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StarOffice 8: Office Killer? - page 4

Alternatives to Microsoft Office

  • March 6, 2006
  • By Martin C. Brown

As a writer, a decent word processor is one of my main concerns, and I know from experience that it is one of the heaviest used applications in a typical office suite. Personally, I deal with a lot of different templates, requirements and formats when dealing with publishers and clients. Compatibility with Microsoft Word and the templates that many publishers use is therefore a prime concern, closely followed by an environment that makes the writing process as easy and straightforward as possible. For my clients, I know the key elements for a word processor are the ability to produce the documents they need while retaining compatibility with their clients, suppliers and the documents they already have.

The first thing you notice with StarOffice 8 if you are migrating from an earlier version is the improved compatibility with Office documents. I've opened numerous documents from simple letters to complex chapters and not once experienced any problems with the files within StarOffice. One of the elements that had kept me away from StarOffice in the past was the unreliable compatibility with the track changes feature of Word, something used a lot by my publishers and editors to highlight changes in the documents. StarOffice 8 seems to have addressed all the issues that caused me problems in previous editions.

In terms of functionality of the core product there is little to distinguish between Microsoft Word and StarOffice Writer. Where you do start to see differences they are in the subtle areas that would probably be identified by the power users. Styles in StarOffice 8 are, like previous versions, much more intuitive than in Word. The Styles and Formatting window makes it easy to apply styles to specific areas, from individual characters up to frames and pages. Styles can also now be assigned hotkeys to enable to select a style with ease while typing. This will be boon for heavy typists who prefer to keep their fingers on the keyboard instead of hovering between the keyboard and the mouse.

For more advanced documents Writer has extended support for text frames to make it easier to create complex, layout driven documents like magazines and brochures, and a built-in drawing tool (which complements the full-blown StarOffice Draw) enables you to add drawings and diagrams quite easily. Graphics support has also been improved; when importing a picture (from JPEG, GIF and others, or directly from a scanner) the result can now be edited for transparency and color directly within Writer. One of my clients uses Word to produce sales sheets for woods that incorporate a complex design along with maps, photos and drawings and I had no problem either opening, saving or updating the file within StarOffice 8.

Navigation has also been improved and you can now bookmark specific locations within the document during editing. A Navigator panel enables you to move to specific areas of your document by selecting areas and components from a list. The Navigator includes automatic elements, such as headers and inserted graphics, and manual elements like bookmarks, cross-references and table of contents and index entries.

These links are also exported when exporting your documents as a Portable Document Format (PDF) file. PDF functionality was available in previous versions, but the quality of the PDF produced and improved significantly. When you generate an Adobe PDF from your Writer document these links are converted to a suitable PDF construct. For example, cross references and bookmarks are retained a clickable elements, enabling you to create a navigable PDF without having to leave Writer or make post PDF production changes from within Adobe Acrobat or similar PDF manipulation tools.

Links and cross referencing are also retained if you export to XHTML, again, greatly simplifying the process of creating web pages from StarOffice documents. The XHTML produced is also very clean and makes very effective use of CSS and styles to format the document. One of the worst elements of Microsoft Word is that the HTML it generates is riddled with excessive inline markup elements. By comparison the XHTML from Writer is as clean and clear as you would expect had you generated the document by hand.

Familiar functionality from previous versions has also been updated. The toolbars have been updated to make them easier to use and understand. The word completion feature (which I still find a minor annoyance) will undoubtedly be useful for those people who really don't like to type. Spelling, thesaurus and auto-correction have also been improved.

The mail merge is still a popular part of many small business processes and a new wizard has been introduced to make this much easier. I had absolutely no trouble working with mail merge documents or reproducing mail merge projects that I might produce in Word using Writer. You can source your mail merge data from a Writer document and also from a Calc or Base document. You can also import information from Outlook, Mozilla/Netscape and LDAP source. Related to the mail merge system is an environment for creating and filling in XForms documents to make form-filling on the web easier. Creating an XForms document is as easy as selecting the document type when you create a new document. You can then add controls and fields to the document and publish the XML form to the web without any further processing.

Throughout, there is nothing to fault Writer; it takes a while to get used to some of the idiosyncrasies, but otherwise it is a solid and capable product. It is really the extras that lift it for me to another level. Creating a fully linked, bookmarked and indexed PDF with all the hotlinks already embedded will save me hours, not to mention the cost of the full Acrobat product. The other features--XHTML, XForms, and so on--will be just as useful to clients and associates.


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