Monday, June 17, 2024

Switching from MS Office to Star Office – Should You?

It’s no wonder that interest is increasing in alternatives to Microsoft.

Many of Microsoft’s loyal customers are scratching their heads over the new licensing plan that requires an annual fee from product users. In return for additional fees, customers have the opportunity to purchase support agreements at reduced rates. Not only are “purchasers” suddenly transformed into “subscribers,” but they must also commit to purchasing upgrades far in advance.

Does that seem fair? Quite a few Microsoft customers don’t think so. And it’s pretty clear why they don’t – not only do they need to purchase software, but now they have to pay to use it every year, and as a reward they get a discount on a service they more than likely don’t use anyway.

It’s no wonder that interest is increasing in alternatives to Microsoft’s most often used products, including office suites.

What Is StarOffice? The prime contender for Microsoft’s office suite market is StarOffice by Sun. Priced at just $75.95 (with no further strings attached), it could be a viable alternative to those companies tired of running along the Microsoft treadmill. Would-be converts should beware, however. StarOffice does have a few perks that MS Office lacks, although it is missing some features dedicated MS Office users will sorely miss.

StarOffice runs on Linux, Solaris, and Windows platforms, and it’s compatible with MS Office. There isn’t a Mac version of StarOffice, but OpenOffice does provide a free Mac office suite based on StarOffice’s code. OpenOffice is available for other platforms, too, but keep in mind there’s no tech support for OpenOffice, even though it’s free. This adds an extra wrinkle for offices that want to switch to StarOffice and also use Macs.
If you purchase StarOffice, what do you get for your $75.95? The StarOffice suite includes Writer, a word processing program; Calc, a spreadsheet program; Impress, a presentation program; and Draw, a drawing program. While Writer can handle basic HTML formatting, it lacks the sophisticated tools included with MS FrontPage. Also, there isn’t an email program or organizer in StarOffice (like Outlook), so you’ll need to consider alternatives there, too, if you’re interested in switching to StarOffice from MS Office. Additionally, StarOffice ships with a scaled-down database called Adabase. This is somewhat awkward to use, especially if you’re accustomed to Access, and really isn’t a direct replacement for Access.

Let’s take a look at the different parts of StarOffice and see how it stacks up.

Writer and Calc
Because it creates documents in XML, Writer documents are easily ported between programs and platforms. The file sizes are extremely small – even smaller than the now-discarded Pack n Go format from the previous version of StarOffice.

You will need to be careful how you save your documents if you plan to make use of StarOffice’s compatibility with MS Office. If you save a text document in StarOffice as a StarOffice 6.0 document, you won’t have a lot of luck opening it with MS Office. Saving it as an MS Office document just requires a little scrolling down the list, and the document will open just fine. At least, most of the time. As a test of compatibility, I created a document using StarOffice Writer, including a graphic, a bulleted list, and a heading style. I saved it as a MS Office document, and subsequently opened it in MS Office 2000. The layout looked good in Print Preview, although the bullets appeared as a different character than they did in Writer. I have read in other reviews that, quite often, fonts don’t translate accurately between StarOffice and MS Office formats. Word did, nevertheless, respect and maintain the Heading 2 style included in the StarOffice document.

Other reviewers have found that Writer does not understand extremely complicated formatting in Word documents; the same is apparently true of complex spreadsheets. The results you get when you convert from a Word document to a Writer document might not be what you’re hoping for, and you may have a bit of reformatting to take care of some incompatibilities. Macros are another headache – Writer uses its own scripting language, StarOfficeBASIC, instead of using a macro recorder. Creating equivalents to macros in Word becomes very complex for non-technical users. Instead of simply performing the task and letting the program record it, you must instead write a script describing the actions that are taking place. The compatibility between Word and Excel is not present between StarOffice’s Writer and Calc. You can’t create a spreadsheet within Writer the same way that you can in Word, and this can be frustrating for veteran Word users. Calc is a fair substitute for Excel, although it doesn’t interact as seamlessly as
Excel does when
it comes to maintaining data on Web sites. It does interact with outside database sources, and it lets you create formulas using real words, plus it offers easy-to-use column formatting options.

Stylist is the tool used by both Writer and Calc for text formatting, and it is somewhat awkward to use. Basically, you can create and apply styles in your document by using the floating Stylist menu. You can use the ones already present by double-clicking on them, or construct your own – highlight the style in the text and then right-click in the menu to define it. However sometimes when you double-click on a style, nothing seems to happen. Additionally, there are five different panes of styles, which leads to further confusion about how to use them.

I’ve used styles in Word extensively and found it illogical in many ways as well, so perhaps both Writer and Word are equally confusing though simply in different ways. Certainly, the fact that Word users are already familiar with the often-cryptic (yet familiar) options in Word won’t win StarOffice many friends here. Writer is just as cryptic, though different, so word processors who’ve conquered the intricacies of Word will find themselves climbing over obstacles again, just in a different program.

Impress, StarOffice’s presentation program, is an adequate PowerPoint parallel. It offers several nice built-in templates for presentations, though browsing through the different styles was quite slow on my computer. Impress will let you do the same sorts of transformations between slides that you’ve come to expect from PowerPoint – fade-in, checkerboard, dissolve – a total of 50 different transition effects in all.

It also has a nice slide organizer that lets you sort your presentation materials in the optimal way. There is no preview pane as in PowerPoint, although it’s very simple to convert your Impress presentations into HTML, which will allow you to quickly post them on the Web.

Don’t worry about losing your old PowerPoint presentations, though – Impress will open and play them accurately. You can reuse your PowerPoint slides in Impress presentations as well.

Probably the most fun feature of the suite is the 3D drawing capability. You can create vector graphics using basic shapes and fonts, add color, and you can make them into rotatable three-dimensional images. Not incredibly useful for users whose focus is on document editing, but, if you use other vector graphic programs, you might have fun exporting graphics from StarOffice into other projects.

Back to its office functions, Draw is also useful in creating flow charts and organizational charts, containing a large library of connector symbols. It’s easy to export graphics created in Draw to a variety of formats, including JPEG, GIF, and PNG.

The options in Draw will probably exceed the casual user’s needs for desktop publishing. The tools available include lighting effects, bezier curve creation, and object-oriented graphic creation.

Who Should Switch?
Overall, StarOffice is not exactly comparable to Microsoft Office 2000. It is inexpensive, and its tech support is very responsive and free with purchase (so, there’s nothing extra to buy). It is a terrific option for companies looking for an inexpensive office solution, companies using a mixed desktop environment of Windows, Linux and Solaris, or companies located outside the US who are unable to use MS Office. StarOffice also is an option for companies who use other database solutions and don’t need an Access equivalent, or who emphasize the need for good technical support over the features not included.

StarOffice probably isn’t a good answer for companies who regularly create large documents that are heavily dependent on style that require collaboration between MS Office and StarOffice setups.

For home users, StarOffice is an excellent solution, providing word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing software at reasonable cost. It’s also reassuring for novice users to know that someone is available when they have a problem, and doesn’t offer a boatload of options they will never use yet nonetheless must pay for anyway.

Jackie Rosenberger is an editor with Murdok, Inc.

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