December 23, 2004

The wide world of Linux word processors

Author: Jem Matzan

There are several word processors in GNU/Linux, each with
different goals and features. Some are free software, some are based on
free software, some are proprietary. What do you, as an amateur or
professional writer, need to consider in such programs when moving to
GNU/Linux? If you're not entirely satisfied with your current word
processor or if you're wondering what's available on the GNU/Linux
platform in terms of word processors, this article's for you.

Word processors need to cover more than just the basics. Certain
requirements are in order to provide a stable and productive work
environment. There is a list of necessities itemized below, but perhaps the most underrated feature of a word processor is its ability to
find errors in your document. Such functions are commonly known as
proofing or writing tools. The reason why good writing and proofing
tools are a necessary feature for professional writers is because many
of us don't have an editorial staff to look over our work, and even if
we do, even the best human editors make mistakes from time to time. A
good electronic proofing tool does not make any mistakes and it misses
nothing if it is properly configured. Likewise, a bad proofing
tool will screw up your style and give you erroneous suggestions.

The best aspect of a good proofing tool is on-the-fly scanning.
If the program is checking your spelling and grammar as you work, you
can catch errors immediately and edit as you go. Some writers prefer to
ignore editing and revision until the first draft is done, but if you're
working on a large project it's impossible to keep track of continuity
and maintain consistency if you leave all of your corrections for later.
If you are using a tool -- or if you have a powerful tool available to
you -- the tool should be doing most of the work, leaving the writer to
concentrate on the quality of the content.

There are only two word processors that have grammar checkers
worth mentioning -- Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect -- and neither of them are presently available for GNU/Linux. The grammar modules in these programs are not flawless, but
they'll always show you when you're making a mistake that you may not
even know you're making. How many people absent-mindedly use the passive
voice in narrative, or split infinitives like they're going out of
style, or use "compliment" when they should be using "complement?" All
of these errors will make it past a spell checker, as will typos that
leave out letters by accident (such as "or" instead of "for" or "to"
instead of "too"), but a grammar checker will find them. There are a
great many writers in this world who are very good at expressing
themselves through the written word but are sloppy typists or don't know
all of the rules for standardizing their work and making it readable to
others. Members of this silent majority need a good set of proofing and
writing tools to help them create an excellent story or other
professional writing project.

Aside from good proofing tools, some other features that make
word processors valuable are:

  • The ability to accurately read from and write to a variety of
    file formats, especially Microsoft Word .DOC format
  • Export functions that allow good-quality PostScript, PDF, and
    HTML output
  • A wide selection of useful styles for implementing standard text
    formatting
  • The ability to accurately count pages and words, and perform
    other analytical functions
  • General program stability, especially when working with large or
    multiple documents
  • An eclectic array of anti-aliased fonts to choose from
  • Internationalization support
  • Customization of the interface
  • Programmability through a macro language of some sort
  • The ability to insert objects such as spreadsheet charts and
    graphic files into documents
  • Functions to add and manage tables, text boxes, lines, and
    watermarks

The Programs

For this review I obtained legal, up-to-date copies of the
following programs:

Software Price Upgrade Cost License OS Support
TextMaker 2002 (rev. 401) U.S. $49 or €49 Bimonthly updates are free and they fix bugs, add
features and increase functionality. Complete version upgrades are
typically a third of the full version price.
Proprietary, restrictive but not as bad as
Microsoft, IBM or Corel
Windows 95/85/ME/NT/2K/XP, Windows CE and CE.NET,
Zaurus OS, GNU/Linux, and FreeBSD
StarOffice Writer
7
Update 4
U.S. $75.95 (standalone version not available; this
is the pricing for the entire office suite)
No special upgrade pricing; you must pay the full
price for a new version of the software
Proprietary, not as restrictive as most other
proprietary suites
Windows 95/98/ME/2K/XP, GNU/Linux, Solaris
OpenOffice.org
Writer 1.1.3
Free of charge Free of charge Licensed under a dual
licensing scheme,
which includes the GNU GPL and the Sun Industry Standards Source License.
OpenOffice.org is Free Software according to the Free Software
Foundation
.
Windows 98/ME/NT/2000/XP, GNU/Linux, Solaris,
FreeBSD, OS X
AbiWord
2.2.1
Free of charge Free of charge GNU General Public License Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP, GNU/Linux, Solaris,
FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, OS X, QNX, may work on AIX, IRIX, and SCO UNIX
as well, if compiled from source
KWord
1.3.4
Free of charge Free of charge GNU Lesser General Public License GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, OS X, may work
on other UNIX systems if compiled from source

Now let's take a look at how they compare:

TextMaker

In a nutshell: it's fast, inexpensive, and works with Word
documents quite well (except of course for "protected" Word 2003
documents, which only Microsoft Word 2003 can view or edit). The font
rendering in TextMaker is a thing of beauty, and is noticeably superior
to the other programs in this review. The menus aren't clogged with a
lot of groupware and specialized functions, which means they're easy to
customize and navigate. TextMaker seems like it was designed
specifically for writing documents, stories, distributable print media
(flyers, brochures, etc.), and books; it's not the "jack of all trades"
that OpenOffice.org Writer and StarOffice Writer are.

