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Software Review of:
A Freeware Word Processor


Vade Forrester is a former president of Alamo PC.

From the July, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

The word processor market is dominated almost to extinction by Microsoftís Word. Thatís too bad; back when there was real competition among word processors, we saw a lot more innovation and better user support. Donít get me wrong; Iím not bashing Microsoft or saying that Word is a bad product. Itís just a very complex program. As a daily Word user for the past ten years, Iíve learned to master most of Wordís rich feature set, but it still is not easy to create complex documents with Word. And on the other end of the scale, for someone who just wants to write a few letters, Word is overkill. So is WordPerfect, Wordís only real competitor. For those who want a simpler but still capable word processor, consider AbiWord, from SourceGear Corporation. While it leaves out some of my favorite Word features, itís quite capable, and even better, itís free! I wrote this review in AbiWord.

As you can see in Figure 1, the AbiWord screen looks a lot like most Windows word processors, including Word. That makes it easy to learn and use. AbiWord gives you many of Wordís major features. The screen shows a menu bar and two toolbars that look remarkably like Wordís Standard and Formatting toolbars. Unlike Word, those are the only toolbars available. 

When you start AbiWord, it presents you with a blank document to work on. Unlike Word, AbiWordís default margins are one inch all around (better). If you want to work on a document you have previously started, AbiWord lets you access recently edited documents at the bottom of the File menu. If the documents donít appear there, you can click on the Open icon and view all the documents on your drive. The blank document doesnít show margins, although it shows the text and graphics laid out on the page in final format with the margins in place, and with page breaks shown.

AbiWord uses its own file format for documents it creates, but is quite happy working with Word files if you prefer. Thatís good; since Word is so dominant, sometime you will have to exchange documents between AbiWord and Word, and itís a piece of cake. You can also save documents in Rich Text Format, which make it easy to exchange documents with other Windows word processors. One quirk I noticed is that after saving a document, your text entry point jumps to the center of the document, not the end.

As you type a document, youíll see the familiar jagged red underlines which indicates that AbiWord is checking spelling as you type. If you type a word that AbiWord doesnít recognize, you can right-click on it and see a list of suggested spellings. If the word is correctly spelled, you can add it to the spelling dictionary so it wonít be marked as misspelled in the future. AbiWord doesnít offer Wordís autocorrect feature that corrects spelling errors as you type, nor does it have setting that automatically format the document, like capitalizing the first word in a sentence. It also lacks a grammar checker, a point in its favor, since all Iíve seen are flawed to the point of distraction.

Headers and footers are accessed through the Edit menu, more logical than Wordís View menu access. To format headers and footers, youíll need to click on the Format menu. Once you install a header or footer and then decide you donít want it, youíll need to check on a Remove Header or Footer command in the Edit menu, also more logical.

AbiWord lets you insert graphics into a document, but the types of graphics it recognizes are very limited. For example, it doesnít even handle JPEG files (.JPG extension), the most popular file type on the Internet, and a very popular format for digital cameras. AbiWord only recognizes BMP and PNG files, a severe limitation.

You can access Plug-Ins on the AbiSource Web site that add more functions to the basic word processor, so I looked there to see if there was a graphic importer. I found the ImageMagick Plugin, which says  it will allow you to import all kinds of images into your AbiWord documents. I downloaded it and tried to install it, but all I got was an error message saying AbiWord couldnít find a certain DLL. So while plug-ins are good ideas, their implementation may be problematical. I was not motivated to try any other plug-ins.

Although AbiWord lets you use columns, it doesn’t support one of Word’s most useful features, tables. It does support automatic bullets and numbering, however, a couple of useful features. AbiWord’s Tools menu is a lot shorter than Word’s, but does include a Word Count choice to show you how many words are in a particular document. That’s handy when you’re trying to fit your document into a magazine, for example, and have a word count target to meet.

AbiWord makes it easy to create Web pages. Just click on Web|Save as Web to create an HTML document to post on the Web. You can also get a quick preview of a Web page by clicking on Web|Preview Web page to view a document in your browser.

AbiWord has a menu choice for a tutorial, but if you click on it, it displays a message saying the tutorial is not yet ready. Hey, what do you expect for free? The Help files are fair, and have their own menu choice for searching the files for a topic. I found the search features in the Help menu worked better than the standard Windows help feature.

You can download AbiWord for free. You can also download a variety of plug-ins, which expand the functionality of AbiWord by adding features. The plug-ins are also free. Maybe some of them work.

If you donít like Word, or its price, I recommend you take a look at AbiWord. What have you got to lose?

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