Word Processor Wars

april 8, 2004

I have Office X on my iBook. And as much as I try to use Word X for word processing, this behemoth is just too much for me. I needed an alternative and I found that there are quite a few around. Well, it is more than I need and it is also too slow for me. Word X is, like most other Microsoft applications, bloated. It has lots of features and lots of code. Because of this, the application is slow as molasses, especially on my "lowly" iBook 600. In draft ("normal") mode I can type faster than Word X is able to display. That is pretty sad for a word processor. I tried everything that was suggested, updating the application, turning off spell check while typing, etc. None of it helped -- and really, why should I turn that stuff off when it is there to be helpful? It is great that Word X has so many features and "stuff" built-in, but for the things that I do, I don't really think I'll use much of it. I am just using a word processor to write my articles and do day-to-day word processing activities. I wanted an "alternative" to the Microsoft juggernaut for my MacOS X iBook. There were some requirements for this alternative application. First and foremost, it should be able to keep up with me as I typed -- bloat is out, lean is in -- the alternative should launch fast, take less memory, and work fast. Standards is very important, a file format that can be moved from machine to machine without need to worry that in a year or two the file format would be dead. And, for goodness sake, I wanted an application that had a good looking UI, if I had to work with this thing day in and day out, it would have to at least look decent. The three alternatives I found were Mariner Write, RedleX Mellel and Nisus Writer Express. For fun I also looked at the technology preview of AbiWord and the X11 version of OpenOffice.org for MacOS X. I use OpenOffice.org on Windows boxes and it runs great. When I used OpenOffice.org on Windows (and Linux) boxes, my favorite feature of the package is the auto-complete function which completes the word I am typing for me -- saving me a few keystrokes. Nothing that sounds big on paper, but when one gets used to it, it is a great help when writing long documents. I installed and tried it for X11 on my iBook and my G4 at work. It was really slow, taking upwards of five minutes to launch. When it did launch it did run at a respectable speed, but nothing that I could deal with on a day-to-day basis, especially the long launch time. AbiWord was recently released as a technology preview application for MacOS X. While it is missing the dictionary in this release, it is a very impressive application. I had tried AbiWord for Windows before and the Mac version functions almost the same. The interface is clean, but a bit un-Mac-like. AbiWord launches before I could blink and working with it was great-- it is fast and very usable. I applaud Hubert Figuiere and the AbiWord team for putting so much effort to get even this pre-beta version out for the MacOS X platform. AbiWord for MacOS X has great potential and I will be keeping my eye out on this product to see how it turns out. AbiWord is an OpenSource product and is free for use. It is also cross-platform (Windows, Linux, etc) and is a great piece of software that can read Word documents, RTF and a few other file formats. Bravo! It is too bad that AbiWord is still in this pre-beta stage and cannot be used full time for day-to-day stuff -- though I guess one could still do that. Mariner Write is a mature product, unlike all other products (except Word X), and it shows. The feature set for Mariner Write is very complete. I tried hard to like Mariner Write, but in the end I could not come to liking the product, even if it was very complete feature-wise. The product felt, for lack of better words, like a kiddie program. The toolbar was large and somewhat lacking in configurability -- it felt like the toolbar in AppleWorks. And for some reason, I just could not feel comfortable using Mariner Write. Maybe I am being shallow about it though, you may love the program for its complete feature set. It was great to see that Mariner Write supported so many file formats without problems. Its performance was very good also. With all the good talk about RedleX Mellel flying around, I wanted to give it a good try. People have nothing but good things to say about Mellel and I can see why. The program is consistently updated with new features and the features that are available make this young program feel and act like more mature program. Everything that a writer needs is in Mellel. Mellel is second fastest (shortly behind AbiWord), this application just screamed. It is light on disk space usage and just plain fast -- Mellel redefines lean for word processors. And keep in mind this is still an application that has a boatload of features. But, again I could not find myself feeling comfortable with Mellel and there are two striking reasons why. The first is the shallow part of my personality: Mellel just does not look good. The developers decided to use the brushed metal UI of iTunes for all the windows in Mellel and that makes the program feel wrong. It just looks strange when launched. The second, and more glaring reason, is the lack of native saves to Word or RTF file formats. Mellel allows saves only to its native, and proprietary, file format. It does allow for exports and importing to Word or RTF formats, but one cannot save to that format. That would leave me saving two versions of my documents, one in the Mellel format and one in RTF. I do not want to deal with dead file formats in the future. RedleX has promised an update that would included a change to the native format, switching it from a proprietary binary format to an XML-based format. I did not want to wait for this functionality. But, I do encourage everyone to try out Mellel since it is a great product and file formats may not worry you as much as it does me. Lasts but not least is Nisus Writer Express. The first thing that caught my eye was the wonderfully well laid out interface of Nisus Writer Express with its sliding drawer on the right-hand side that kept track of all of the stuff that I needed, including a live Thesaurus and word count. Like Mellel, the developers of Nisus Writer Express are furiously updating their product and this is needed since there are some glaring features that have been left out -- for instance footnotes, tables, and styles. But what they left out is promised as free updates -- and for those features I could live with waiting because they are not that important to me since I am not a student anymore. I do look forward to the extra functionality like auto-bullets and live table-of-contents. For me, I just need a basic word processor that is fast and works well and Nisus Writer Express fit my bill just right. I also felt comfortable in Nisus Writer Express the second it launched and it launches quite fast, on par with Mariner Write, but not as fast as AbiWord or Mellel. Once launched Nisus Writer Express is a fast word processor. No Word X type lag with Nisus Writer Express. Plain, pretty and fast is Nisus Writer Express. It does its job and it does it fast. The forums over at the Nisus website are consistently read by the developers and questions are answered rather quickly -- my question about if the next major revision was going to be free or not was answered within the hour. Nisus Writer Express is now my word processor that I use most on my iBook. I greedily look forward to the new features that are definitely needed in the program, but I can live with what is there already. The default and preferred file format for Nisus is RTF which is great since it is an open format that I don't fear will not be support by at least some word processor in the future -- and is the default format of the MacOS X operating system. Nisus Writer Express can also read and write AbiWord, Word, and a few other file formats. I hope that one of these days they implement the OpenOffice.org file XML-based file format for Nisus Writer Express, that would be a nicer and more powerful file format to save files in. Overall the market for word processors on the MacOS X platform is doing very well and there are quite a few applications to choose from. I highly recommend checking out Nisus Writer Express and Mellel if you are looking for a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Word X. They are both consistently updated and features are readily added to each quickly. They both do very well and are much faster than Word X. They both offer the reading of Word formatted files, but I still keep Word X on my hard drive "just in case" I get a heavily formatted Word document that I have to work on. Otherwise, I am sticking to my Nisus Writer Express for all of my writing. Writing is just fun in Nisus Writer Express.