Category Archives: The Penguin Says

Reviews of Linux desktop applications.

WWWThreads 2.7

Introduction

While Linux cannot currently compete with Windows NT on the desktop (for a number of reasons that I’m not going to get into here), it has already made inroads into the server market. Many large companies use it as the OS for their web server (like this machine), and many more use it on their intranet for sharing files and hosting web pages.

WWWThreads capitalizes on this framework, adding CGI programs to generate threaded discussion groups, just like Usenet but with a more appealing web front-end.

Installation

Installation should be fairly simple. All that’s involved is copying the files into a CGI directory on your server, alter a few parameters in one of the files and type ‘./wwwthread_startup.cgi'.

Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. The blame has to lie with the documentation which could best be described as minimal — a single 85 line README. The description of some of the variables that need changing is rather poor. I managed to change them to the wrong thing and only found out when I brought WWWThreads up in Netscape.

Of course, that’s when I finally managed to get it working at all! Apache‘s first reaction was to complain about a ‘premature end of script.’ I’ve done a small amount of CGI programming, and realized that this meant that the web server wasn’t receiving a header describing the format of the data.

But why? Isn’t this supposed to be a finished program? I shouldn’t be getting run-time errors and the like? Then I remembered, my email address has an ‘@’ in it. ‘@’ is Perl‘s way of saying ‘here’s an array’ and needs to be quoted to mean ‘at.’ This edited, the start screen appeared.

You could argue that it is a server side program, designed for knowledgeable people, and that I did manage to get it working in the end. However, all that’s needed is a little extra effort on the documentation and, maybe, a Makefile. Something like an Installation FAQ would be invaluable.

From a user…

Looking at the system from a web browser, things look much better.

WWWThreads has a very neat front screen. The colours have been well chosen; they look smart and well designed, but are very readable. In the top left is a logo, the top right has a menu. Below this is a list of the discussion groups that the administrator has set up. Clicking the title of the group brings up a list of the threads in that group. Clicking a thread bring up a list of posts. Clicking a post brings up that post. All very simple, standard stuff.

If you want to create a new post or reply to one that is already there, you will need to create a user for yourself. Here you’re invited to enter a user name, password, name, email, home page, occupation and hobbies. The first four are mandatory, the others optional. Clicking ‘Submit’ results in a screen (hopefully) saying that your details were added successfully. There are no other links or details on this screen, and you are forced to wait before your browser loads a new page. Annoying.

Replying to, or adding, a new post is similar. Fill in a few details, click submit and wait. There should at least be a link on this page to act as a short-cut for the impatient.

However, generally it is all well laid out, attractive and intuitive — there’s not much to write about.

From an administrator…

The administrative tools are good, and are web based just like the rest of the system. It allows the admin to change their password, add new discussion groups (‘Boards’), edit or delete posts, change details about the groups, archive a board, delete a board and edit users.

Most of these options are obvious, the one that might not be is the ‘archive’ option. This allows you to, in the words of the author, ‘…move all of the current posts on a board to an archive.’ This is a really good idea, and is implemented well, but does not go as far as I’d like. Some way of selecting posts by date or author, or individual posts would be useful. As would a method a more intuitive method of deleting archives (it appears as another board at the moment).

All the tools are password protected, which allows remote administration — a useful feature.

But the main thing missing is overall configuration options. What it I don’t like the look of the pages that WWWThreads produces? What if you want to fit it into your ‘house’ style? What if you don’t want to ask for hobbies or an occupation when a user registers?

The software is distributed with the GPL licence, so of course you can edit the HTML generated. But there is not documentation and much of the look-and-feel is hidden away in the Perl scripts. Perhaps some kind of template HTML file could be used?

Conclusion

WWWThreads is an odd program.

In some ways it is excellent. The design of the pages are good; the way that it remembers which posts you’ve read and those which you haven’t is useful; the archiving option is excellent, in fact most of the web based admin screens are very well done.

But then again, the installation is needlessly difficult, you can’t easily change the way that it looks, it seems not to perform particularly well (I am running the client and server on the same machine, so this might not be a fair comment) and the documentation is poor.

