August 23, 2005

FOSS word processors compared: OOo Writer, AbiWord, and KWord

Author: Bruce Byfield

OpenOffice.org receives most of the attention among free and open source (FOSS) office suites, but users shouldn't forget that free software includes at least two other word processors: AbiWord, part of a projected GNOME Office, and KWord, part of the KOffice suite. From their inception, both have been playing catch-up with OpenOffice.org's Writer. But now, after several years of development, AbiWord and KWord are both reaching early maturity. How do Writer, AbiWord, and KWord compare?

To see, I installed the latest versions available in Debian packages: AbiWord 2.27-3, KWord 1.3.2, and the 1.9.121 build of the OpenOffice.org version 2 beta. I compared the three programs using some of the more common features of word processors as evaluation criteria:

  • Interface
  • Styles
  • Templates
  • Adding objects
  • Bulleted and numbered lists
  • Page layout, frames, and sections
  • Headers and footers
  • Tables
  • Indexes and tables of contents
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • File import and export
  • Unique features

The final results give an encouraging snapshot of the current state of free software word processors, while also showing how far each has to go in some areas.

The general interface

All three programs show the influence of Microsoft Word, and this influence is
especially visible in Writer and AbiWord. Both these programs are likely to spark debate on the relative merits of having a common interface standard for common work flows and the copying of a non-ergonomic design. For example, does Writer really need to repeat Word's use of the confusingly similar Configuration and Options in the Tool menu? Similarly, must AbiWord imitate Word, in which changing a style requires drilling down several levels to the options?

Along with Word's influence, Writer adds several others. Adobe Acrobat's is visible in the PDF export dialog, while the wizards for adding fonts and dictionaries share a standard only with each other. Somewhere among these influences, presumably, Writer also shows traces of the original StarDivision design, although this influence seems to get weaker with each release, as the project tries to encourage Office users to make the switch.

AbiWord sports a clean, easy-to-see interface on the first level. However, users open windows and dialogs, the interface often appears less polished. The deeper interface is particularly prone to verbose
text, where a concise phrase and a diagram would be clearer.

Some users may dislike the plastic look of KWord's icons. Yet, KWord's interface is generally less imitative and far cleaner than either Writer's or AbiWord's. Unlike the other two programs, KWord shows signs of someone actually rethinking the user interface. It opens faster than the other two programs because the first screen offers a selection of basic options for a user starting a word processor. Similarly, because frames are an important feature in KWord, the editing window has a Document Structure pane to keep track of multiple frames. On the whole, KWord does a good job of putting basic choices on the toolbar and saving complexities for the menu items. KWord's interface isn't perfect -- for example, the diagrams for choosing shadows for headers and footers are too small to be useful -- but it generally shows more thought than the interface of the other programs.

The Verdict: KWord wins the race for best interface, with AbiWord back a good ways, and Writer panting far in the rear.

AbiWord - click to enlarge

Styles and their implementation

Like classes in object-oriented programming, word processor styles are tools
that, in the hands of advanced users, become economically elegant. The emphasis that each program places on styles reveals its origins.

Designed like FrameMaker or PageMaker for creating long, heavily designed documents, Writer emphasizes styles from the start. The floating Styles and Formatting window pops open with the program and offers five types of styles -- paragraphs, character, frame, page, and lists -- all with the sort of detail that might be found in a desktop publishing program. Users can write short, plain documents without resorting to styles, but full access to many features requires users to embrace styles wholeheartedly.

By contrast, AbiWord and KWord are more willing to accommodate manual formatting. KWord does not even list styles anywhere on the toolbars. In fact, KWord offers only a dozen predefined styles, of which three are used automatically when a table of contents is created. AbiWord is more generous, offering three dozen styles. Both name their styles with a clarity that Writer often lacks; for example, they use Lower Roman List or Disc Bullets rather than Writer's Numbered1 and List 2.

Like most word processors, both AbiWord and KWord have settings for paragraph and character styles. These have mostly adequate options, although they are basic compared to Writer's.

Each program has some small quirks in these categories. AbiWord, for instance,
treats superscripts and subscripts as font attributes for manual formatting and does not include them among character style options. Similarly, KWord's heading styles have outline numbering enabled by default. This practice might be useful for outlining, but it is obsolete for most other purposes.

AbiWord and KWord also have list styles that compare favorably with Writer's in their options for aligning and customizing bullets and numbers. KWord rounds off its styles with frame styles. Neither program has page styles or an equivalent to master pages, which makes different page layouts in both programs more difficult than in Writer.

Because they are not listed in the editing window, KWord is the hardest of the three programs in which to use styles. AbiWord has a floating window called the Stylist -- the old name for the Styles and Formatting window in Writer -- as well as a tool like Writer's for importing styles
from another document, and a drop-down list on the first view of each style window for removing individual features without opening another window. This ease of use, however, is marred slightly by the long summary of
features, and the fact that users cannot modify styles from AbiWord's Stylist.

Verdict: The decision is much closer than I expected. Writer is still strongest in styles because of the number of features that it includes with each style. However, AbiWord has closed the gap in recent releases, with KWord not far behind.