The integrated proofing tools are average, being unable to
recognize some alternative spellings. The built-in thesaurus is quite
capable, however, and is on par with StarOffice Writer 7.

Click to enlarge

There is no native macro support presently, but SoftMaker is
working on programmability for their next release, TextMaker 2005. The
Find/Replace function is above average, allowing some out of the
ordinary search criteria such as tabs, line breaks, and styles. Speaking
of styles, TextMaker includes only four predefined paragraph styles, but
there are some nice premade templates -- 22 of them, to be exact --
covering faxes, memos, business cards, letters, and even a phone list.

The Word converter in TextMaker is the best of all of the
programs in this review; it was able to maintain formatting for embedded
graphics and tables in a complex test document created in Word XP.
Unfortunately, TextMaker does not have conversion functions for
WordPerfect's .WPD or OpenOffice.org's .SXW file formats, so if you were
hoping to switch from OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, or WordPerfect,
TextMaker won't be able to import your old documents. There is no export function for PDF, but you can save as formatted HTML, and can save to PS by printing to a file. You can insert up to 14 different types of graphic
formats into a document; there is also a basic solver for inserting
mathematical equations, and a symbol map containing special characters.
You can insert fields, text boxes, tables, headers, footers, and
footnotes, but like all of the other programs we tested, there is no
watermark feature.

Also absent is the "word art" feature of Microsoft Word, which allows
you to do strange and unusual things with text orientation. The
analytics are extensive, offering not only counts of characters, lines,
words, pages, and all manner of related literary delineations, but it
also tallies averages for sentence length and other interesting statistics.

As far as internationalization is concerned, TextMaker is
available in English and German, and can accommodate "old" German
spellings of some words. The next version of TextMaker will include
support for the Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese languages.

OpenOffice.org Writer

OpenOffice.org is part of a large office suite, and as such, its
primary advantage is its flawless integration with other parts of the
suite. Aside from the ability to add spreadsheets to documents and other
suite-related features intrinsic to nearly every comprehensive office
package, OpenOffice.org Writer is a highly competent word processor with
a diverse array of features.

If you haven't used OpenOffice.org in a while, you'll be
pleasantly surprised by the new features and greater level of ability
that it now possesses. Since the release of version 1.1, OpenOffice.org
has grown up, enhancing its filters, increasing its stability, and
cleaning up its code so that it works faster and looks better. The
button bars are highly customizable (the screen shot you see here uses a
customized interface), and you can write macros in OOo's own special
API, OpenOffice.org Basic.

Click to enlarge

The fonts don't render as nicely as they do in TextMaker, even
with the anti-aliasing setting turned on. The Find/Replace feature is
the most extensive of any program in this article (along with StarOffice
Writer), being able to search for text styles, special characters, text
attributes, and similar words. There are dozens of predefined paragraph
styles to choose from -- more than are offered by TextMaker, AbiWord,
and KWord.

The proofing tools are average; you'll have to make the
dictionary learn a good two dozen words in your first few documents. The
thesaurus is substandard, offering little advantage for professional
writers. The analytics are average, counting the parts of the document
without providing statistics. You can draw vector graphics, insert 26
different types of graphics files, frames, tables, indexes, and all
manner of other types of objects, including formulas (using
OpenOffice.org Math).

The internationalization support is immense in OpenOffice.org
Writer: 35 languages are supported, with more in testing and
development.

OpenOffice.org can export to HTML and PDF without trouble, but
there is no PostScript export function. It can also open and save to
Word .DOC format, but the more complex the formatting, the more likely
you are to have some kind of problem with the conversion filters. For
the vast majority of standard documents, there is little or no trouble
in converting to and from Word .DOC format. WordPerfect's file format is
not supported in OpenOffice.org. Interestingly, the upcoming version 2.0
will use a new standard file format known as OpenDocument (previously
this was called the OASIS Open Office XML format), which the European Union has
committed to adopting
. The next edition of OpenOffice.org,
StarOffice, and KOffice (of which KWord is a part) will all use this
same standard file format.