WWWThreads would be an ideal program to place on an Intranet server to allow people in the office to communicate more effectively. However, it’s lack of configuration options would probably make it unsuitable for an external site.

Psion Series 5

Introduction

‘The Penguin Says,’ as you know by now, is a Linux application review site. However, since high-tech toys such as PDA’s are likely to be of interest to many readers I thought I’d add a review. Don’t worry, I shall be keeping an eye on using it with a Linux PC.

So, what is the Psion Series 5? It’s one of the new breed of ‘super’ PDA’s; a full 32-bit computer with megabytes of memory and real applications. The main competition would be any machine based in Windows CE. Being a Linux user I do have a bit of an anti-Microsoft bias, though that is not why I bought a Psion. There are two reason:

  • the battery life
  • the keyboard

There are no CE machines with a keyboard of even similar quality. And the same machines can usually manage no longer than a claimed ten to fifteen hours away from mains power. The Psion does thirty-five.

To me, these two reasons make the Psion a much better machine than any of the others currently available. There are, however, other reasons.

In use

The 5 is a pocket sized lump of dark-green plastic. Well made, it feels as though it could take some punishment if necessary. (I don’t recommend you try this out: as robust as it seems, it’s still very expensive.) Until now, the Psion could be a WinCE palm top. Open it up and the difference becomes apparent.

The keyboard slides forward and the screen lays back to rest on the battery compartment, leaving the unit very stable even when you prod the touch-sensitive screen. The keyboard is fantastic. It is as good as many laptop keyboards and infinitely better than the calculator keys on all the competition. You won’t be able to touch-type, but with two fingers it’s quite feasible to get a decent typing rate.

Software

No-one reading this is going to be too disappointed to hear that the Psion doesn’t run Windows. Instead it runs EPOC32, Psion’s own 32-bit PDA operating system. (For the pedantic, EPOC is now owned by Symbian, a company owned by Psion and a number of mobile phone manufacturers.) Psion know what they’re doing, too.

The screen is always uncluttered leaving as much space as possible for your data. There is no task bar and no menu visible, and even the toolbars will vanish as required. (If you’ve never used a PDA before, this might not such a big deal, but screen estate is valuable and much is wasted on WinCE.) The touch-sensitive area extends slightly beyond the screen. Below are buttons to start the built in applications; to the left are buttons to summon the menu, cut and paste, activate the infrared port and zoom the screen.

None of the built in application are like their Windows or Linux counterparts, but they are by no means difficult to learn. I think it’s fair to say that they are more fully featured than their WinCE counterparts.

There is a terminal program built into the ROM that allowed me to log into Linux on my first attempt. Additionally, the CD-ROM has Internet software — a TCP/IP stack, mail and web-browser. I didn’t manage to get this working due to an incorrect cable (couldn’t directly connect the Psion to the modem) and incompetence (I don’t know how to set up the pppd daemon for dial-in).

It’s also worth noting that the 5 feels quite sprightly in operation. This is despite only having an 18 MHz ARM processor rather than one of the more exotic things that the slower CE machines have. (A Linux-like, no-bloat policy on EPOC32 is obviously in place!)

It can’t be all good?

There are some bad points. The screen, for example, is not as reflective as it could have been. The back-light helps, but really trashes the batteries.

The second worst thing probably stems from my UNIX background. I like to be able to use the keyboard for almost everything, unfortunately the Psion doesn’t like this. Although I can use most applications without going for the touch-screen, it’s difficult or impossible to switch between them. Something like Windows ALT-Tab would be ideal.

It’s also a shame that the synchronization software is proprietary and heavily Windows biased. This leaves little potential for a Linux port. Of more consequence, it means that you can’t install extra software, like the Internet bundle, without Windows.

Having used a Psion Siena for the last couple of years, it’s also disappointing to note that a couple of features from that machine have not been carried over. The most useful being able to display partial to-do lists in the weekly and daily views (e.g., all to-do items of a priority over 2). This all-or-nothing approach is annoying!

However, other than niggles, like the word Psion isn’t in the spell-checker, that is about all. The 5 really is that good.

