Once upon a time, there was a little office productivity suite called StarOffice.

Intended as a cheap alternative to Microsoft's Office suite, it soon got bought up by Sun Microsystems. Sun opened up the source to StarOffice and this became OpenOffice.org.

Yet Sun decided it wasn't going to discontinue StarOffice; it was going to continue to release new versions based on OpenOffice.org but with extra features and support, all of which would come at a (small) price.

Now, hot on the heels of last month's release of OpenOffice.org 3.0 comes StarOffice 9, the suite's first OS X native release.

Cheaper options

OpenOffice.org and StarOffice are undoubtedly your best bet if you don't want to buy Office.

As well as a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package that can pretty much match Word, Excel and PowerPoint feature for feature, both suites trump Office for Mac 2008 by including a database package and supporting Visual Basic macros, just as Microsoft has discontinued support for them on the Mac.

Since StarOffice follows more of a commercial release schedule than OpenOffice.org's open source model, StarOffice can justifiably claim to have 1,500 new features since version 8 even if most of these come from .x updates to OpenOffice.org 2.0.

New to both suites, though, is the same near-OS X native interface. It's not quite there yet since both suites rely on Sun's Java platform and Apple's implementation of Java doesn't quite have the seamless quality needed to fool the careful observer.

For most operations, it'll feel almost OS X-like and at the very least, reminiscent of Office, thanks in part to a new icon set for its toolbars. But there are times when it feels clunky and user-unfriendly, particularly now that Office 2007 and Office 2008 have switched to a more polished and streamlined appearance.

XML files

Also new in the latest release is the ability to read, edit and save Office 2007/8 XML files – including the dreaded .docx format – which although pretty good, does have problems when dealing with files that contain features that OpenOffice.org and StarOffice don't support, such as reviewing and commenting.

Both now support the OpenDocument Format version 1.2 as their native file types, have workbook sharing in the spreadsheet module so two people can work on a spreadsheet at the same time and the presentation module now handles tables natively.

But given that StarOffice and OpenOffice.org are pretty much the same program, why bother paying £23 to download StarOffice when you can have OpenOffice.org for free?

You do get support rolled into the purchase price of StarOffice, something you have to rely on the open source community for with OpenOffice.org, but this amounts to three free phone calls.

That said, if you're having problems, a telephone call is often far more reassuring than trusting that someone online will answer your question quickly. You're also indemnified in case anyone wants to sue you because they think that Sun stole their intellectual property. Which is utterly useless to virtually everyone.

Sun also advertises a number of additional functions: PDF import, a blog publisher, a presenter console, a report builder, a MediaWiki publisher, a presentation minimiser and support for the eFax online faxing service.

There's also the Lightning extension, which allows StarOffice to integrate with Thunderbird and give that open source email program calendaring functions. However, these are all available as free extensions for OpenOffice.org as well.

Pointless purchase

What StarOffice does have that OpenOffice.org genuinely doesn't are certain additional file filters, far more templates and clip art than OpenOffice.org and some different spellcheckers. Now this may not seem like much – and indeed it's not compared to the full power of both suites – but you could easily spend £23 on clip art and templates.

All the same, while it's a great and perhaps superior alternative to Office and even Apple's iWork, the money spent on StarOffice will be money wasted. If OpenOffice didn't exist, buying StarOffice would be a no-brainer. As it is, it's just not compelling enough.