Word to the Wise: Reviewing Linux Word Processors
Introducing Our Series
A few years ago I found myself out on the job market after several years of relative security and access to all the word-processing software I'd ever needed. I also found myself with a computer from which I'd completely expunged Windows, which was easy to do when I had access to machines able to run the office applications I was used to. Faced with the need to produce a resum´┐Ż, I wrote one in HTML, loaded it into Netscape, and printed it: it was the best I could do on short notice.
The chances are good that with a little research and patience, I could have unearthed something that would have worked a little better. Since then, though, the need to go out and dig for possible solutions to word processing needs has begun to fade, and Linux users are faced with a variety of choices both free and proprietary that provide word-processing parity with the Windows world, plus some.
Not everyone needs the same thing from a word processor, so we looked at features, usability, and power from the perspective of office professionals, clerical workers, and the student/home user. The word processor that fits a harried manager out to produce a department newsletter might be too much to bother with for a student working on yet another 1000 word essay in Comp 101. The guy in the server room who just needs to type up a quick memo requesting a new hub isn't going to care about the features that make the loyalty of clerical workers to their word processors legendary.
With those differences in needs in mind, we devised three tasks and looked at them from several perspectives. A word processor is one of the most essential tools on any computer, and we set out to provide you with a guide to the most comfortable fit possible. We weren't out to count features, either. One unfortunate result of the "feature wars" in the Windows world was the addition of gadgets and chrome that served to guilt reviewers into giving the nod to the package that included the most stuff. The tasks we selected aren't out of the range of needs of most people at work or home. We concerned ourselves with how well and how easily each word processor performed its task. Though several of the word processors we looked at were part of larger office suites, we decided to set aside issues of integration with the rest of the host suite for this review.
The first task we devised was a fairly complex newsletter. Our notion of "ideal" performance in this area would include the ability to generate layout "chrome" like multiple columns, column-spanning headlines, and the ability to easily integrate graphics in a flexible manner.
The next task we came up with, for the general office worker, was production a nicely formatted letter and mail merge. We looked for ease of formatting, the ability to introduce simple graphics for a letterhead, and how simple, overall, producing our test document was.
We also evaluated all the word processors with an eye to how simply and well they performed the most basic functions. Many people don't require the ability to include graphics, or run a mail merge, or even do much more than just produce clear text. While it's obvious that the more expensive and feature-laden software that did well at the more complex tasks will do well in this area, we believe there's a point for some where the relatively complex, almost-desktop-publishing software is just so much overkill. At that point, how easy a program is on system resources, the new learner, and your wallet become high priorities.
Finally, we took a brief look at a few word processors and text editors that may fit the bill for users with specialized needs, or those interested in exploring some of the wide variety available in the Linux world. While these got a passing glance compared to the main subjects of this review/overview, we included them because they offer something that will be of more use to some than a traditional word processor, or because they show real promise.
In this first round of reviews, we'll post daily reviews of products. We've already run reviews of StarWriter 5.2 and WordPerfect 9 and eventually comprising Applix Words, Maxwell, GNU Emacs, Lyx, and KWord, along with our conclusions as to what programs work the best in specific situations.