Overall

Psion has nearly as much experience making palmtops as IBM has making PC’s. It shows.

Small. Powerful. Light. Well made. Easy to use. Nearly ergonomically perfect. The Psion Series 5 is all these things and more.

SFM (Simple File Manager) 1.5

Introduction

I’m not sure why, but I just about always use the Explorer to do file manipulation in Windows and always use the command-line in Unix. I don’t think that it’s just because the Unix shell is more powerful than the NT equivalent, although it is a factor. Let’s face it, some things, such as moving a number of files that have unrelated file-names, are much easier using a mouse.

It could be that I’ve not found a reasonable file manager in Unix yet. While the X-Tree like programs, FileRunner and the like, can be quite nice they just don’t seem to be a huge improvement over the command-line to me. Then, at the other extreme, you have the big, GUI packages. Click here; drag over there. It’s all point and click, often with no keyboard alternative.

I guess SFM sits in the middle. It uses the GTK+ tool-kit to display itself and, while you can click files a get a short-cut menu, the intention is that you do everything using the keyboard. An unusual approach, but does it work?

In use

I usually stay clear of GTK+ applications. It’s not because I don’t like GTK+ — in fact I think it’s one of the best looking and most functional of the many alternatives — but because there are so many versions in circulation that I always seem to have the wrong one and have, historically, ended up breaking just about everything on my machine by installing or upgrading it. SFM was quite simple by comparison. I chose a behind-the-bleeding-edge version because it claimed to work with GTK+ 1.0. It did, and what’s more I managed to leave the rest of my computer completely functional in the process.

The first thing that struck me when it loaded was how minimal SFM is. I know it claims to be the simple file manager, but you can take some things too far. In the middle of the screen is a list of files and directories, at the top is a panel displaying the current directory and at the bottom is a status bar (which is usually blank). There’s no menu, no tool-bar, no buttons, no hints.

So far is could quite easily be a character based application, but there are some concessions to GUI. One of the most noticeable is the use of colour. Colour-coding is used to good effect, with directories in blue, links in cyan, and regular files in grey. It makes it easy to tell which is which without resorting to obscure hieroglyphics that the command-line is so proud of.

And when I said that there was no menu, I mean that there on no standard on-screen menu. You can get a ‘context’ menu by right-clicking in the window. The menu has fairly simple options such as ‘up directory’ and ‘down directory,’ rename, delete and quit. Further down are its concessions to Windows terminology: you move files by cutting and pasting them. I actually quite like this way of working in Windows, but I know of a lot of people who think it’s annoying and counter-intuitive.

The sub-menu ‘More’ has a lot of not-very-obvious menu-items. What does ‘precise the action’ mean’? Why should I ‘fast quit’ rather than just exit normally? What does ‘toggle sort type’ toggle between?

Starting a theme

While I’ve started with the things that I don’t like, I may as well continue…

SFM is very proud of the fact that it’s entirely usable by keyboard. What they don’t say is that isn’t not always easy. Let’s see: select a file, press return. A dialog pops up asking what program we want to use to read that file. Only I selected the wrong file. Press escape. Ah. Doesn’t work. What I have to do it press TAB twice to highlight the cancel button and then press return. Neither quick nor immediately obvious. Worse, I select an executable and press return. It asks me what program I should use to run it. I don’t know the answer to that one.

Although I like the colour coding, I don’t think that it’s a good idea to label normal files using grey-on-white. They’re quite difficult to read and there’s no easy way to change them. I guess I could use the standard X method of diving into configuration files, but I think that a dialog is the best place to put them.

In fact it’s the lack of configuration options that annoys me about the whole program. Personally, I prefer not to see the ‘dot’ files in a directory — conventionally they’re hidden files and I’d like them to remain hidden until I say otherwise.

Overall

Some thing really benefit by having a graphical user interface, not all of them obvious. If you’d told me that there was a GUI version of ‘vi’ previously, I’d have laughed. But that’s what I’m typing in right now. It’s picked up the good GUI bit like scroll bars, point-and-click and menu’s for when I can’t remember the vast array of keyboard short-cuts.

