. So yes, we have
some new features here.

The one Sun seems to be touting above all others is their new
"Export directly to PDF" feature. It's the "Look at
that!" thing that's supposed to make us all go out and buy this
new $70 or $80 (or so we hear; no official word yet on price)
software package when it formally become available on October 14.
Looking at the proliferation of PDF documents on the Web these days,
I'm sure this is a powerful lure for many potential corporate buyers.

(Right about here, I could easily go into a long tirade about how
PDF documents on the Internet take up more server space and download
time than HTML, and how I wish all the corporate people who so love PDF
would get over their infatuation with it. Yes, you can use PDF to
make everything in a reader's browser window look just the same as in
print. You can even make that poor reader scroll up and down on each
page if you are enough of a sadist to use a two-column format, and
many designers are sadistic enough to do just that. Why this
is supposed to be an advantage I do not know. Perhaps we're all
supposed to print everything out instead of reading it on our
computer screens. Yeah, right. Didn't we buy these computer thingies
and get Internet connections so that we wouldn't need to use as much
paper? Oh, never mind. I can't fight this tide. So I won't go into a
long tirade about why PDF is evil, but will return to looking at SO 7
features, which is what we were talking about before we got
distracted.)

Another slightly less-touted feature is the ability to save files
in swf (Macromedia Flash) format, but I didn't have complete success doing this.

PPT slide saved as Flash. Not a pretty sight, is it? (below)

This slide was originally done in PowerPoint. The show that
contained it displayed flawlessly in SO 7, including animation
details that didn't show up in OOo. I chose this slide for its simplicity so that you could clearly see the poor text handling, but the presentation as a whole was one of the more
complicated slide shows I've ever seen – far more complicated
than it needed to be – but Corporate America likes that sort of
thing, and it's nice to see that SO can now provide it so smoothly
for slide-type presentations even though it borked rather badly when
trying to put it into the more Web-friendly Flash format.

I managed to make a simple slide sequence directly as a SO
presentation and save it as a decent Flash show -- with animations, no less -- so if you ever need to do
this sort of thing from scratch, you can easily do it with StarOffice , even if you have
trouble using SO to "translate" some PPT presentations to
Flash. I personally prefer putting slide shows online as a series of
pages with "next" and "back" buttons, because
this makes those presentations more useful for site visitors, but the
crowd that feels PDF is better than HTML for online documents also
seems to like Flash better than allowing readers to have control over
their output, so they will probably consider the ability to produce
Flash presentations an important SO feature.

Some things haven't changed

I opened several Excel-generated spreadsheets of varying
complexity. They all worked, but I saw no visible improvement over
OOo or SO 6. I am not a competent enough database person to tell you
how well the included Adabas database works, nor how well SO 7 works
with the many other databases with which it is supposed to be
compatible. I hear that the Windows version of SO can directly access
MS Access, even, but I have no way to test this. (Perhaps someone
will add an informed comment or two about SO and databases. That would be
nice.) The SO
7 FAQ
says support of charts and graphs generated from
spreadsheets has been improved from previous versions, but I did not
test this, either.

Word .doc deciphering capability seemed to be the same as SO 6. I
tried the infamous Texas State Employment Application (.doc
download link)
and it slapped the state logo and a table
containing a boldface title on top of the first paragraph of copy,
same as in SO 6. It was easy to fix this by simply moving the
offending logo and table up a couple of lines, so I guess if I ever
want to get a job with the State of Texas I can apply without buying
Windows and/or MS Word.

In other words, what we have here is 95% (or greater)
compatibility with commonly-used Microsoft formats. There is supposed
to be a way to add filters that will import WordPerfect files, but I
couldn't figure out how to do it. Perhaps the prerelease "review"
version of SO 7 I am using doesn't include it. We'll need to
wait until the true release to see if this feature really exists and
how well it works.

