Choose the right word processor: WordPerfect, StarOffice Writer, or Word XP

With the emergence of Sun's StarOffice Writer and the resurgence of Corel's WordPerfect, Microsoft's Word can't yet claim victory as supreme word processor. Look at the pros and cons of the three products and decide which is right for your organization.

Although Microsoft Word has a significant share of the word processor market, other options are available, including the Corel WordPerfect suite, which is far from gone, and Sun's StarOffice, which is gaining steam. But which one is right for your organization? This article will look at the word processing components of three office suites. We'll compare and contrast Microsoft Word XP, Corel WordPerfect 9, and the beta version of the word processing component of Sun StarOffice 6.0 in such areas as system requirements, supported platforms, cost, interfaces, and more.

System requirements and supported platforms
Before we delve into specifics, let's look at the system requirements and supported platforms of each product. All three programs will run under Microsoft Windows 98 or later. StarOffice Writer also requires the installation of a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), which is included with the distribution.

For Linux users, both WordPerfect 9 and StarOffice are readily available for kernel versions greater than 2.2.13. Microsoft Word is unable to run natively under Linux, and people have had mixed results using emulators, such as Wine, to get it to run.

For the Solaris users, both WordPerfect and StarOffice are available if you're running Solaris 7 or later.

As far as your system requirements, you must have a somewhat recent machine with at least 64 MB of RAM, although I would recommend that you have at least 128 MB. Be aware that Microsoft recommends a minimum of 128 MB of RAM for Windows XP with an additional 8-MB minimum for Word XP. Each package claims that a Pentium 133 or 166 or better is adequate, but I would be hesitant to run any of these packages on a machine that slow. For a reasonable installation, you should consider a processor that is 300 MHz or faster.

As with most software installations today, make sure that you have plenty of disk space. For Word XP, some users will need to have close to a whopping 500 MB available, depending on options chosen and which OS you are running; for the other packages, plan on having 150 to 300 MB available.

How much do you want to spend?
Cost is always a consideration when choosing an office suite, and neither Word nor WordPerfect is cheap. A single, standard copy of Microsoft Office XP, which includes Word XP, can run upwards of $200 to upgrade from a previous version and more than $350 to buy the product new. Corel WordPerfect Suite runs between $120 and $150 for an upgrade and $310 to $340 for a full version. StarOffice Writer, on the other hand, has a much lower price tag: It's available as a free download from Sun's Web site, and there are no licensing fees associated with it. However, Sun is planning to temporarily discontinue downloads of the beta version of Office 6 while it completes development on the product.

Please note that the pricing above is “street” pricing. You can generally get better pricing deals from Microsoft or Corel if you take part in one of their licensing programs.

Similar interfaces
Figures A, B, and C show each product's main screen. All three interfaces are very similar to one another on the surface. Each contains a menu bar at the top of the screen followed by a general toolbar with file controls options, printing options, and the like. A toolbar comes next, containing a plethora of document formatting options.

Figure A
Here is an example of a Microsoft Word XP main screen.

Figure B
WordPerfect 9's main screen doesn't bring up the ruler bar by default.

Figure C
This is a sample main screen for the beta version of StarOffice Writer 6.0.

The primary differences become apparent a little farther down. Both Word and StarOffice Writer make use of a ruler bar by default, while WordPerfect 9 does not. StarOffice Writer also includes some shortcuts along the left-hand side of the screen. All three programs use the bottom of the window for various types of information.

Of the three interfaces, I'd say Word is the "cleanest” option, although WordPerfect and StarOffice Writer have excellent interfaces.

New and improved or old and inferior?
All three of the word processors do their job very well, even the newcomer, StarOffice Writer. The creators of StarOffice Writer stayed close to the form of Microsoft Word, and with good reason. Word currently owns a huge market share in comparison to any other word processing product, and many people are very comfortable with its interface and inner workings. However, you'll find that all three programs use the same shortcut keys and operate very much like one another for general word processing tasks.

I have found very useful some of the features that have been added into Word and WordPerfect over the past few versions, such as the automatic underlining typographical errors. I was also pleased to see that this particular feature also made its way into StarOffice Writer, although it still needs some work: It didn't recognize contracted words like “doesn't,” so it underlined them as if they were spelled wrong. StarOffice Writer also includes a feature whereby it guesses at what word you are trying to type. While I first found this slightly annoying, I got used to it very quickly.

A common task in many offices is the creation of a form letter. Word and WordPerfect have been doing this for years, and both have streamlined the process. StarOffice Writer is still behind the curve on this, though. There isn't a straightforward process to create such letters, which could hinder the product's acceptance into some enterprises.

Sharing files between different offices or companies can sometimes be a daunting task due to the differences in file formats between programs and sometimes even between different versions of the same program. Sadly, even with these word processing products, sharing files is no easier than it was before. WordPerfect 9 is capable of both reading and writing to files saved in Word 97 format, while Word XP is capable of reading and writing to files from versions up to WordPerfect 6. Neither product can read or write to native StarOffice Writer files. However, StarOffice Writer can read and write to native Word files for any version but can only read WordPerfect files and not write to them. Luckily, all three packages support RTF! If one were to place these three programs in a contest for importing files from other packages, StarOffice Writer would win this battle hands down. It's support for importing from older software and from alternative systems is very impressive.

Online help is a feature that no program should be without. For Word XP and WordPerfect, the help systems are useable and comprehensive. The same cannot be said for StarOffice Writer, however. The help system in the beta release is both incomplete and incorrect in some areas. I would hope that this would be fixed by the time the product actually goes into production, though.

Overall, all three programs are excellent choices. I would say it's mostly up to personal preference, budgetary guidelines, or organizational history to dictate which package your enterprise will use. With many IT departments looking at ways to cut costs, evaluating StarOffice 6.0 would be beneficial, unless you have hundreds of macros in your current suite, you have a strong need for a simple, easy-to-use mail merge facility, or you cannot take on the training that such a move would require.

I have only recently started using StarOffice Writer; I wrote this entire article using it. I've taught courses in both Microsoft Word and WordPerfect and use both of these programs on a daily basis. However, I'm quite impressed by what I see in StarOffice Writer, and I look forward to its final release. I found it to be as easy to use as either Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, and it supported all of the functions that I needed for basic word processing.

Share your opinion
Which word processor is your favorite and why? Have you recently switched word processors? Would you trust your documents to a relative newcomer like Sun's StarOffice Writer? Post a comment to this article and let your voice be heard.