Templates

Like styles, templates are a way to save time by planning and re-using the structure
of existing documents. All three programs avoid the difficulties caused in Word by letting users apply multiple templates to a document, or modify an existing template
with changes from the current document.

The main difference among the programs is in the available selection. Writer offers none, although many can be downloaded from the OOoExtras site. KWord's default templates are based on page size and can be added to by selecting File > Create Template From Document. AbiWord's templates contain both content and structure that are suitable
for consultants or small business. Their quality is much higher than generic templates used in most word processors. Unfortunately, the editing window doesn't
include a way to add other templates to the list that appears when File > New using Template is selected. Instead, users must add templates either to their home directories or the directory in which AbiWord is installed. This is a minor but annoying task.

Verdict: In the area of templates, AbiWord and KWord tie. AbiWord would win if users could add more templates from within the program.

Adding objects

Writer supports the most types of objects. Its list includes several that are unsupported by AbiWord or KWord, such as hyperlinks, OLE objects (in Windows versions), and, new in version 2.0, movies and sounds in a variety of formats.

Other objects are supported by Writer and only one of the other two applications. Like Writer, KWord supports images from scanners. However, KWord offers fewer controls over scanners than Writer, which offers enough features to make it a replacement for xsane. Both Writer and KWord support formulas, thus sharing the advantages of being part of office applications that include formula editors. On the other hand, only Writer and AbiWord support inserted scripts.

All three programs support graphics adequately. However, users who like to reduce file size should know that AbiWord only embeds graphics and cannot simply link to them, while KWord describes linked graphics as "in-line." Neither AbiWord nor KWord allows linked graphics to be converted to embedded ones, as Writer does from Edit > Links.

Verdict: Here the finishing order is Writer, KWord, AbiWord. AbiWord's support of objects is basic, and remains one of its weakest points.

Bullets and numbered lists

AbiWord, KWord, and Writer all include detailed options for positioning bullets and
numbers in relation to list items. In KWord, however, these options are available only as styles; from KWord's toolbar button, the only choice is the type of bullet or the numbering system.

When you cut and paste list items into new positions or create nested lists, they remain uncorrupted in KWord and Writer. In AbiWord, you can perform these routine tasks without problems only through the Formats > Bullets and Numbering window. This window has three buttons at the bottom: Start New List, Apply to Current List, and Attach to Previous List. Unless you use these buttons with selected items, any attempt at editing lists in AbiWord either corrupts the list or upsets indentation. The system works, but it is much clumsier than the equivalent tools in Writer and KWord.

Verdict: Writer and KWord are best with bullets, followed by AbiWord.

KWord - click to enlarge

Page layout, frames, and sections

If styles are part of Writer's logic, then frames are part of KWord's. In fact, frames are so central to KWord's scheme of things that page templates are divided into Text Oriented and Page Layout categories, according to whether the design begins with a main frame. KWord also includes buttons on the left side of the editing window for working with frames, as well as a Document Structure pane for showing how frames are nested. Each frame can be extensively customized, and together frames can be used to quickly build documents of surprising complexity. Unfortunately, this emphasis is weakened by the lack of any concept of a page as a unit of design.

Writer has the opposite problem: It includes page styles, but its frames are harder to manage. A particularly difficult problem is connecting frames for text flow, especially when the frames involved are on separate pages. With its Document Structure pane and dialog, KWord manages this task far
more easily.

Both KWord and Writer would receive boosts as desktop publishing programs if they included a means of repeating frames in the same position on more than one page.

As an alternative to text frames, Writer offers sections, which allow parts of a page to be quickly formatted differently from the rest. Writer sections can be password-protected or hidden, but the difference between sections and frames is poorly explained in OpenOffice.org documentation. With a little rethinking, Writer should be able to combine them.

In contrast to the other two programs, AbiWord's page layout options are limited to selecting a background image or color.

Verdict: Writer tops the page layout category for its page styles. If KWord added page styles or master pages, the decision would be tied. Although KWord frames have fewer design options, they are far easier to work with than Writer frames.

Headers and footers

AbiWord and KWord permit different headers and footers for the first page and for left and right pages, but no other variations. Otherwise, AbiWord has no header and footer options, and KWord has only a
setting for the distance between from the main frame on the page.

Writer's header and footer options are limited with manual formatting to a single design. However, when you use page styles, Writer supports an unlimited number of header and footer designs. You can also select the position of each on the page, as well as any dividing line and shadow.

Verdict: Writer comes first, with KWord in second and AbiWord third.

Tables

Tables were once a weak point in Writer, but in Version 2.0 they have been improved considerably. They can now include nested tables, and cells that are straddle a page break. True to its desktop publishing aspirations, Writer includes a wealth of options for borders, backgrounds, and spacing, but no table styles -- only autoformats, which are less flexible.

AbiWord supports both nested tables and cells that break over a page. KWord supports neither. In both, though, users can customize borders and backgrounds, and, in KWord, users can save customizations as styles. AbiWord has the eccentricity of inserting rows only above the currently selected one, while in KWord, Table > Delete Table removes the entire table without having to select it.