Continued on page 2: StarOffice Writer, AbiWord, KWord, WordPerfect and more

Sun StarOffice Writer

At a glance there doesn't appear to be much difference between
StarOffice Writer and OpenOffice.org Writer, but what lies beneath the
surface of StarOffice Writer are third-party components that provide
better proofing tools, proprietary fonts, and enhanced conversion
filters. These additions can add up to a significant advantage over
OOo Writer for some users. There is also a slight cosmetic difference
between the menu fonts and the colors of the buttons and such, but for
the most part you'll find that the two programs appear to be visually
and operationally identical.

Click to enlarge

The dictionary recognizes alternate spellings and somewhat
obscure words and the comprehensive thesaurus is much more thorough than
the one in OpenOffice.org, providing definitions and expanded
possibilities for synonyms.

Sun claims that StarOffice Writer has "WordPerfect filters." We
took this to mean conversion filters for WordPerfect documents, but the
copy of StarOffice Writer that Sun provided us refused to open any of
our WordPerfect 10 test files. After trying out five test documents, the
MS Word filter seems to be the same as it is in OpenOffice.org Writer,
with the one exception being Windows font support. StarOffice Writer
comes with proprietary fonts that offer metric equivalents to common
Windows fonts, which means it's easier to keep the look and style of a
Word document when importing into StarOffice Writer. Another advantage
that StarOffice Writer has over OpenOffice.org Writer is document
templates: OOo has only a handful included by default, whereas StarOffice has about 300
sample documents and document templates for a wide variety of purposes.

AbiWord

AbiWord is the only word processor in this review that uses the
GTK toolkit for its interface. It's also the most extensible of any word
processor available for GNU/Linux. The base program is little more than
an advanced text editor, but add in some of the 50+ plug-ins,
and you have a word processor worth using. In effect, all of AbiWord's
power is in its extensibility. While this means that the program has
almost no limit to its potential, it also means that you're trusting
your program stability to third-party modules of varying degrees of
quality. Only eight of the 51 listed plug-ins have the highest rating
for stability as of this writing. The plug-ins are only
available
in Red Hat's RPM package format, not as source code; this
presents a problem for those who have to compile the base package from
source.

Click to enlarge

The find and replace function is is very basic, offering only
word and character replacement. The interface is not customizable at
all, so you're stuck with the standard layout. You can insert text boxes
and fields, but if you want to insert a graphic file you'll be limited
to the PNG format. AbiWord comes with a native Word .DOC converter, but
oddly it does not have the ability to read OpenOffice.org's .SXW
documents. Document format support is limited to rich text format, plain
text, HTML and multi-part HTML, and Word .DOC format. The spell checker
is average, failing to recognize older English spellings of some words.

Font rendering is better than OpenOffice.org and StarOffice, but
not as nice as TextMaker. The analysis tools are average, calculating
words, characters, lines, paragraphs, and pages. Natively, AbiWord lacks
the ability to export to PostScript, PDF, and HTML. AbiWord contains
more than 80 paragraph styles and 12 document templates, and is
available in over 30 languages.

Many of these shortcomings can be solved by installing some or
all of the plug-ins. However, we're reviewing the functionality of the
program as it is compiled from source, as that was the only option
available on our test platform. The previous edition of the program was
available to us as an all-inclusive package, and we found it to be
horrifyingly unstable when importing documents of any kind.

KWord

KWord is more of a desktop publishing program than a word
processor. Its tool set and layout are geared toward making media-rich,
highly formatted print media, although it is also equipped to handle
writing projects in general.

The conversion filters are nothing short of horrible, wreaking
havoc on styles and formatting in OOo .SXW and Microsoft .DOC
documents. KWord is, however, the only word processor in this review
that can natively import and export WordPerfect .WPD files. The
WordPerfect filter isn't as bad as the Word or OOo filters, but in
our test documents it had a tendency to run words together at random.
While KWord can save documents in an eclectic variety of formats
(including some unusual ones, like TeX, Lotus AmiPro, and SGML), it
cannot export to PDF or PostScript. Interestingly, KWord can import PDFs
even though it cannot export to them.

Click to enlarge

KWord has 12 document templates and 30 predefined styles, with
the option to import or create other kinds of styles. Font rendering is
average -- about on par with OpenOffice.org and StarOffice. The
analytics are excellent, providing statistics for the usual document
delineations plus various types of objects and formatting elements, and
it even offers a syllable count along with a Flesch
reading ease
rating.

The proofing tools show promise, but are otherwise unimpressive.
The built-in thesaurus is well designed, offering suggestions for
synonyms, more specific words, and more general words. Unfortunately,
the English version doesn't seem to know very many words, so it isn't
much of a help. The dictionary is average, being unable to recognize
alternate or older spellings of some words.