The conclusion here is that if your only real use of an "office
suite" is to read MS Office-produced documents and spreadsheets,
you might as well stick to Free/free OOo, which seems to do almost as
well as SO 7 on this front, certainly well enough to extract the gist
(if not all the formatting details) of files your MS Office-using
colleagues want to share with you.

What is worth paying for

If you need to work fast, SO 7's speed certainly makes it worth
the upgrade money from SO 6 or OOo, assuming you are using it as a
work tool -- and don't mind spending money on software. If
you would like to have a free office software package that does most
of what SO 7 does, at the same speed, and don't mind waiting a little while to get it,
OpenOffice.org 1.1 is almost
ready for you, and the latest release candidate (RC4) looks usable
enough that adventurous souls may be comfortable using it today
instead of waiting for the final version.

SO gives you a spellchecker and thesaurus that OOo doesn't, along
with lots of templates for things like letters, slide presentations,
business cards, and other printed items most office-type people need
to produce in the course of their work. And clip art. I am not a clip
art person myself, but those who are will appreciate the gallery
included with SO 7, which seems slightly larger than the one that
came with SO 6.

For whatever it's worth, many fonts seem to look better in SO 7
than in OOo.

Then there's support. If you feel corporate software support is
essential, which some people believe and others
don't
, then you will spend the money for SO over OOo.

And manuals. SO comes with a nice printed one (if you buy the
boxed set) and OOo doesn't.

This is one of those individual (or corporate) decisions no one
else can make for you. It is possible – and not very hard –
to add all the fonts and clip art to OOo that any human could
conceivably need. On the support front, all I can say is that I've
only had two questions, ever, about either SO or OOo that weren't
answered easily with a fast Google search, and I got answers to both
of them in less than an hour on a (free) OOo email list.

The one nice thing about buying SO 7 is that you get this handy
little CD that has the Linux, Windows, and Solaris versions all on
it, and the license covers up to 5 installations on machines you use,
not that anybody's checking closely. I've already installed SO on
both machines I use myself, and before long I'll install it on both
the Windows and Linux partitions of my wife's shoddy little Compaq
laptop. And when we replace this piece of junk with a computer from a
better manufacturer , purchased from a more ethical retailer than
CompUSA, we'll install SO 7 on that machine, too, with no
"registration keys" or other foofaraw to get in our way.

$70, $80, whatever. It's not a bad deal for home use when you spread it over a
household's worth of computers, and commercial licensing is
certainly worth those few dollars, especially if you want your
coworkers to be able to call Sun's support people with "How do
I?" questions instead of bugging you with them.

Other opinions

The Jem Report did a nice
review of SO 7
that covered some features I didn't.

And I had a little "outside"' help with my review, too.
I took my review copy of SO 7 to the most recent Sarasota
(Suncoast) LUG
meeting, and we tried it on several other people's
computers. Probably the most notable tester was Josh Burroughs, who
had an old Thinkpad with a sub-600 MHz uP and – by 2003
standards – not much RAM. Josh is a Debian + lightweight window
manager + command line kind of guy who last tried SO a couple of
years ago – and found it too slow to be useful.

SO 7 did just fine for him, though. The install was fast and
smooth, and before you knew it Josh was busily playing with the
Drawing program and some of the strange 3-D shapes in the gallery
without any noticeable machine slowdown. We are not going to display
any of Josh's art here, since his design skills are on the same level
as my own, but the point of the test was to see how well the program
worked on a comparatively underpowered computer, and it did well.
Josh doesn't have any real need for a full-featured office program,
and is likely to grab (free) OOo if he needs to read documents
produced by MS Word users, but he was as impressed by SO 7's speed and
ease of use as any Windows-locked icon-clicker would be.

Why corporate Microsoft Office users should thank Sun

If you've followed IT industry news lately, either through
NewsForge or other publications, you've probably noticed that
Microsoft is displaying a sudden willingness to cut prices whenever
the dread words "Linux" or "open source" or "StarOffice"
are uttered. If you're a big enough office desktop user and threaten
to switch to Linux and either SO or OOo, you may even be graced with
a personal visit by Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer.

