Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 7.0 is the stealth fighter of office suites. Chances are good you've never heard of it, which is a shame, because the program is an incredible bargain for students and educators. How good a deal is it for them? It's free, except for media and shipping costs ($25). The rest of us pay only about $79.95 (download or retail, with upgrades the same price). That's a fraction of the price of Microsoft Office System or . StarOffice lacks the polish of its competitors, however, and can't match the sophisticated enterprise tools of Microsoft Office. It also has trouble converting Microsoft formats. Still, it's a solid choice for cash-strapped users who want a powerful productivity package. It offers plenty of tools, including a drawing program, which neither Corel's nor Microsoft's suite provides. Version 7.0 is also a worthy upgrade for users who need a database and the ability to publish PDF documents. A full installation of Sun Microsystems StarOffice 7.0 requires about 310MB of disk space: 234MB for the core programs and 77MB for the Adabas D database, which installs separately. In our tests, the suite installed on a Windows XP system in 15 minutes without incident. The software also runs on Linux and Solaris systems, which neither Microsoft nor Corel support.
After installation, StarOffice places its Quickstarter icon in the Taskbar tray, making it easy to launch a job, such as writing a document, by right-clicking the icon and selecting one of several choices from a pop-up menu: Text Document, Spreadsheet, Presentation, and so on.
Microsoft and WordPerfect Office users won't have much trouble mastering StarOffice's interface, which provides the usual assortment of menus and toolbars. Wizards (or as StarOffice calls them, AutoPilots) step you through common chores, such as building a Web page, a presentation, or a report. StarOffice 7.0 lacks the slickness of WordPerfect Office 12.0, however, which eases the transition for Microsoft Office users by providing optional interfaces that mimic Microsoft's icons and keystroke commands.
We like the tight integration of StarOffice's program modules. For instance, if you're working on a spreadsheet in Calc and want to write an accompanying text document, you simply select File, New-Text, and Document from the program menu; the Writer word processor then launches it in a separate window. Version 7.0's interface also allows you to publish PDF files from within any StarOffice program--a great tool for educators who frequently distribute Adobe Acrobat documents. Sun Microsystems StarOffice 7.0's core applications--Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation maker), Draw (drawing), and Adabas D (database)--are great for most home, student, or small-office tasks. Don't let the price fool you; this is a full-fledged office suite. You can easily create 3D charts for spreadsheet data, spruce up presentations with video and audio, and create Web pages with the AutoPilot tool. Another plus: StarOffice uses XML file formats (also supported by Microsoft and Corel) that keep file sizes small and allow easy portability across multiple operating systems, including Linux, Solaris, and Windows.
Dig deeper, though, and StarOffice 7.0's limitations become apparent. For instance, it comes with a scaled-down version of Adabas D that restricts each database's file size to 100MB and caps the number of networked users at three. Also, the pathname can't exceed 40 characters, and the name of an Adabas file can't exceed 8--a throwback to the DOS era of indecipherable filenames and a true limitation in an office environment. Version 7.0 also lacks e-mail and PIM software, whereas Microsoft Office includes Outlook.
Another caveat: If you frequently exchange PowerPoint and Excel documents with Microsoft Office users, StarOffice probably isn't for you. Like WordPerfect Office 12.0, StarOffice is weak at importing these file formats. For instance, Excel macros won't work in the Calc spreadsheet, but we had better success converting Word files. In our tests, Word documents for the most part retained their original appearance, with only an occasional lost font or formatting change.
StarOffice 7.0 is still a good buy, however, because it costs so little and provides the core functionality that most users need. A home or small-office user can download the program for only $79.95 and run it on up to five PCs that belong to the same user. Students and educators get it for free, although they'll have to pay for tech support (see the section). By contrast, the academic version of Microsoft Office costs about $150, and a similar version of WordPerfect Office runs about $100. Trade-offs? Sure. But at this price, we're not complaining. Technical support is where StarOffice shines. Sun Microsystems provides 60 days of free phone (via a toll-free number) and e-mail support, which is quite generous for a bargain program. Corel, by contrast, doesn't offer any free phone support for WordPerfect Office 12.0 customers. Microsoft Office users get just two complimentary e-mail or phone questions. After Sun's grace period, however, e-mail and phone support options aren't cheap: $20 per e-mail query and $25 per phone session (via toll-free number). The good news is that the hours for phone and e-mail support are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in all time zones, so you don't have to wake up early or stay up late waiting for support hours.
We were impressed with Sun's technical support. In our tests, wait times for phone support were less than a minute, and the technicians were polite and knowledgeable. In two instances, our e-mail queries were answered in less than an hour--an astoundingly short response time in an industry where a 24-hour turnaround is standard. Typically, Sun promises a 24-to-48-hour turnaround on e-mail queries, with a guarantee that it will not exceed 56 hours.
Don't want to pay for support? Sun's Web site offers a number of free and helpful resources, such as an online knowledge base and community forums.