As the Macintosh taught us, a file manager in a GUI environment can be both simple and powerful if it’s implemented well. Although I have no doubt that technically SFM is very good, as an end user tool it falls short of the mark. It’s neither especially easy to use nor fantastically powerful.

Siag — Pathetic Writer 3.0.6

Introduction

I should look forward to a look at a new word processor for Linux. I think we all agree that we need more good ones, preferably not just free but GPL’d.

Pathetic Writer is all of these things, but, before I even started it up, I was lacking enthusiasm. Why? Well how do you rate something like a word processor? I tend to write long, structured documents most of the time. My dad, on the other hand, tends to write mostly two- to four-thousand word articles. I know what I need, but what does my dad like to use?

Look and feel

PW is commendably GUI in nature. The authors have gone a long way to make it look familiar and friendly to users of Microsoft Office. The tool bar has clear, colourful icons that turn into buttons as the mouse passes over them, and below that are font family, font size and style pull-down pick-lists. Unlike Word the buttons cannot be changed for more suitable ones, however the ones that are there are likely to be useful for most people.

Above the tool-bar is the menu. Again they’ve tried to go for the Office look. However, while the look is pretty much there — except for the icons at the side that indicate their short-cut — the feel is all wrong. Although UI purists may prefer the Windows ‘anything that might work’ approach rather than the Mac ‘the one true way’ mantra, I’m sure the former works for more people more of the time. PW takes pull-down menus to their Mac-like extreme — you have to keep the mouse button pressed down until the option you want is selected. It’s also necessary to be a bit too precise for my liking too, especially where sub-menus are concerned. The hit-and-miss approach to menu selection reminds me of the Acorn Archimedes.

Of course the main focus of the screen is a large, white expanse that displays a good attempt at what your document will look like. Of course it’s stuck with X’s lousy font handling and the fact that it doesn’t use the same fonts in the printer and display, but we can hardly blame the development team for that.

Something that we probably can blame them for is some of the idiosyncrasies. Example: I’m on the first line of a document and decide to right-align it. I enter my name and press return. Where is the cursor? Answer: PW has decided that I no longer need right-aligned text and has placed the cursor to the left of the screen.

Okay, keep typing. When finished I can can just highlight the whole she-bang and right-align it in one go, right? Er, no. Once highlighted, only the first line ends up being right-aligned. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was applied consistently, but it isn’t. With the same text high-lighted if I change the font style or size I find the complete selection changed. What’s going on?!

Down sides

There are no huge humdingers as far as problems are concerned. As I’ve already touched upon, there are just a number of niggles here and there.

I experienced a few small stability problems — try loading the Microsoft Halloween I document with Eric Raymonds excellent annotations — however it’s nowhere near as bad as Word 97. Having said that, PW certainly feels much smaller than Word even if most of the often used functionality is there — there are bound to be less bugs in a considerably smaller program.

Another issue I’ve already mentioned: configurability. The tool-bar appears not to be changed at all, while the menus can only be changed by editing a complex configuration file. And all without documentation! These things should really be altered using dialog boxes. It’s not possible to move around the bars either. I don’t care about being able to move the menu bar (are you listening Microsoft), but shifting around the others can be very useful.

The main issue is with the display, and I guess this comes down to the configuration options again. By default, PW comes with four fonts installed, the usual Times, Courier, Helvetica and Century Schoolbook, however I couldn’t see a way to add all the other fonts on my system. Okay, these fonts are perfectly good and are usable in almost all circumstances, but…

Overall

Well, I can’t honestly say that I’ll use it once I’ve finished this review. If I’ve not made it clear already, I shall spell it out: there is nothing seriously wrong with Pathetic Writer. It is, by no means, pathetic.

It has almost all the basic features and some of the advanced ones that are needed. It can import and export in a number of popular formats, it supports styles, different fonts and what you see is what you get. What it doesn’t support is the ability to simply deal with long documents, and the ability to configure the user interface. And worst of all, while the user-interface looks good, it’s riddled with inconsistencies and small but annoying flaws.

Pathetic Writer shows much promise. This could be the great, free Linux word-processor, just not yet. It just doesn’t look like a stable third release yet.

