Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Star Office 8 - Writer - More Findings

More StarOffice 8 Findings

I’m using StarOffice 8 (SO8) as my default word processor now, and two general impressions about StarOffice Writer continue to amaze me:

1) How easy it is to learn how to use, its familiar feel for MS Word users.
2) How it has improved many of the annoying shortcomings of MS Word.

Although I’ve read the reviewer’s guide, I find myself generally not needing the HELP system. It is as though I’m interacting with a twin –not an identical twin, and not the evil twin, but with the better twin.

Little annoying things with MS Word that SO8 has fixed:

1) First and foremost, the table model. You really can join (merge) cells vertically, and it isn’t just a “fake join” (one where the cell boundary has simply been hidden, as in MS Word); you really can vertically center text within a vertically merged call.
2) Second, when you use the format painter to paint table cell attributes, you paint not only the text font attributes but also the cell attributes (like borders and cell shading). This should be an easy fix for MS Word. We’ll see.

So though I’m still in the honeymoon phase, do I notice any blemishes on SO8’s Writer? Well a couple. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

1) Unexpected hang while initializing the templates for first-time use. I sent a message to SO8 support about this. This has happened only once.
2) And speaking of the format painter, sometimes it doesn’t seem to paint formats. Several times, especially with text copied from a web page into a Writer document, you can try as you will to format paint but it doesn’t seem to work. I’m not sure why. I’ll bet I could edit the XML text contents to fix the problem (as I might have done with WordPerfect reveal codes a decade ago), but haven’t gone to try that yet.
3) There is a lovely little anticipated text completion feature as you type into Writer, and sometimes it cleverly guesses the right word, but I can’t figure out how to accept its suggested completion. I’m sure I’ll figure that out; the feature is too nice not to be documented there.
4) And speaking of XML, I examined the “content.xml” piece of a saved document, and then I opened it in Altova XML Spy to see if the document was valid. It wasn’t (although it was well-formed). I’m not sure why; there are schema references; perhaps they’ve changed. Anyway, SO8 comes so close and I wish there were a way to get that validity check to work.
5) Last and minor to some folks but not to me, I dearly wish that the text analysis functions were a bit beefier. I find the thesaurus to be somewhat better than MS Words, but there is no way to run a reading level analysis the way there is in Word. I’m sure that will come; maybe there is even an add-on somewhere that I don’t know about. But I do miss that reading level analyzer.

As I said, working with Writer has an uncannily familiar feel, so trying to figure out what to test next is in some ways difficult. It is almost like the experience of saving all your laptop Windows settings before getting the thing re-imaged, then using the updated laptop with its settings. You tend to find little differences and things missing as you work.

What do I plan to check next in Writer? Much as I dislike MS Word’s “fields” capabilities for a variety of reasons, I’ve grown comfortable with the way they work. One feature I especially like (and need) is the ability to display a “last date and time saved” string in a document footer. I use this even in document management systems, since you never know which version the printed copy you’re looking at is.