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Word to the Wise: Reviewing Linux Word Processors - page 2

Introducing Our Series

  • May 4, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

Sun's StarWriter is part of the StarOffice package. Longtime Linux users are familiar with StarOffice, which, like WordPerfect, inspired a HOWTO on making it work under Linux long before Linux was the market force it is today. Network computing giant Sun recently acquired StarOffice from the German company StarDivision. The beta release of StarOffice 5.2 shows Sun has little desire to change the basic characteristics of their new acquisition.

Part of the obvious emphasis of StarWriter is on its ability to provide a comfortable home for those used to Microsoft Word. A fairly rich filter set and striking similarities in terms of operation make StarWriter a natural for offices considering a move from Microsoft Word.

We did our tests on version 5.2 of StarOffice, even though this is still a beta release. We encountered stability problems and a few bugs, which we fully expect to be ironed out by the time it goes into final release. Since StarOffice is free for download and a fairly inexpensive CD purchase, prospective users may want to consider sticking with 5.1a, and moving to 5.2 when its stability is more guaranteed.

Features
StarWriter is a featureful piece of software, and it was able to produce our test "high-end" document with little trouble. Multicolumn layouts were easily achieved, and we could mix the number of columns in the document.

There was also enough control over text and layout that we were able to create the in-line graphics and quote boxes a typical departmental newsletter might require.

Creative control of text color and margins allowed for relatively nice effects. Professional features like control of the space between characters (kerning) and individual lines added to the overall sense that StarWriter has most bases covered for all but the most sophisticated layouts.

One additional feature referred to as "The Stylist" also caught our attention. The Stylist allowed for application of specific styles (chapter headings, citations, etc.) in a manner similar to cascading style sheets in HTML: the styles can be applied to text in a structured manner, allowing the user to manipulate the appearance of each style without having to go through the document and re-specify the appearance of every element sharing that style. The Stylist, when turned on, appears as a floating

As a general business word processor, StarWriter really demonstrated how full-featured it is.

We were able to create mail-merge documents, envelopes, and labels with just a little difficulty. The built-in database functionality of the broader StarOffice package made this simple enough, even though transitioning Word users may miss the mail merge wizards. We were also able to introduce simple letterhead-style graphics, and manipulate them in such a way as to produce a good variety of effects.

When we tested StarWriter as a very simple word processor for those with modest needs, we became concerned about the sense of size and complexity the software carries. This wouldn't ordinarily be an issue, but the fact that StarWriter is tied to the larger StarOffice suite, which is slow to start and memory-intensive, made using StarOffice for light correspondence or a simple composition seem a little too much.

General Use and Interface
If there's an obvious drawback to StarWriter as a word processor, it's probably the fact that there's no way to separate it from the rest of StarOffice. It proved a little frustrating to sense that the rather long load-time and extra graphical clutter was the result of StarWriter sharing its window with a fairly complete desktop environment. StarOffice is a little taxing on lower-end Pentiums.

A second issue with StarWriter was the "Interface from A Slightly Different Dimension" feel of StarOffice as a whole. By default, StarOffice looks and feels largely like Windows 95/98. There are options to make the window borders within the application look a little more like a Macintosh or a little more like the Motif Window Manager, but these were only superficial "skins."

Though StarWriter comes with many features found in Word, those features are accessed in a manner that proved frustratingly dissimilar. While not a major argument against StarWriter, those looking to adopt the software in order to convert their Microsoft Office shop will have to consider training time. Unfortunately, the documentation included with the software is deficient and will hamper all but the most motivated learners.

We should note, though, that even though StarOffice may confuse those put down in front of it on the premise that it makes the transition from Word (or Microsoft Windows, for that matter) easier, once the interface is learned, it's pleasantly consistent and intuitive.

One final strength to be noted is the fact that StarOffice is available for Windows as well as Linux. This makes it a natural for deployment in situations where a variety of platforms are in use, due to its ability to share files in the native StarOffice format, or where users may need to work from several machines.

Conclusions
Though StarWriter came up a little shy on the highest end of features we've seen in word processors, it still earns a recommendation as a solid piece of software with features that will satisfy all but the most demanding. General clerical workers and students will find themselves with more than they need, and creative "power users" will find plenty to keep them busy. Our primary concern with what is a polished and smooth application comes in when considering it for use for the simplest tasks, where it comes across as too resource hungry and cluttered.

Clearly positioned as a thrust at Microsoft's office suite dominance, StarWriter is one to consider for almost any need except the most complex desktop publishing, or the most modest requirements.

Home Page: http://www.sun.com/products/staroffice
License: Sun's Community Source License
Cost: Free for download. CDs available for $39.95.

 

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