StarOffice 4.0SP3

Introduction

StarOffice is a suite of Office applications for Linux, rivalling the plethora of Windows-based suites. It is available for “free” download for non-commercial use, although the download is over 43 MB for the original version, and over 53 MB for the version with all patches. Having used both original and patched versions, I suggest that it’s worth going for the larger file as a few fixes (mostly documented) have been applied. As the compressed file is so large, I used a program called ‘wget’ which allows incremental appending of files – After FMB my internet connection expired, but I was able to continue downloading from where it left off.

  • StarOffice comprises of the following components:
  • Star Desktop – Central browser for the Suite
  • StarWriter/Web – Word processor / Web Page Editor/Browser
  • StarCalc – Spreadsheet
  • StarImpress – Presentation package
  • StarChart – Chart creation
  • StarImage – Image manipulation
  • StarMath – Formula / equation editing
  • StarBase – Database
  • StarMail – POP3 / IMAP mail reader
  • StarDiscussion – On-line Newsreader

It is however very different to the other suites on the market for other OSes because the whole package is fully integrated – One window for all applications; the relevant part of the suite is loaded into the window instead of each application being a separate entity.

Setup

Normally I would not expect to mention anything about program installation – you un-tar the file, type ./setup and away it goes. Well, in a perfect world, possibly.

StarOffice 4.0 requires a libc of at least 5.4.22. If you haven’t got this version, then the installation falls over with a meaningless message of the type “syntax error at line 1 : token ‘|’ expected declarator; i.e. File”?which doesn’t mention anything about libc. Further, if you are a RedHat 5 user, it probably won’t even get this far. It’s an irritation which was present in the previous release and was all the more irritating having just installed a new RedHat distribution (5.0) which only had revision 5.3.12-25!! However help is at hand, and there is all the information and fixes here to get a RedHat 5.x system working. Once this is fixed, the installation works correctly, offering both network and user installations. A full installation will set you back about 130 MB.?

StarDesktop

The backbone to the Suite is a dual-windowed display, comprising of an “Explorer” type file manager, a main application window, and, when necessary, a “beamer” which appears to assist in news, mail and address book functions.?

All icons are displayed with images relating to the application they are associated with. However it is very easy to forget that the program is not a window manager itself, and hence cannot run executables; a couple of times I managed to display machine code in StarWriter.

StarWriter

I’ve always felt a word processor should be able to do all the basics well and simply before tackling the bells and whistles. Writer 4.0 bears a striking resemblance to it’s Windows counterparts, and will happily read and write MS Word 95 files, making the transition relatively easy, and enables files to be transferred between the systems.

The “Autopilot” function offers help in creating files in a similar way to the Wizards seen in many Windows products. I’ve not tended to use them as I work from my own templates. They seem to be reasonably competent although they seem to want to add in pictures at every opportunity, and you don’t really get a feel of what the finished template will look like until the Autopilot is finished.

StarCalc

Spreadsheets are funny beasts because no two are ever completely compatible. Again StarCalc is very reminiscent to Excel 95 in it’s appearance, and even the formulae appear rather similar. Being a heavy user of Excel at work, I tried loading some work files into StarCalc – however, many of the formulae were actually incompatible and it was only the simple ones which worked OK. However, the data files themselves were read correctly. So it’s not as compatible as Writer was with Word, which is a consideration for cross compatibility. However, it is a very powerful spreadsheet in many of the ways that Excel is in the Windows world.

StarImpress

This is a presentation package, equivalent to PowerPoint in MS Office. It was also the one component of the package which had me really tearing my hair out. One of the problems that appears certainly in the download version is that help files are not included in the original version, although this appears to be rectified in the service pack 3 version. Without the help files, Impress is rather difficult to get in to because it is no where near as intuitive as PowerPoint and I spent a lot of trying to find out how to do the most basic of operations. I also had to switch to a 16 bit colour display to display colours satisfactorily which might be a problem if your graphics card is basic.

The Autopilot was useful for templates, but unfortunately there was no way of telling what the slides would look like until it produced them.

