Software

The Linux word processor showdown

Linux word processors are chipping away at Microsoft Word's ownership of the usability label. Check out this Daily Drill Down to see how StarOffice 6.0 matches up to the current word processing leader.


The biggest complaint about Linux is its lack of supportive applications. One of the most common concerns is whether Linux can interoperate with Microsoft Word. In an effort to see how well Linux can interact with its main competition, I am going to scrutinize the top three Linux word processors.

The top three Linux contenders are StarOffice 6.0 (beta), AbiWord 0.9.61, and KWord 1.1.1. The article itself is being written in StarOffice 6 but will be passed through Word 2000 a number of times for testing purposes. The primary focus of this comparison will be how each application interacts with and emulates Microsoft Word.

The tests
Each participant must follow a specific set of tests. In order to pass, all participants’ end results should be identical. Each application will be ranked according to the success of each test. Each test will be worth different totals. The total testing will be ranked on a score from 0 to 12 points. With that in mind, the tests will be:
  • Opening and saving in Word 2000 .doc format: worth 2 points
  • Using the standard feature set (Comments, Track Changes, Object Embedding, Spelling Checker, Grammar Checker, Styles, Tables, Fields, Page Numbering) and presenting 1 point for each feature: worth 9 points
  • User-friendliness (read: Word emulation): worth 1 point

So without further ado, on with the test!

Opening/Saving
I was actually surprised how low the success rate of this test was. Since all word processors can open and save a simple text document, this test was executed with a TechProGuild article that had been put through a rather complex style template. This was done to make the test a bit more difficult to pass. Though this test was a bit unfair (the template contained Visual Basic macros), in order to pass, the application had to successfully open the file, make some small change, and then save the file in the original format (.doc).

KWord
KWord successfully managed to open the test .doc file but had a lot of trouble with formatting. Although many of the styles were present in the newly opened document, the font types were inconsistent. Also, the fonts were not the only aspect of the styles that were incorrect; none of the document's tabs was present. I was able to go through the document and change the fonts to the correct type, and once I manually set a correct tab, I was able to apply the proper tabs to the style.

However, the biggest problem with KWord was not the fonts or the tabs but its inability to save in Word’s native .doc format. KWord's one saving grace is that it was able to save in .rtf format, which is supported by Word. Unfortunately, all of the changes that I had just made (the fonts and tabs) were, for some odd reason, not saved. In fact, when opened in Word 2000 for Windows, the formatting looked exactly as it had when it was first opened in KWord.

The results? KWord failed the first test. Total score: 0.

AbiWord
This word processor fared even worse than KWord. Upon opening the test file, AbiWord converted all of the styles to plain text. Not a single format translated from the .doc file. It is possible, through the Format | Styles option, to add new styles. This feature adds functionality to the application, but not practicality. If I have to create new styles every time a vendor or client sends in a new type of document, I am wasting valuable time.

The one saving grace with AbiWord is that it can save in Microsoft's native .doc format.

The results? AbiWord failed this test. Total score: 0.

StarOffice 6.0
We now venture into the land of the paid-for product. StarOffice 6.0 is the latest release from Sun and is the only application to pass this particular test. Although the fonts didn't look exactly as they had in the native Microsoft environment, after making changes, saving the document (again in the native .doc format), and reopening in Microsoft Word, the document was intact and 100 percent accurate.

It is also possible to import styles into the StarOffice application. Although the import utility wouldn't handle the VB macros, it did mange to work in every style correctly.

The results? StarOffice 6.0 passes this test. Total score: 1.

Feature-set test
The next test compared each application’s feature set. For every feature set (listed in the test) that managed to interoperate with Microsoft Word, that application scored one point. The features tested were: Comments, Track Changes, Object Embedding, Spelling Checker, Grammar Checker, Styles, Tables, Fields, and Page Numbering.

KWord
Spelling Checker, Styles, and Tables were the only features that KWord offered. Of the available features, only Spelling Checker and Styles worked as expected. With Tables, KWord was unable to do any formatting, and Word was unable to open the file. I had to remove the KWord-created table before Word was able to open the .rtf file.

The results? Out of a possible 9 points, KWord gathered 2. Total score: 2.

