Summary: Star Office is one of the best at talking to the internet, adopting the browser metaphor into its interface and integrating a large number of internet funtions such as e-mail, news and web browsing.
At the very top of the Star Office desktop window is a couple of buttons that look familiar. They are the forward, back, stop and "home" buttons seen on practically every web browser yet made. There's also a box for typing URLs to be retrieved, and sure enough, whenever you load a file from your hard drive to be edited, Star Office will refer to it in that box using standard URL notation. Clearly, Star Office is meant to be used with the Internet.
And yet it's not just the interface that adopts Internet born conventions, since the suite also contains an e-mail client, newsreader and web browser. Most of its components can export their document types into HTML format ready for publishing on the web, and its address book will even perform searches on internet directories like Four11.com.
This attention to the world's largest public network of networks underline Star Office's modern approach, but watch out, because we found that a few of its Internet-geared features pay little more than lip service.
Loading and saving files across the Internet
Loading files over the Internet is dirt easy if you know the URL (address) or can browse to it. You may never realize how powerful that is until you see a web page you'd like to edit and find yourself able to switch Star Office into edit mode with a single click of the mouse. Suddenly your "web browser" has a blinking cursor in the text and new palettes of buttons for changing font attributes and inserting objects. Nice stuff.
To save your changes to a destination on the Internet, rather than on your computer's own hard drive, you need to create an "FTP Account"(.GIF, 14K) on the Star Office desktop first. Once finished, you can transfer files with drag-n-drop from the Star Office desktop just like you can with the FTP objects that come with Warp 4. You can also load a file directly from an FTP site, start editing it, and know that it will save it back to the same place.
Web Page Authoring
Star Office's HTML support isn't bad, but there's an awful lot we wish it wouldn't do. Creating a web page is trivially easy - it's one of Star Office's main document types. The suite is sophisticated enough to handle frames, tables (including table cell colors) and forms. For those who like to tweak the source code or need to add pixel-fine adjustments, Star Office has the unique ability to toggle back and forth between two different views of the page you're working on; WYSIWYG and HTML Source. Both are editable and changes in one take effect in the other the moment you toggle back.
One of the features that puzzled us was the inclusion of the scrolling-text marquee - a trivial feature that's only supported by Microsoft Internet Explorer. It does little more than make text slowly march across a rectangular region of the screen, but Star Office has given it preference on the main toolbars alongside more important features such as the automatic spell checking and form creation.
Even more baffling is the way it handles non-standard controls(.GIF, 3K) for web page forms. There are certain form controls that Star Office supports, such as combo-boxes and table-controls that are often linked to the suite's database, but which aren't supported by HTML. Star Office "fakes" support by letting you create these controls anyway, but saving them as blank GIF files in the web page's code. We think it could be very confusing for someone trying to build a web page feedback form, using controls that Star Office lets them put on their page, but discovering to their dismay that the browser will actually show big blank squares instead.
But woe be to those who actually like to edit the source, as Star Office creates horrible HTML. First of all, it insists on breaking long lines at about 70 columns with hard returns. These don't show up when you view the page in a browser, of course, but if you like to edit the source you may find yourself stuck with this infuriating feature that you can't switch off. Secondly, in version 5.0, Star Office has discovered Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) - for the worse. Even where CSS is not necessary, Star Office will mark each and every paragraph with style sheet tags. This can add to the size and download time of a page, especially when styles are not needed at all.
Worse yet is when you try to convert formats such as plain text into HTML. Star Office has the insane habit of trying to mimic the properties of a plain-text document in HTML, ie: no spaces between the paragraphs. If you wanted a tool to quickly HTML-ize a text file, look somewhere else, because Star Office will drive you nuts trying to undo its [expletive] code.
The screen for composing an e-mail message(.GIF, 20K) in Star Office is very smart. The suite supports sending attachments and right there in plain view is an "Attachments" tab where you can drag-n-drop anything from an individual file to a whole folder. An "Extras" tab has settings for priorities and return receipts, and the "Formats" tab has check boxes for sending the mail in plain text (default) to HTML, Rich Text, and Star Office's document format. While it may be a waste, you can have your message put into all four formats attached to the same e-mail.
It's also easy to send a document you've composed outside of the normal e-mail module; one of the features that make it clear to the user that integration with the rest of the suite is definitely its strongest advantage. If you finish writing something in the word processor component -- Star Write -- and decide you want to send it as e-mail, there's a "Document as E-Mail..." command in the File menu to do it. Star Office is smart enough to ask you if you want to send the document as an attachment or as the body text.
Filtering capabilities are also good. Star Office will let you create multiple filters that watch for key phrases and do everything from shuffle them into folders to deleting them right off your hard disk. The method for creating filters is easy, just start clicking on list boxes and typing in what you want it to search for, where, and what to do when it gets a match. It may not be entirely obvious, but what Star Office calls an "Outbox" can also be used as a generic mail storage folder - just create multiple Outboxes and store them on the Star Office desktop or in another folder. These can then be destinations for your filters - nice if you're subscribed to any mailing lists.
Everything seems intelligently laid out until you get to using Star Office as a day-to-day e-mail client. Then it gets ugly. Very ugly.
The chief problem is unresponsiveness and sluggishness. Unresponsiveness is seen when downloading new mail - it won't let you read mail already downloaded or even scroll the list until it's finished transferring the current batch. Sluggishness is seen navigating through lists of mail. In our experience, we found that the entire office suite could lock up hard and solid, freezing the rest of your computer as well, with a CPU meter pegged at 100% utilization and no way but a process-killer to shut it down. It's our opinion that Star Office is not suitable for those who deal with large volumes of e-mail. You'll really regret it if you try.
Star Office has a newsreader. And after you try it, you'll probably be glad you didn't delete your old one. Hidden in a section of Star Office called "Subscriptions" you can manage multiple news servers and be subscribed to as many groups as you like. The only great disappointment is the same we had with the e-mail client: It's very slow and it's very unresponsive.
What Star Office's newsreader and e-mail client can do that may be appealing, if you're a person of very low bandwidth demands, is to check your subscriptions and mail accounts every few minutes to see if there are any new messages. An icon on the task bar will flash if it finds anything new and a right-click over it will give you a menu of only those newsgroups and e-mail accounts that have new messages in them.
And finally, Star Office could almost suffice in place of a web browser for most surfing chores, but it's no replacement for Netscape yet. The browser component is reasonably fast enough, plus it supports many advanced HTML features, such as the above mentioned frames, Cascading Style Sheets and Java. It also supports Plug-ins, but not the Netscape kind.
We found that the Star Office browser is best for when you don't have another browser already open and need to briefly visit a web page. It's also excellent for browsing to a page that you want to edit with Star Office.
Bookmarks are integrated with the rest of the Star Office filesystem and you can move them around like you do with Warp's URL objects. They only work from within the Star Office desktop, however, and not with Netscape.
Next: How Star Office compares against Lotus Smartsuite...
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