My overall impression was a lack of flexibility in comparison to the competition. However, once you really know your way about, it may do all this. However, without a decent help function, I fear that many users will stick with other products which they know their way around.

StarBase

The database application is so well integrated that I almost missed it entirely, although by creating an address book I had actually used it. I found it easiest to use through the Autopilot which offered a reasonable range of preset tables, such as addresses, music and video collections, etc. I was very surprised to discover that it would not read my Access 95 files. On closer inspection I discovered it would read text, dBase, and ODBC files, although I didn’t have any such files to try them out.

StarMath

Offers the ability to create mathematical formulae in a similar fashion to the Equation editor contained in MS Office.

StarImage

My first impression was Corel Photo-Paint. My second impression was MS Windows Paint. It can display many formats but has only basic functionality. There are a handful of special effects, but other than adding titles and drawing rectangles and circles, that seems to be the lot. My advice is to stick with the GIMP.

StarChart

The chart function in other operating systems has been seen both as a separate entity (e.g. Corel Chart) or integrated (such as in MS Office). StarChart is a separate function within the Suite, and looks very similar to the function of inserting a graph into applications such as PowerPoint. I found it very difficult to get anywhere with this – StarChart chose it’s own display and stuck with that and although I could change the graph type, setting the correct parameters for the axes was beyond me. The help didn’t offer any useful support on this either.

StarMail

There are many mail readers, and my first impressions were that it works well, supporting POP and IMAP, and allowing both text and html email. However I soon changed my mind seeing how it stored email. Nearly all other mail readers I’ve come across store mail by appending text files allowing other mail readers to read and display the contents without corruption. Unfortunately the authors didn’t seem to see things this way, and each mail message is a separate entity which is unreadable by other readers. Opening mail folders created by “Pine” lead to reading a long list of text instead of discrete messages. Further if you have two messages with the same subject, one message will overwrite the other making follow-up messages very difficult. This is really the reason why I stopped using StarMail, and went back to Pine which is very simple and effective.

StarDiscussion

The news-reader is typical of most on-line readers I’ve tried with an option to subscribe to groups (maximum 2500) and the display can be threaded with the message list displayed in the beamer and the message in the main window. I could not however find a kill filter, and along with the fact that there is no (apparent) off-line facility, this may provide enough reasons to not use Discussion – it’s good, but doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

Web Browser

By typing in URLs in the tool bar, the application window will connect to remote web sites, and it follows very closely in the steps of Netscape – in fact the word “Mozilla” can be found within the options. It works pretty well, although getting the browser to choose a “save as” function was not easy, and a number of times StarOffice tried to display raw RedHat rpm files on the screen. It is possible to tweak the file-types option although I didn’t succeed on this occasion. I prefer Netscape for http and ftp as a result, however this program is showing a lot of promise here.

Overall

I am very impressed by StarOffice, and a few minor tweaks would quickly remove many of my complaints above. It is powerful and the complete integration of the applications is very welcome, although this makes it rather power-hungry and disk intensive. Stability seems to be significantly improved over previous releases and the only times I suffered crashes were in connection with on-line work. It is also free for non-commercial use which in an age of large, expensive heavy-weight applications is quite stunning. On the downside, the omission of the help files is a serious drawback so make sure that the version you get is the latest one (currently service pack 3), and along with the less-than-simple installation procedure (unless you are lucky enough to already have all libc revisions correct) the product risks alienating itself from many potential users, unless they really have the time to sit down and work it out.

Also see this review of StarOffice 5.0.

StarOffice 5.0

Introduction

The review of StarOffice 4 is, at the time of writing, the most popular on this site. There is a good reason for that. Not only did Simeon do an excellent job of it, but StarOffice is probably the major office application for Linux.

StarDivision were first on the scene with a serious product and, with the onslaught of Corel and Applix, they intend to keep the lead. But is StarOffice 5 enough to keep people from defecting?

Installation

After the hassle of installing SO4, 5 is refreshingly simple, assuming that you have a glibc system such as RedHat or Debian. It would have been nice it if had used a standard ‘.deb‘ or ‘.rpm‘ package, but the Windows-like installer is painless enough. Even for older installations (without glibc) shouldn’t be too difficult as a suitable library is supplied.

