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The StartX Files: Building the Perfect Desktop

Right Down to the Nitty-Gritty

  • December 26, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Typically, as I sit down before my computer screen and prepare to craft my way through another column, the formula in my head goes something like this: lead off with a section of prose that humors, inspires, or downright ticks people off, then jump into this week's review.

I am nothing if not predictable. Until now. This week I want to discuss the primary topic of the column first and then move on to an issue that I think provides an interesting counterpoint to all of this crazed enthusiasm about Linux on the desktop.

I can get away with this approach this week because of the product I am reviewing: the Calc component of StarOffice 6.0 beta, which by nearly all points that matter, is identical to the Calc component of OpenOffice I reviewed last week. Some would question why I even did separate reviews of this components at all. After all, StarOffice 6.0 beta is based directly on OpenOffice and there hasn't been very much documented diversion between the two components' development paths. The only thing I could find in the release notes was the OpenOffice Calc now has the Launch() function working in version 641b. Presumably, this is different from the StarOffice version, which mirrors a slightly earlier version of OpenOffice.

There are, naturally, other undocumented differences. The fonts on the StarOffice Calc components (menus, title bars, dialog boxes) are non-aliased, no matter what you do with the spadmin tool. Curiously, font handling within StarOffice Calc looks a smidge better than within OpenOffice. But that kerning problem I harped on last week is still readily apparent.

Feature for feature, Calc in StarOffice is identical to Calc in OpenOffice, as you would expect at this early point in their digression. SO Calc is faster to get started: 15 seconds vs. OO Calc's 23 seconds on initial startup, and 6 seconds for SO Calc vs. 9 seconds for OO Calc on subsequent starts. I could not see an appreciable difference in the speeds of the two applications once they were running.

So what do you get with StarOffice's version that you might not get with its OpenOffice counterpart? For now, Calc in StarOffice has a little more polished performance. Once things get settled in the final version of StarOffice 6.0, I expect this to be even more readily apparent. Whether this will be a long-term trend remains to be seen, since one would expect OpenOffice to pull away from StarOffice since the latter will presumably be locked into a more rigid release schedule than the former. Of course, this is just a guess on my part: these two products may leapfrog each other on major releases in perpetuity for all I know.

If you want to get a hold of the beta for StarOffice 6.0, you will need to do it soon: the beta program closes on the last day of the year. No word on the exact date of release for StarOffice 6.0, though Sun is expecting it to ship in early 2002.

It's easy for us, as Linux users, to point at something like Calc and honestly say "See? That's as good as Excel will ever be." We can finally say this with a relatively clear conscience (though I won't rest until I see better font handling in every application). Applications like Calc, whether you like to use it or not, represent the best applications that Linux has for the desktop.

But there is a more realistic truth about Linux on the desktop, one that must be pointed out. While Linux has a better desktop application set than ever before, we have to ask ourselves: for whom has this desktop been created?

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