April 9, 2008

New AbiWord looks solid but suffers from age-old Linux problem

Author: Mayank Sharma

In this age of multi-core processors and 3-D desktops, some people still get work done on old resource-strapped single-core machines, thanks to programs like the AbiWord word processor. The latest stable AbiWord 2.6.0 release was unveiled last month, two years after the software's last stable release. Feature-wise, the little cross-platform word processor has closed the gap with heavyweight OpenOffice.org Writer, but it suffers from the oldest Linux ill of all -- it's a pain to install.

If you are used to compiling apps from source that might not sound like a big deal. I've been compiling AbiWord since I started using the editor's 0.7.x branch in early 2000. But this is 2008, and it doesn't seem fair to not release any precompiled binaries. AbiWord isn't the easiest of apps to compile, especially now, since most of its exciting new features are packaged as plugins that have to be compiled as well. The lack of documentation on the software's Web site doesn't help either.

AbiWord developers leave it to individual distributions to package and add the word processor in their respective repositories. Most distros add it to their testing or development branch. If you install AbiWord from these repos, you'll be installing a lot more than the word processor, since the process also upgrades a lot of key libraries as well. By contrast, Windows users only need to double-click two executables -- one to install AbiWord and another to handle the plugins.

But once you get AbiWord 2.6 running, it's be worth the effort.

What's new

Lightweight and peppy yet loaded to the core, AbiWord 2.6 is as good as they come. With the latest release, you get a few templates to create documents from, and the program spell-checks text as you type. AbiWord is multilingual and lets you input text in various languages, including English, French, German, Finnish, and several Indian languages. You can configure the editor to autosave documents after specific time intervals and maintain document history. You can also compare two documents currently open in AbiWord and find similarities in content, format, and styles.

AbiWord

As in previous versions, AbiWord responds to Emacs or vi key bindings. For lazy Web editors like me, it's a way to generate simple HTML as well. The latest version can create a valid XML page and embed formatting in the document itself or as external CSS stylesheets.

The new version can track document revisions from multiple sources as well as show a document before and after applying the suggested revisions. There's also a find feature to move to the next or previous revision, which can either be accepted, rejected, or purged. AbiWord allows you to add a comment for a particular revision, but I couldn't figure out how to read that comment afterward.

AbiWord 2.6, like previous releases, has a lot of plugins with varying degrees of usability and compatibility. Some of the plugins I tried included the Wikipedia and Google lookup plugins, using which you can look up selected words in AbiWord documents on those sites. If you dabble in images, you'll also like the GIMP plugin, with which you can edit any inserted image in the document with the GIMP image editor. Speaking of images, AbiWord 2.6 has a limited but diverse clipart gallery. You can also drag and drop images into AbiWord documents, or drag images from AbiWord documents and drop them on your hard disk.

I couldn't get the Open Document Format (ODF) and the experimental Office Open XML (OOXML) plugins to work on the Linux installation. All I got was a simple "could not activate/load plugin" error, which didn't help resolve the issue. The plugins worked on the Windows installation though. With the ODF plugin you can both import and export a simple ODF file. The experimental OOXML plugin only lets you open a file in the newly standardized document specification. In addition to these two formats, AbiWord can natively open and save documents in a variety of formats, including plain vanilla text, rich text format, and Microsoft Word. You can also save documents as PDF files.

AbiWord handles documents of all formats well. Apart from a little loss in formatting in .doc documents (especially ones with comments), there wasn't any loss in formatting, or more importantly text, in any type of document.

The new AbiWord supposedly offers real-time document collaboration developed for the OLPC project and implemented by means of an experimental plugin. As per the AbiWord-2.6 release notes, there are three implementations of the plugin, one for the OLPC, and two (an XMPP-based one and a pure TCP/IP one) for Linux. The Linux plugins compiled without any issues, but AbiWord couldn't activate them. The plugin isn't currently available for Windows.

Versus OpenOffice.org Writer 2.4

It's probably a little unfair to compare AbiWord with the more full-featured OpenOffice.org Writer, but AbiWord is the only real word processor that fills the void between vanilla text editors and OOo Writer. OpenOffice.org 2.4 was also released in the last week of March and has lots of new features. We recently reviewed OpenOffice.org in its run-up to OpenOffice.org 3.0.

Thanks to having a more limited set of features than OpenOffice.org, AbiWord scores over its full-featured rival in the areas of speed and easy-to-navigate interface. Irrespective of the computer I run it on, AbiWord pops open with a blank document in a second or two. OpenOffice.org Writer 2.4 takes about 15 seconds on a dual-core box with 1GB RAM, which is a step up from earlier lethargic OpenOffice.org launch times. It's also much easier to locate a particular option or setting in AbiWord, thanks to limited feature set.

But there are a couple of things that AbiWord can learn from OpenOffice.org. If AbiWord would allow adding comments in a document, it would be more useful on an editor's desk. And it would be great if users could embed audio and video objects in their documents and not just images.

Some people criticize AbiWord because it lacks the ability to create charts, but if you run AbiWord on GNOME, you'll benefit from the GNOME-Office integration and will be able to create and import Gnumeric charts into AbiWord documents. The GNOME-Office package works well on lightweight desktops like Xfce.

Conclusion

AbiWord is a great word processor and totally rocks on lower-end machines. AbiWord 2.6 has further bridged the gap to full-featured apps like OpenOffice.org Writer, and the new release has enough features to satisfy a fair proportion of the word processing population. Some tools, such as the collaboration plugin and the OOXML/ODF file import/export plugin, need some work before they can fully interoperate with other word processors that produce documents in these formats. The project's participation in Google's Summer of Code program should help to this end. New Linux users wouldn't mind an easy-to-use installer as well, like the one their Windows cousins get, and some updated online documentation would help too.

But make no mistake about it, AbiWord 2.6 is a hallmark AbiWord release -- cholesterol-free, fast, and with a couple of jaw-dropping features that you won't find in any other word processor.

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