One caveat that’s probably in the manual, but I was so keen to have a look that I didn’t notice, is that you have to install the application as the user that you want to run the it as. I originally made the mistake of installing it as ‘root.’

In Use

When it starts, SO5 throws you into a file manager not unlike the Windows Explorer. In fact, at the bottom of the window is a ‘task bar’ complete with ‘Start’ button on the left and clock on the right. Even the tool-bars have a Windows-look about them — they have the ‘highlight when you move over them’ thing as well as looking just like MS Office.

Your ‘home’ page allows you to create new documents by clicking on short-cuts, or you can move around your file-systems either by entering a URL or by double-clicking on folders and clicking on the ‘up’ button.

You can also open documents on remote machines by entering the appropriate URL. FTP and HTTP protocols are supported.

StarWord

Anyone familiar with Microsoft Word are instantly going to be at home with the word-processing component. It feels half-way between Word 95 and 97 and has the most-used features of both.

It’s fully WYSIWYG, comes complete with an on-the-fly spell-checker, advanced styles, paragraph and typeface handling and a whole host of other bits and pieces that most people won’t even look at!

For me, StarWord is missing only a few things. Firstly, it doesn’t use X’s own fonts. I spent ages trying to get X to use TrueType fonts and now StarOffice comes along with its own that are just as bad as the ones I was trying to get rid of! I couldn’t find a way to force it to use my Windows fonts, either.

Secondly, although it has quite adequate table-of-content functions, it seems not to have the ability to do cross-references except as hyper-links — not quite what I want. (I suspect that you have to do something fancy with field-codes, which is, therefore, not as easy as it should be.)

StarSheet

I’m not exactly what you’d call a spread-sheet power-user. Give me an AutoSum function, pretty colours and the ability to easily create graphs and I’m happy.

StarSheet is perfectly capable of doing this and far more.

My standard test of a spread-sheet was very easy. The test is: I create a grid of random numbers and add a graph of them. I didn’t guess the formula function for generating random numbers, but the insert formula dialog made finding what I wanted very simple — just pick a suitable looking function and tick the appropriate boxes. I then dragged the bottom-right of the cell and copied the formula to other near-by cells. This is great; it’s just like Excel.

Creating a graph was just as simple. Highlight the area and click the ‘Chart’ button. You then follow a simple ‘Wizard’ interface and you’re done.

This is hardly a complete test of the functionality, but what’s there appears easy to use, complete and well thought out.

Others

Most people are going to spend most of their time either word processing or creating spread-sheets so I won’t dwell on the other bits in quite so much detail.

StarDivision have been trying hard to compete with Microsoft feature-for-feature. Other applications, therefore, include a diary or scheduler, mailer and web-browser.

All are passable and, as they’re so easily accessed and consistent with the rest, are probably worth using. The web-browser is neat, but is no Netscape; the scheduler is decent but I much prefer my Psion; and the mailer may get some use as I have something against almost every competing product I’ve even used!

It’s not all good

The applications all look good, read other people’s data and are fully functional, so there isn’t a lot wrong with StarOffice. But what is wrong is serious.

StarOffice is extremely large and slow, and the monolithic “do everything in one place” approach can’t help. On my Pentium 120 — some way behind the leading edge but hardly pedestrian — it takes nearly four minutes to open and frequently swaps furiously when you select a menu item. (To put this into context, Word 95 under Windows 95 starts in about five seconds.)

I’m sure more memory would help, and I’m sure that a faster machine wouldn’t be out of place, but even Microsoft can get a word processor to run at a more respectable pace.

Conclusion

StarDivision are not only going for Corel and Applix, there are going for Microsoft Office. StarOffice is easy to use and as fully featured as almost everyone could possible want.

Unfortunately, it’s starting to look like Microsoft Office in other ways too. It’s so big and slow that it is rendered completely useless on my hardware.

It’s a shame, as in almost every other aspect it looks to be a winning application.

Also see this more complete review of StarOffice 4.