June 3, 2003

Textmaker for Linux: Nice try, but not 'there' yet

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
SoftMaker, the publishers of TextMaker, have sent us plenty of press releases touting this first module from their anticipated multi-platform office suite. I finally downloaded and tested their free trial version -- and decided I'd rather use free OpenOffice or lay out $65 to $75 for StarOffice than spend $49 on Textmaker.

I have not tried TextMaker on Windows or Windows CE. Perhaps it's a fine piece of software on those platforms, but on Linux (specifically SuSE 8.2) it is not as good as its competition even though a lot of work has obviously gone into making it an efficient, nice-looking program.

The download is small (about 13 MB, non-intrusive registration required), installation is a straightforward "untar" routine, and the instructions are clear enough that Linux users who have had even a tiny amount of command line experience should be able to handle installation without any problem.

So it's a fast and easy download and install, and the program starts up quickly, practically quivering with eagerness to go to work for you. The problem comes when it's time to do the work, especially if that work involves editing documents you receive as MS .doc files.

I keep a particularly complex Word .doc file -- full of charts, tables, and assorted graphics -- around to test non-MS word processors' ability to open that format, and as the accompanying screenshots show, TextMaker does not display graphics embedded within that file, although StarOffice handles them without any problem.

TextMaker displays my reference document better than AbiWord, which doesn't interpret its tables and two-column structure correctly. But AbiWord is free in both senses of the word, while TextMaker isn't, and with the addition of several free plugins, AbiWord handles images in .doc files better than TextMaker.

Image handling aside, a major TextMaker annoyance is that its "open" and "save" dialog boxes do not display the file name correctly when I type it in. For example,

article.pl.html

displays as

a          r           t

Further exploration showed that all the characters in

article.pl.html

were indeed there, but with so many spaces between characters that it took lots of left-right scrolling to see them all, one or two at a time. This is the sort of glitch you expect to see in version 0.3 of a free software project, but is inexcusable in a commercial program.

TextMaker's rapid startup is nice, especially compared to famously stodgy OpenOffice and StarOffice, but it is no faster than AbiWord. Indeed, the only real advantage TextMaker seems to have over Abiword for everyday users is that it has a set of templates included that help a user produce letters, business cards, and other common print jobs without doing any manual layout work.

But if that sort of thing is important to you, StarOffice has many more -- and much better -- templates for only a few dollars more than TextMaker, and is a full-featured office suite, not just a word processor.

I am not a free software purist. I will happily pay for a commercial program if it will increase my productivity enough, compared to free alternatives, to be worth its price. And since I am an unabashed Linux supporter, because I believe Linux is the most cost-effective operating system available for my personal desktop use (and, of course, for server use all the way up to the top of the enterprise scale), I love to see new programs, free or commercial, come out for Linux.

Sadly, too many commercials programs released for Linux (and other operating systems) have major usability flaws or, worse, don't have enough advantages over free competitors to be worth paying for. I'm afraid that at this point in its development, TextMaker falls into both categories.

Perhaps future versions will be better.

I will be happy to take another look at TextMaker when it is a bit more mature, but for the moment OpenOffice and StarOffice are still the Linux word processing -- and general office software -- champions, especially for those of us who must deal with Microsoft Office users, and if you want a lightweight, "standalone" word processor for Linux, you might as well use free (in both senses) AbiWord instead of spending $49 for TextMaker.

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