Cheap, but loaded with functionality

Price, features make software an alternative to Microsoft Office

It's a gamble. Stick with the tried-and-true Microsoft Office, despite its high price tag? Or move to a more affordable alternative office suite? Sun Microsystems is trying to tip the scales in favor of the alternative with its release of StarOffice Version 8.0, an impressive collection of software that will make you seriously consider making the switch.

At a top price of $100 per seat and much lower prices for volume purchases, StarOffice 8 is far cheaper than Microsoft's product. Sun has not, however, lowered the cost by skimping on features. The suite comes with Writer; Impress, a presentation program; Calc, a spreadsheet program; Draw; Base, a database program; and Math. If you buy the enterprise toolkit, you also get a set of tools to help with back-end installation and migration issues.

StarOffice 8, along with its sister program, the free OpenOffice.org Version 2.0, adheres to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards' OpenDocument standard, an Extensible Markup Language standard created by a consortium of companies to forge a common development environment for office suites. Compliance with that standard is particularly important for government users because it ensures that documents will be compatible with any office suite that adheres to the standard. Although Microsoft began using XML with Office 11, it has not yet decided to make future versions adhere to the OpenDocument standard.

Massachusetts has announced a plan that requires all documents to be stored in an OpenDocument format beginning in 2007. The Library of Congress and European Union are considering a similar move.

Installation of StarOffice is a simple task. You can choose the pieces of the suite you want to include or simply load everything. The first time you use the suite, the software presents a license that you must accept. But registration is optional, and the suite does not have an activation requirement, an irritant for many users and information technology managers.

If you used StarOffice 7, you will notice that Sun has redesigned the interface, making it look and feel more like Microsoft Office than the previous version. You can access programs, templates and starter documents from the Quickstarter icon in the Windows system tray or by opening any individual program.

Once a program is open, you can access any other document type by clicking the New button and making a selection. This function gives the suite a more integrated feel and lets users easily move among programs.

And these programs are well-endowed. Write, for instance, offers a wide range of wizards to walk you through predefined templates and a powerful find-and-replace feature that lets you search for text, formatting and attributes such as tab stops, widows or strikethrough text.

They have also included a Paint Brush tool for format copying, which comes in handy when cleaning up stray formatting problems in documents imported from other formats, such as Microsoft Word. You can save any document type as a PDF with a limited set of PDF options, something you cannot do natively in Office 2003.

Sun has also created a set of enterprise tools, including a software development kit, back-end install routines and migration tools, to help you analyze the cost of moving documents from Microsoft Office to StarOffice 8. They also ease the pain of migrating documents with complex macros written in Microsoft Visual Basic.

The Analysis tool analyzes each document to determine how difficult it will be to migrate and then provides a cost estimate for how much you would save by using the macro migration tool. The tool provides a set of tabs with more specific information, such as the nature of the migration problem.

Your decision about whether to switch to StarOffice could come down to whether you can import your documents cleanly and share documents with others who still use Microsoft Office.

To test the ability to import and export documents created in StarOffice 8, we conducted some migration tests. They were far from scientific, but we wanted to see if we could take an existing Word document with complex formatting and open it in Writer. The document opened with almost all of the formatting, including graphics with call-outs, notes, custom numbered and bulleted lists, and headers and footers.

Writer also picked up the list formats, so if we pressed Enter, the next line began with the properly formatted bullet or numbers. It required some minor reformatting to fix Word styles in a few cases.

Microsoft Excel documents, without macros or pivot tables, and PowerPoint documents also worked well, with the only exception being that Impress did not recognize an external sound file. However, it had no troubles importing other sounds from PowerPoint.

Sun has done a remarkable job with StarOffice, building a suite of software that in many ways matches -- and in some cases exceeds -- the far more expensive Microsoft Office. Whether you are ready to make a switch may depend in large part on the complexity of your documents.

In the end, you may choose to have a combination of Microsoft Office and Sun StarOffice. And you can do so knowing that you are providing those who use StarOffice 8 with an outstanding alternative.

Miller is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at rsmiller@techdochelp.com.

Sun StarOffice Version 8.0

Sun Microsystems
(800) 555-9786
www.sun.com

Ease of use: ****

Workgroup features: **

Application integration: ***

Price: ****

Price: StarOffice 8 costs $99.95 in stores and $69.95 by download.

Pros: StarOffice includes an impressive collection of software with lots of features and functions in a package that costs much less than Microsoft Office. Import and export filters work best with documents without macros.

Cons: If you have a large collection of complex documents that use Visual Basic macros, it may be costly to migrate them to StarOffice.

Platforms: StarOffice works on PCs, Linux and Sun Solaris.

Test bed: We tested StarOffice using a Dell Dimension 4600 2.8 GHz Intel Pentium 4 PC with 512M RAM running Microsoft Windows XP, Service Pack 2.

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