Author: Bruce Byfield
The SoftMaker 30-day beta comes in two tar files: one for TextMaker and PlanMaker, and another for language files that contains 17 European languages or their variants, including UK and US English. Since SoftMaker is self-contained, you do not need to extract the tar files as root unless more than one user on the system wants to try the software. Instead, all you need to do is extract both files to the same directory.
TextMaker and PlanMaker are separate programs that share some resources and have similar interfaces. In the beta, at least, neither can open or embed the other’s files. Each also has features that the other might benefit from, such as TextMaker’s Magnify, which zooms in on a specific portion of the screen, and PlanMaker’s charting subsystem. Other features, such as a basic set of drawing tools that include text art and connectors for drawing diagrams, are shared. Both allow a reasonable amount of customization, especially for keyboard shortcuts, which can be saved and loaded in sets for different users or purposes.
Both applications export Microsoft Office formats well. They have some trouble with OpenOffice.org and OpenDocument formats, notably with multiple columns, page breaks, and nested lists. Neither saves to OpenOffice.org or OpenDocument, but both save to three versions of Microsoft Office format, style-cluttered HTML 4.0, and plain text with several different locales. PDF export is also available, with a minimal set of options.
The beta includes help for neither application, but PDF manuals are available from the SoftMaker Web site. Both manuals are written in clear, concise English formatted for easy reading online. Even an experienced office application user will probably find them useful for learning how to work with unfamiliar features. The manuals, however, were written for the Windows version, and refer to one or two features unavailable in GNU/Linux, such as embedding OLE Objects.
You don’t have to use TextMaker long before you start noticing its small innovations. Its thesaurus, for example, doesn’t just offer alternatives to a highlighted word; it replaces the word, too. Similarly, the Extras -> Translation feature give word-for-word translation in any of the currently loaded languages. From Insert -> Lists and Labels you can use fill-lists like the ones in spreadsheets for such things as the days of the week or the months of the year.
TextMaker’s thoughtfulness is especially noticeable in the tools for collaboration. Instead of marking comments with small blotches of color that are hard to find, and opening them in floating windows, as OpenOffice.org does, TextMaker opens a separate pane for comments, with individual comments connected by lines to highlighted sections in the text. Comments are not limited to plain text, either, but can be formatted with lists and styles, and have options for displays, the format of Internet links, password protection, and reviewers’ comments. Individual usage statistics are also available for comments. Multiple author changes are equally customizable, although functionally they are equivalent to the same feature in OpenOffice.org.
TextMaker – click to enlarge
Such innovations aside, TextMaker is a moderately style-dependent word processor. Unlike OpenOffice.org, it is not designed with the expectation that users will routinely use styles, but some features, such as tables of contents, require their use. Like any modern word processor, it includes character and paragraph style options, and, although these are slightly less comprehensive than OpenOffice.org’s — for example, paragraph styles lack options for fill characters for tabs or for handling a final incomplete line with full justification — they are thorough enough for most users. Numbering styles are folded into paragraph styles, and table styles do not exist. Page styles are not supported as such, but TextMaker gives the equivalent functionality through master pages, on which any recurring elements such as a graphic can be added. However, TextMaker has a limit of one master page per chapter, a needless limitation that is only partially compensated for by the fact that, in each chapter, you can set on which page implementation of the master page begins.
TextMaker scores points for bulleted and numbered lists that can be edited and nested without corruption.
The only real lack comes with front and back matter, which is available, but basic. Generating a table of contents requires the use of Heading styles, and results in an inelegant default that uses leader dots to show the connection between the heading and the page number. Separate styles are generated for each level in the table of content, but, by default, they differ only in indentation. Similarly, indexes,which are built from keyword lists and markers, offer only one level of entry while bibliographies, although potentially more powerful because they are built with a database, require a considerable amount of customization before they can be used with any of the standard citation methods. By contrast, footnotes are more customizable and automatically repaginate when necessary, but end notes are not an option. The lack of sophistication in these tools is all the more obvious because of the general quality elsewhere in TextMaker.
Compared to TextMaker, PlanMaker is a disappointment. It shares some of the general features of TextMaker, such as the ability to save keyboard mapping sets, but lacks any innovations for spreadsheets greater than a tool to transpose rows and columns. PlanMaker is a general purpose spreadsheet program without many of the refinements that make a spreadsheet easy to use.
PlanMaker – click to enlarge
The problem is not that PlanMaker lacks general functionality. In fact, PlanMaker includes a number of advanced tools, such as Validation and Goal Seek, that some of its free software rivals lack. Rather, the problem is that features are overly basic. For example, PlanMaker offers the usual range of cell formatting, including text wrap, but without the hyphenation that makes the feature useful in other spreadsheets. In much the same way, while PlanMaker includes settings for print ranges, page breaks, and sheet selection to ease the perennial problems of transferring a spreadsheet to paper, it does not have options for reducing the size of the material to be printed, or setting the order in which columns and rows are printed if the material is too large for a single page — let alone the page styles of OpenOffice.org. The story is much the same with list-making tools; Planmaker includes the array of filters and sorts that an experienced spreadsheet user might expect, but shows no awareness of column headings — which, as a result, can be overwritten when an autofilter is added.
While PlanMaker offers fewer functions than OpenOffice.org — about 320 compared to about 370 — it includes the most commonly used ones, so only specialty users are likely to notice the lack. However, the real problem with formulas in PlanMaker is the Formula window. As in most spreadsheets, the window divides functions into categories, and includes the syntax and a synopsis for the currently selected function, and the keypad for entering operators is a convenient touch. However, unlike the equivalent in OpenOffice.org Calc, it does not include input fields for each argument or error messages. Even worse, arguments must be entered manually, and cannot be selected by the mouse. As a result, entering a formula in PlanMaker is more difficult than in any other modern spreadsheet I have seen. Nor is the process made easier by the small input field in the window and the small, unaliased font that the window uses.
As an office suite, SoftMaker Office is easy to underestimate. It lacks a slide show program, and, at a casual glance, you could easily miss the drawing tools in Object -> New Drawing or the database setup in Extras -> Create Database. However, while a lukewarm first impression may be dispelled as you use TextMaker, it tends to be confirmed as you explore PlanMaker. Or, to put the case another way, TextMaker meets the basic requirement for proprietary software by offering features that free equivalents do not, but PlanMaker, for the most part, fails to. The difference in the two applications’ capability levels, combined with the lack of interoperability, make the suite unsatisfying. Not helping are the file manager that opens at the root directory and the clumsy object mode that you need to switch into in order to edit graphics and other insertions.
Still, regardless of whether you find proprietary applications acceptable or whether SoftMaker Office has all the features you need, you may want to take advantage of the beta to see what TextMaker has to offer. Unlike most modern word processors, TextMaker is not just obsessed with matching the feature set of Microsoft Office. Instead, in dozens of small ways, TextMaker is introducing its own refinements. The approach is refreshing. If only it were taken with PlanMaker as well, SoftMaker Office would be a competitive product regardless of its licensing.