Tools Of The Trade: A cut-price competitor to Microsoft Office

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The Independent Online

Microsoft's Office suite is the leading desktop application package by a long way: Meta Group, a research house, estimates that it is used by 97 per cent of the top 2,000 global companies. But there are alternatives, such as the free OpenOffice, and Sun Microsystems' version, StarOffice.

Microsoft's Office suite is the leading desktop application package by a long way: Meta Group, a research house, estimates that it is used by 97 per cent of the top 2,000 global companies. But there are alternatives, such as the free OpenOffice, and Sun Microsystems' version, StarOffice.

OpenOffice started as an "open source" rival to Microsoft and other commercial office packages. Sun has taken it as a starting point, added additional functions and support for its own Solaris operating system as well as Linux and Windows, and made it available as a "packaged" product with a CD and manual.

Unlike Microsoft's software, though, which costs from £330 to £390 depending on the version, Sun charges £60 for StarOffice.

Inevitably, this entails some compromises. The most obvious is in the user interface: running StarOffice is akin to stepping back at least one, if not two generations of desktop software. Compared to Microsoft's XP operating system, the interface looks dated and clunky.

That said, Sun has produced a competent competitor. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation programme and database, as does Microsoft Office Professional. But StarOffice has added features, such as a drawing package, as well as single-click export to formats such as Adobe's PDF and Macromedia's Flash.

Importantly, given Microsoft's dominance of desktop software, StarOffice can exchange files with Microsoft Word, Excel and so on.

Exchanging documents between Microsoft Office and StarOffice is not completely seamless, however.

In our tests, a relatively simple document consisting of text and a couple of graphs created in Microsoft Word opened fine in StarOffice. But recreating a similar document in StarOffice was less successful: Micro- soft Word read the text with no problems, but failed to display the graphics.

There were problems, too, sharing PowerPoint presentation files. StarOffice imported a simple 30-slide presentation quickly, but failed to preserve the exact layouts. Most of the slides were usable but some were not. Those with graphics were the most troublesome and oddly, given StarOffice's support for PDF files, slides with embedded PDFs failed to show the images at all.

As a standalone set of applications, then, StarOffice offers plenty of features at an attrac- tive price. For anyone who has to share documents with people using Microsoft Office, though, it is hard to recommend this version of StarOffice outright. Hopefully, Sun will continue to work on it, but for now, Micro- soft Office still has the edge.

THE VERDICT

StarOffice 7

Pros: good features, low cost.

Cons: compatibility with Microsoft file formats needs work.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Contact: http://uk.sun.com

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