But even without visits from Microsoft biggies, chances are that if
you tell your Microsoft rep you're thinking about moving to SO from
Microsoft Office, you will get a reduced-price offer. And we're not
talking about small reductions, either. The effective corporate price
for MS Office is now down to around $100 for most users, which is
"like saying Sun has given every enterprise Microsoft Office
user a $300 gift," as one friend of mine put it in a recent
phone conversation.

Competition is always good, right? It's the American way, Right?
And if nothing else, SO serves as more effective competition to
Microsoft's office software than they've had since Corel decided to
stop being an effective player.

I will use SO 7 myself

This is the highest possible praise a reviewer can give a product.
Admittedly, I'm used to SO and OOo. But since I'm not a
doctrinaire free software person, and I believe SO gives me enough
added features compared to OOo and has enough advantages (like
speed!) over SO 6 to be worth its price, I will buy a copy of
SO for my own personal use. I will put it, as the license allows, on
up to 5 computers -- really 4 computers, one of which has Windows on
it in addition to Linux -- that I use myself, which means that if I
pay $80 for the program my net cost will be $16 per copy. And I won't
need to pay for a second CD to use SO on both Linux and Windows,
which is also nice.

(Call Microsoft and ask how much a Linux copy of Microsoft Office
costs, and how much of a discount you get if you already have a
Windows license for the program. I dare you!)

Once in a while I may run across a .doc, .xls or .ppt file that
doesn't open with perfect formatting. I can live with that, as long
as the information is all there.

I probably won't use but 10% or 15% of SO 7's features, which is a
common circumstance for users of big all-in-one programs, and if you
buy it you probably won't either. But we may not use the same
features, so I suppose they all need to be there for someone, even if
the "someone" for most of them is neither you nor me. As an
example, take a look at this Slashdot
comment
attached to a note there about Jem's review. I probably
won't ever export anything to Flash, but this person will. But I use
footnotes now and then (which display very nicely from .doc in SO 7),
which the Flash exporter person may not, and I'd very much like the
ability to size graphics I create in the SO drawing program in pixels
instead of in print-based units like points, inches and millimeters,
a feature notably lacking in all SO versions to date that doesn't
seem like it would be that hard to add, and would be highly useful
for those of us who work on the Internet all day long.

I've never seen a program, open source or closed, that had every
feature I wanted and none I didn't want, and this will always be the
case unless I am willing and able to pay to have programs written or
modified for my use alone (or find an open source developer crazy
enough to do my exact bidding and ignore all other users, which isn't
going to happen in this lifetime). So I put up with features I don't
need instead of complaining about "bloat" or "feature
creep."

One last thing I'll give SO 7: It turns out HTML as clean as any
I've ever seen from a WYSIWYG word processing program. It's not
great, but it's usable, especially after a little hand-editing while using the "source" view of an opened HTML file. In fact, you're reading some of it right now.
Take a look at this page's source if you want a closer look. I can do better HTML either manually or
with the aid of a text editor like Bluefish
(or NoteTab in Windows), but
it's better than what you get from Microsoft Word and previous
versions of SO, anyway.

Come to think of it, since one of the big reasons corporate
publishers say they like PDF so much is that it allows them to
publish the same document on paper and on the WWW without extra work,
can't they just create their documents with SO 7 and save them twice,
once for printing with pagination, and the second time as HTML for
Web display?

But again, I am on the losing side of the "Let's all stick to
HTML on the WWW whenever we can" argument, so I might as well
give that one up, use SO 7 for the documents I create myself, and be
happy that I have such a nice tool to create them with.

Author's note: I have only spent a few minutes looking at a "pre-alpha" demo version of Sun's new integrated office desktop that includes SO 7, but I came away impressed. It offers a level of integration I believe rivals or surpasses what you get from Microsoft Office, including Evolution for email and personal information management.

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