July 7, 2008

AltSearch for OOo Writer functionality trumps first impressions

Author: Bruce Byfield

Alternative Find and Replace for Writer (AltSearch) has the ambitious goal of replacing and enhancing one of the most basic pieces of OpenOffice.org functionality. It's undermined by a chaotic interface, but if you have the patience to continue past first impressions, you will find AltSearch comes far closer to fulfilling its promise than you might initially imagine.

Extension series

To use AltSearch, download the file AltSearch.oxt from the OOo Extensions site and add it to your copy of OpenOffice.org via Tools -> Extension Manager. The next time you restart OpenOffice.org, an icon of green binoculars is added to the tool bar, and a menu item is added to Tools -> Add-Ons. Contrary to what you might expect from the description on the download page, the original Find and Replace Dialog is still available from the Edit menu.

A comparison of the original dialog with AltSearch takes patience, because the two are differently organized. While the original Find and Replace dialog hides advanced features until you click the More Options button, AltSearch has primitive-looking drop-down boxes with features organized into stanzas whose order may not be immediately obvious. With this lack of organization, you may take a while to find that, contrary to first impressions, AltSearch supports searching by styles.

In the same way, you might not notice right away that AltSearch's Property drop-down list includes fewer options than the original's Attributes. AltSearch also lacks the Similarity option, a feature that looks for matches with additional, subtracted, or transposed letters, although you can set up the same type of searches using regular expressions.

You might wonder, too, why AltSearch's Find and Replace fields do not have completely equivalent options. Probably, regular expressions would not be useful in the Replace field, but why, for instance, can you replace a List Style but not search for one?

Other miscues include an easy-to-miss button with a question mark for help, a Properties list for the Replace field that uses the macro language instead of standard English, and a Batch function that saves searches but cannot execute them. Because of glitches like these, you might be tempted to forget AltSearch until the developer cranks out a few more versions.

However, if you can get beyond the interface and bugs, AltSearch offers an impressive array of features. The most obvious is the Count feature, which lists the number of times that a search string is found -- an invaluable feature for writers who want to vary their word choices.

Also, AltSearch improves on the original dialog just by allowing you to select a regular expression from the Regular combo box, instead of having to remember the characters and enter them manually in the Find field. Unlike the original dialog, AltSearch reminds users that Writer's search functions support both regular expressions and document elements such as non-breaking spaces or custom hyphens, making users more likely to use them.

Similarly, from the Expressions combo box, you can search for objects like tables or pictures by name, rather than going to Writer's Navigator to find them. Go to the Properties combo box, and you can search for character formatting that is the same or similar as the currently highlighted text -- although the exact rules for defining "similar" are anybody's guess, since they are not explained in the help.

However, AltSearch's most ingenious features are ones that go beyond simple searching or replacing to make it a launching pad for macros. You can, for example, search for a series of paragraphs by entering start and end points, or replace the search string with the contents of the clipboard. Even more usefully, you can use AltSearch not only to find, but also to create or remove manual, line, or page breaks. Moreover, with a minimum amount of ingenuity, you can set up AltSearch to find a word, and then automatically create a footnote or endnote using the text you typed in the Replace field as the footnote. Once you discover this type of functionality, you should have no trouble forgetting your initial unfavorable impression of AltSearch.

Now at release 1.1.2, AltSearch seems the victim of version inflation, with shortcomings that are more typical of an early beta than an official release. Yet despite some serious problems, AltSearch has such obvious potential that its development is well worth keeping an eye on. Another version or two and AltSearch may be as easy to use as it is powerful -- and possibly even the basis for a permanent replacement for the Find and Search tool in the OpenOffice.org code base.

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