Wednesday, August 01, 2007

More Software Reviewing

As I write to you today, dear readers, I want you to know that I have sacrificed for my audience and for the sake of informational accuracy.  I have, in fact, abandoned my beloved Windows Live Writer interface in lieu of a new piece of software -- which looks like it could be pretty doggone cool, frankly -- so that I can tell you all about it and make a recommendation.

As you all know, I am a software addict, and I love to play with new things I find.  But I'm not a wealthy individual, and so cost of ownership has to be considered carefully as I indulge myself.  What that translates to, most of the time, is I go out and try to find either open-source or other software that has a freeware license.

You need to be careful with a lot of these, however.  They will install adware, malware, spyware and lots of other wares of which you may not be aware.  (I like doing that, have you noticed?)  So, getting freeware that won't bloat your system or nag you to buy it is a big benefit for me.  I avoid shareware like the plague just for those reasons, and I stay away from software that claims to be free but will constantly ask you for donations.  I don't want to be mugged by my software.

So, what's left is freeware that comes with no strings attached, is a quality, well-written program and serves a purpose I'm seeking to fulfill.

Of course, not everything that's free is good.  You really do get what you pay for sometimes.  So you need to be picky; and just because it claims to be a competitor of a major software program or suite doesn't mean that you should dump your licensing software commitments and go with something free.  You could be sorry in the long run.

As an example, I decided that, because Microsoft is tyrannical in its licensing and piracy-protection measures, that I didn't like them anymore.  I neglected, in my haste to join the open source revolution, to realize that I'd been raised, as it were, under Microsoft's benevolent hand.  I had learned to program (what little I can) under Microsoft; I'd been working in a Microsoft environment my entire IT career and beyond.  I've learned to manipulate and control the Microsoft Office suite to my own benefit, but that all entailed using Microsoft products and programming languages to do it.  I was what I joking called a "Microsoft baby", and I didn't realize how dependent on Microsoft technologies I have become.  That didn't come clear until I switched to, an open source productivity suite that claims 100% compatibility with the MS Office suite.  While the compatibility was great, there were issues with speed (especially during loading, and if you're using it on a USB flash drive it can be downright brutal) and with the macros I'd developed in MS Excel (even though OOo says it can now use and edit the MS VBA language used for macro programming).  So, that freeware, which is great and all, just isn't a permanent solution for me at the moment.  There's too big a learning curve with the macro aspect, and with all the time I've invested in learning my Microsoft programming language, I wasn't thrilled to find I'd need to learn another.  Long story short, even though it's free, and it's mostly compatible, it's not completely compatible as I define it, and it's slower and quagmires my system more.   But it is free.  (If it sounds like something you could make use of, though, you can download it from this site.)  I still use it, but I reach for my standard MS Office suite first.

Okay, okay, enough digression.  Back to the subject at hand.  Since I really don't need to do much other than word processing directly from my USB flash drive, I decided to try and find a slimmer, lighter, functional piece of software to do it with, and I wanted -- nay, I insisted -- that the package be free.  Darn it, I just don't believe in paying for my software, and I don't think you should have to, either.

In my search, I found a couple of viable alternatives that worked really, really well.  They were free, could run portably (on a USB flash drive is always what I mean when I say that), and were pretty richly featured.

The first of those packages is AbiWord.  AbiWord is a full-blown, full-featured word processor that creates documents in any number of formats.  It's completely compatible, with the documents it produces, with Microsoft Word.  It has most if not all of the major features of Word, but being able to install it portably made it really, really attractive to me.  I did some testing in a training lab full of PCs that didn't have the Office suite installed on them, but I needed to document the process.  I was able to create a document, save it in Word format and add images, complete with captions and notations, using callouts made from drawn objects, and create a table of contents, just like I would have in Word.  When I emailed it to my manager, disguised as a Word document, he didn't know I hadn't used Word for it.  Imagine his surprise when he tried to duplicate some of my experiments and document the results only to find there was no software he could use on those PCs!  HA!

AbiWord can be obtained here, and the portable version can be obtained here.  (And so can the portable suite, for that matter.)

If AbiWord can't do it for you, then you don't really need to do it.  Or if you do, you're probably a professional in a corporate environment, and have access to a productivity suite already, so there.

The second of these packages is one that I'm using right now.  Instead of typing up this long-winded and ill-conceived post in my cherished Windows Live Writer, I'm using a new (well, new to me anyway) word processor called Jarte.  (I have no idea how it's pronounced.)  Jarte, however, bills itself as a replacement for the WordPad utility (a very, very stripped down version of Word or even Microsoft Works' word processing package).  Jarte has all the features of a standard word processing suite, but has a clean, button-driven interface instead of a set of menu- and icon-bars all over the place.  Microsoft's Office 2007 has a similar look, but this one's even cleaner.  It can do all the things that most of us need it to do, but it does have a couple of quirks.  For instance, with the free version, live spell checking isn't available.  If you're a pretty confident speller, like I am, that's no big deal.  If the word is tricky enough for me to have to look it up, I can always do that ahead of time.  But it's something to be aware of, because if you make come common misspellings (typing "teh" instead of "the", for example, the feature isn't going to catch and correct that for you.  In this regard, AbiWord is superior.

The crisp, sharp GUI is fun, though, and it allows you to most other things that word processors do.  Tables, file management, font changes and formatting, paragraph formatting (though again there are limits with the free version), etc.  It can insert hyperlinks (but they didn't copy over and had to be re-created), images, objects and other items.  It allows page breaks and headers and footers.  It allows you to control the page size and margins.   And, it runs portably.  You can download a small .ZIP file and unpack it to a directory on your thumb drive, double click the EXE file and off you go.  No fancy installer needed, although it does have one available for both Windows and Mac/Linux.

If you're interested in trying Jarte, you can download it, and purchase the Plus version, from this site.

Next review, I'm going to be focusing on writer-oriented software tools, so all you writers out there watch for that.  (Of course, remember that I'm relatively far behind and you may already know about the tools I list, so ... oh well.)

See you then!

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