Verdict: Writer's options put it at the top of the list for table functionality. AbiWord finishes second because basic flexibility is more important than formatting options.

Indexes and tables of contents

Only Writer supports indexes and allows detailed customization for a table of contents. AbiWord and KWord can only create a basic tables of contents from Heading 1-3 styles. AbiWord creates a table of contents at the current mouse position, while KWord creates it at the start of the document. The result in both programs includes leader dots between the listings and page numbers -- a classical example of failed design in typography. You can customize the results in both programs slightly by editing the styles used to create the listings. In KWord, this editing is a necessity when using US letter-sized paper, since the default results overrun the line and push the page number to the next page, regardless of the length of the entry.

Verdict: Writer easily beats the other applications at indexes and tables of contents. AbiWord is second, KWord third.

Footnotes and endnotes

Writer not only handles footnotes and endnotes easily, it also hyperlinks the number in the body of the text with the note. Both KWord and Writer have options for customizing numbering and the separator line between notes and the text body, which AbiWord lacks. These options are certainly needed in KWord, whose default separator line is thick and ugly.

Both Writer and AbiWord insert footnotes without trouble, updating numbering as notes are added between existing ones or moved. Writer even makes adjustments across pages. By contrast, AbiWord corrals footnotes on the page where they were originally added, claiming more space from the body text as needed.

Compared to the other two, KWord's footnotes are less reliable. Although footnote numbering in KWord can be edited without being corrupted, even a brief experiment shows problems ranging from the occasional number not being added in superscript in the body text to a reduce height for the footnote frame. More importantly, KWord is unable to expand the space for a footnote, either by moving part of it to another page or taking space from the body text. The spacing between footnotes and the body frame can be adjusted, but from
Format > Page Layout rather than Insert > Footnote/Endnote.

Verdict: For footnotes and endnotes, Writer is best, followed by AbiWord, then KWord. AbiWord could do with more options, but its footnotes survive editing better than KWord's.

Import and export formats

All three programs share files with Microsoft Word reasonably well. In each program, the worst problem in simple documents is the addition of a few lines. AbiWord is especially useful for viewing email attachments in Word because of its quick opening time.

All three programs support HTML. Writer produces HTML for use with a style sheet, while AbiWord exports only to XHTML. In comparison, KWord not only supports both HTML and XHTML, it also includes a strict HTML option that produces version 4.01 HTML, which, apart from a few meta-tags, is the cleanest HTML I've seen in a word processor.

Support for other formats remains spotty in all three. Of the three programs, only KWord supports Lotus Ami Pro. KWord is also the only one that supports the others' formats.

Writer has the longest list of supported formats. In version 2.0, Writer can import WordPerfect files, but not export it. Other formats supported by Writer include AportisDoc, Simplified DocBook, and PocketWord, as well as earlier versions of its proprietary twin StarOffice.

By far the most important filter in Writer is its export to PDF. In version 2.0, this filter has been supercharged so that it now supports bookmarks and hyperlinks and gives users some control over how graphics are sampled in the output. Although all three word processors can use KDE's Print to File (PDF) option, Writer 2.0's export options are more advanced. KWord has the useful ability to load PDF files, even if it does tend to flip left and right on large graphics.

Verdict: Writer comes out on top again in the category of format compatibility for the number of filters and for the PDF filter specifically. KWord comes next, followed by AbiWord.

OOo Writer - click to enlarge

Unique features

Both AbiWord and KWord share features with Writer that the other lacks. AbiWord and Writer both include revision tools and mail merge. Each also has outlining tools, although AbiWord's, called text folding, is primitive and requires repeated, inconvenient visits to Format > Bullets and Numbering. Conversely, KWord and Writer both have autocorrection, autotext, and notes, although KWord calls the last two expressions and comments, respectively.

Writer logs the largest number of features unshared by the others. Most of Writer's unique features have to do with long documents, such as indexes and master documents. Writer offers cross-references, although its system is clumsy because it does not use heading styles for bookmarks, and cross-references between files require inelegant kludges. Alone among the three programs, Writer also includes drawing tools good enough to do diagrams and annotate them.

Most of AbiWord's unique features are its plugins. More than either of the other programs, AbiWord puts other free resources to work. It lets you edit graphics, for example, in the GIMP. Other plugins in the Tools menu include links to Google, Wikipedia, and the URL Dictionary.

KWord's only unique feature is its ability to split the view.

Verdict: Writer offers the most unique features, followed by AbiWord, though if you don't need to create long documents, then you might want to reverse the order. KWord is out of the running.

Conclusion

Given the history and resources behind OpenOffice.org Writer, its victory in a review of features is not surprising. Neither AbiWord nor KWord should be the first choice for long documents, like manuals or doctoral theses. Still, they might do in a pinch, and both are suitable for daily use by students or office workers. Although AbiWord and KWord lack Writer's formidable array of options, they now have solid foundations to build on in many areas of word processing and document design. If they can add features without sacrificing response times, both AbiWord and KWord could challenge Writer's supremacy in a few more releases.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge and the Linux Journal Web site.

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