StarOffice 8: An Affordable, Small-Business Alternative to Microsoft Office

By Michael Hall | Posted November 01, 2005

At some point on the road to creating productivity suites the idea behind office software went terribly awry. Microsoft Office has evolved into an expensive, bloated software package designed for corporations in need of ratified features and, at the other end of the spectrum; you find a few low-end applications suitable for junior-high students putting together a history report.

But what about the rest of us — people who just need enough to do basic business computing, without a lot of fancy bells and whistles? Sun's StarOffice 8 addresses this issue by providing a feature-packed, inexpensive office suite that should suit most small businesses nicely.

StarOffice offers a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a drawing package (Draw), a presentation program (Impress) and a database package (Base) similar to Microsoft's Access. For organizations concerned about migrating their complex Office macros and documents over to StarOffice, the suite's enterprise edition includes a tools package that assesses existing Office documents and converts their macros for use with StarOffice.

Installation and Configuration
StarOffice installs from a single CD. It offers either a basic installation that quickly installs everything you need to run the entire suite, or a custom install that lets you fine-tune the installation to save disk space. The total size of the full program is around 525 megabytes, much of which consists of clip art, sounds, sample documents and presentation animations.

Configuring StarOffice is simple: The Options menu never goes more than one level deep, and it's arranged logically. Since the database application drives mail merges and other common office tasks, every application includes the same database connection menu in its options, which allows for quick access to preexisting data sources.

Because StarOffice is actually a single application, its memory footprint is somewhat chunky, which is why a "Quickstarter" option lets you load StarOffice into memory at startup, cutting the time it takes to open a document later on by keeping the program resident in the computer's memory even when it's not in use.

You can configure StarOffice to deal with existing Microsoft Office documents in several ways. It can take over as the application that opens Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents by default; and it can be configured to either convert documents to its native OpenDocument format from Office upon opening them or work with them and resave them in their native format.

Applications
StarOffice provides a credible alternative to Word, but it might require a more thorough feature-by-feature look than we're giving it here on the chance that a feature you're used to in Office doesn't turn up in StarOffice's list. One complaint some people have, for instance, is a lack of anything quite like Word's handy style area sidebar. StarOffice offers floating styles menu, but it's not quite the same thing. StarOffice also skips the grammar checker Word offers, though Sun plans to add one in the next release.

As with much of StarOffice, Writer is designed with people who are used to using Word. Its basic look is similar, and many of the basic toolbar icons, such as opening and saving a document, are virtually identical, and its menus have a largely similar organization.

Writer has most of the features one might expect from a good word processor, including a spellchecker, an auto-correct function that's well-stocked with common typos and misspellings like "teh," "adn," and (our personal and perpetual downfall) "agressive."

You can format documents either on the fly with basic font controls, or you can use an easy but thorough style system to make sure that documents are both uniformly formatted from beginning to end and simple to navigate. Writer's "Navigator" feature offers an at-a-glance overview of document sections in a floating window.

As with Writer and Word, Excel was clearly on Sun's mind when it designed Calc, the StarOffice spreadsheet. Its look and feel is close to Excel's in terms of icon and menu layout. Perhaps more importantly, you enter formulas in much (if not exactly) the same way, meaning you won't have much of a learning curve.

A common complaint with previous versions of Calc was the lack of functionality similar to Excel's "Pivot Tables," which allow for fairly sophisticated data mining. Sun addressed that lack with StarOffice 8, introducing the "Data Pilot," a drag-and-drop tool that provides that functionality.

Another somewhat disappointing lack in previous versions of StarOffice was its handling of databases. StarOffice 8's new Base tool provides an Access-like approach to database design and use. For people who are more comfortable with a drag-and-drop, graphical approach to handling data, Base will fill the bill. For SQL-jockeys who are more comfortable writing sophisticated queries, it provides a SQL interface, too.

The Base can query a lot of data types ranging from ODBC and JDBC to MySQL, Access, dBase, spreadsheets, and assorted address books including those of Outlook, Thunderbird and LDAP. This opens possibilities for driving mail merges based on existing address books and databases of all sorts without having to convert data before getting to work on printing letters and envelopes.

For businesses interested in creating their own marketing material, StarOffice provides Draw (a vector graphics program) and Impress (presentation software). Both packages offer plenty of canned graphics and tools for making presentations and graphics for signage or do-it-yourself stationery. PowerPoint veterans should be comfortable with Impress and find themselves making attractive presentations in very little time.

File Imports and Exports
A key concern for anyone thinking about moving from Office to any other suite is how well legacy documents will survive the transition. Sun has spent a lot of time on file import functionality, and it shows.

We imported documents of varying complexity into Writer, Calc and Express. For the most part the documents made the transition easily. In particular, we were pleased to note that comments and revision tracking survived the import process. We also noted that the "round trip" process of importing a Word document, editing it, saving it as a StarOffice document and, then exporting it back to Word caused no noticeable problems.

StarOffice also lets you export files directly to Adobe's PDF (Acrobat) format — another welcome feature. Acrobat files aren't always the most welcome things in the world, if only because you have to open yet another application to read them, but when it comes to making sure a recipient can read a document or presentation and make copies for signing or marking up, they're hard to beat.

What all of this means for curious small business owners is that investing in StarOffice isn't as much of a risk as you might think: The software can read and write to the dominant Office file formats with little or no hassle.

For as much time as we spent discussing the merits of the applications, StarOffice's fluency in Office formats might be the most important thing to consider, and it does this part exceptionally well.

A Word on OpenOffice
As we mentioned at the top of this review, StarOffice has an open source cousin called OpenOffice. The two are practically the same software, but StarOffice comes with more in the way of clip art, extra fonts, a professional spell checker and professional documentation. The other big difference is price; for a small business, StarOffice will cost $69.95 per seat, but OpenOffice is available as a free download.

Should you skip StarOffice and just grab the freebie?

It depends on whether any of those differences we mentioned matter to you, or if you think you'll need phone support. In our experience, people familiar with Word and Excel take to StarOffice and OpenOffice with little trouble. Someone just beginning to find his or her way around a computer might prefer to have the fallback option that a few months of phone support and more complete documentation offer. Otherwise, OpenOffice is a remarkable value for free. Even paying for a single license for StarOffice to learn it, then deploying OpenOffice to additional machines nets you a good value.

Is It For You?
For small businesses, StarOffice is close to a can't-miss proposition. We have to qualify our endorsement a little because some businesses might want features available in Microsoft Office that StarOffice might not deliver (a grammar checker, and closer integration with other Microsoft apps like Encarta, for instance). Any doubts you might have can be settled by looking at either OpenOffice, or the 90-day free evaluation Sun offers.

If you're primarily concerned about expense, StarOffice or OpenOffice combined with a computer running Linux, which is available for free if you don't mind a slightly more stripped down computing experience, make for a powerful combination for very little money.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive: Licenses run around $70 per seat
  • Simple: The interface is familiar to most Office veterans, easy for beginners
  • Comprehensive: Offers everything most office suites provide
  • Versatile: Handles varied file formats, runs on Linux and Windows

Cons:

  • Not the most feature-packed suite on the market, so it may not have a specific tool some businesses are used to in Office or others
  • File imports from other formats, while excellent and generally accurate, aren't always perfect and might require a close examination before use
  • The most complex Microsoft VBA macros may not import to StarOffice cleanly

Michael Hall is managing editor of JupiterWeb's EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet.com and InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

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