KWord does not have macro support, but it does have scripting
capabilities through the DCOP interface, which allows you to control
KWord with a variety of programming languages. KWord is available in 9
languages, with another 15 languages more than 90% translated and a long
list
of others in various stages of completion.

The interface is suitably customizable, but it doesn't offer
anything out of the ordinary in terms of features.

The one area where KWord excels in is its handling of objects and
formatting elements. You can choose from up to 18 types of graphics to
insert. Text frames, formulas (including matrices), tables, and nine
different types of object frames are available.

Click to enlarge

WordPerfect for Linux

Corel has been offering downloads of WordPerfect for Linux on
and off for the past year, making little adjustments to it, and then
taking it off of their Web site. The last version we tested was based on
WordPerfect 8 for Linux. Although that was a strong word processor for
its day, it doesn't quite measure up to OpenOffice.org Writer or
StarOffice Writer. It's dated, in other words. It still uses the Motif
toolkit, the proofing tools are competent but primitive, the font
rendering stinks, and it employs an annoying multi-window interface
similar to The Gimp.

We'd really like to see a GNU/Linux port of the amazing
WordPerfect 12 product that Corel is currently shipping for the Windows
platform, but Corel has not yet fully committed to the GNU/Linux word
processor market as of this writing and has no public plans to port its
flagship product to other platforms.

Summary

Think of TextMaker as a sort of "Word Lite" -- it's got many of
the same features and functions as Microsoft Word XP without the bloat,
but it isn't truly a drop-in replacement for Word XP or 2003. A new
version is currently being beta tested.

OpenOffice.org Writer is a jack of all trades, and is surpassed
in its functionality only by StarOffice Writer. It's a bit of a behemoth
-- the codebase for OpenOffice.org is larger than the entire 2.6 Linux
kernel -- but despite its size, it has improved greatly in the past few
releases. It's stable, supports Word documents tolerably, and it's free
as in rights and in price.

StarOffice Writer is probably the most stable and reliable of
the bunch. It's compatible with more file formats and has more fonts,
but it doesn't work with Word files as well as TextMaker does. Although
it costs money and is licensed restrictively, StarOffice 7 has better
fonts and a slightly more appealing interface than OpenOffice.org.

Like OpenOffice.org, AbiWord has also come a long way in a short
time, but the basic functionality is a little too slim and the program
relies too heavily on potentially unstable modules to enhance its
feature set. The previous release had severe stability issues when
employing some of the conversion filters. If nothing else, AbiWord is
fast, looks nice with the GTK toolkit, and renders anti-aliased fonts
better than everything we tested except TextMaker.

KWord is not as useful of a word processor as it is a DTP
application. Still, it has some interesting yet not fully fleshed-out
features that could make future releases highly competitive. Its
conversion filters are substandard, but it's the only GNU/Linux word
processor that comes with a WordPerfect filter, even if it isn't...
well, perfect.

Conclusions

Much like the operating system distributions, GNU/Linux word
processors have advanced quickly in a short period of time, but have not
yet reached the home stretch. Depending on the nature of your work, some
or all of these programs may be more than suitable for you. For highly
discriminating writers, some sacrifices are going to have to be made if
you're moving from Word XP or 2003, or from any version of WordPerfect
after 10 (also referred to as the 2002 edition).

We'd like to see more powerful and more easily accessible writing
tools, a tabbed document view (much like Mozilla has for browser
windows), more export formats, and better conversion tools.
Specifically, WordPerfect 12 is an excellent example to follow. It has
tabbed document views, can open or export to almost any format (except
.SXW), and the proofing tools are unmatched. WP12's dictionary and
thesaurus should be a model for all word processors; you can get not
only alternate spellings of many words, but the thesaurus is highly
verbose and intelligent and the dictionary offers Oxford definitions for
known words. The grammar checker and analysis tools in WP12 are
phenomenal; ideally we'd like to see this kind of functionality in the
GNU/Linux word processors reviewed above.

If you're working in a professional environment, StarOffice and
TextMaker both offer some degree of commercial support, should you
require it. TextMaker is not very expensive at all, and is well worth
the purchase price if you need superior Word compatibility and an
interface that's easy on the eyes. If you're a starving writer,
OpenOffice.org will probably provide you with the most stable and
versatile environment for your work. This is not to imply that KWord and
AbiWord are not worth investigating, but they do not offer the same
power, stability, and flexibility that OpenOffice.org does. Secondly,
open source programs are constantly and rapidly evolving, and thus can
invalidate this review's findings in a matter of weeks. Here's hoping
that the next few rounds of updates elicits one or more GNU/Linux word
processors that can put Word and WordPerfect to shame.

Jem Matzan is the author of
three books, editor-in-chief of The Jem Report, and a
contributing editor for OSTG.

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