AbiWord
This word processor fared only slightly better than KWord. AbiWord was successful with: Spelling Checker, Styles, Fields, and Page Numbering. Surprisingly enough, AbiWord did not have the ability to add tables to documents.

The results? Out of a possible 9 points, AbiWord tallies 4. Total score: 4.

StarOffice 6.0
It was in the Feature-set test that StarOffice really proved itself a contender in the Office Suite matchup. After discovering that StarOffice handled every one of the tested features, I decided to see how far I could push this product. I started this extra-credit test by creating a new document in Word. The first version of this document was fairly simple, with formatted text and a table. StarOffice opened and edited this file with ease.

The next version added another level of difficulty. With the document open in Microsoft Word, I turned on Track Changes and went about changing the text in the table. StarOffice 6.0 was not only able to read these changes, but it was able to add to them and accept them.

The most difficult aspect of the test came next. Microsoft Word is notorious for not sharing embedded objects well with other systems. After embedding an Excel chart into a Word document, StarOffice was able to open the file with the embedded object intact. However, I was only able to view the object; I could not alter the data. Altering the embedded document’s data was not possible given the OLE-embedded object error. On the opposite end, Microsoft Word was able to view StarOffice-embedded objects but, like StarOffice, could not alter the chart’s data.

After about an hour of tossing documents back and forth, I came to the conclusion that there was very little that Word could toss out that StarOffice couldn't catch. The only issue (outside of the embedded objects) was that about 10 percent of the Word Art objects were not viewable in StarOffice.

Because of StarOffice's inability to operate with the embedded object data, the Sun word processor lost only a single point for a test total of 8. Total score: 9.

User-friendliness
Although this test was more subjective than the others, it was rather obvious when an application succeeded in emulating Microsoft Word. The litmus tests for this experiment were primarily menus, buttons, and shortcut keys.

KWord
The graphic setup of KWord is more similar to Corel's Word Perfect than Microsoft’s Word. However, from drop-down menus to clickable buttons to familiar shortcut keys, KWord follows through with the user-friendly feature. One aspect of KWord that I found refreshing was the simplicity of configuring the keyboard shortcuts. Thanks to a mouse-derived case of tendonitis, I have become a big advocate of keeping hands on the keyboard.

To edit a keyboard shortcut in KWord, all you have to do is click the Settings drop-down menu (or if you want to be really efficient, hit [Alt]S) and select Configure Shortcuts. In the Configure Shortcuts window, scroll down to the desired action, click on the button labeled None, and then hit the key combination on the keyboard. Then, click OK and your new shortcut will be saved.

This test earned KWord a passing grade and 1 point. Total score: 3.

AbiWord
Although AbiWord lacks the configuration ability that KWord offers, AbiWord does give the user a very familiar interface. The standard keyboard combinations produce the expected results (for example, [Ctrl]C = copy, [Ctrl]P = paste, [Ctrl]A = select all), and the layout emulates the Microsoft Word layout nicely.

AbiWord also provides more solidity than KWord. Typically, while I work in KWord, I feel as if the application is going to crash any moment. This sense of impending doom is because the KDE GUI tends to be a little jerky at times. AbiWord, on the other hand, feels as stable as any Word application on any Windows system.

This test earned AbiWord a passing grade and 1 point. Total score: 5.

StarOffice 6.0
Naturally, I assumed that if both KWord and AbiWord passed the user-friendly test, then StarOffice 6.0 would pass it as well. And sure enough, it did. Sun finally got smart and trashed the horribly clunky integrated desktop that has haunted StarOffice for so long. Now the individual applications have a much more modular feel to them.

Like the previous word processors, StarOffice 6.0 handles the user-friendly category with ease. In fact, I would go so far to say that StarOffice 6.0 not only equals Microsoft Word in terms of user-friendliness but also surpasses its competition by creating an incredibly customizable work environment. Not only can you configure keyboard shortcuts, but you can also customize events, macros, toolbars, menus, defaults, and a wealth of other features.

This test earned StarOffice 6.0 a passing grade and 1 point. Total score: 10.

And the winner is…

Test

KWord

AbiWord

StarOffice

.doc handling

0

0

1

Feature Set

    Comments

0

0

1

    Track Changes

0

0

1

    Object Embedding

0

0

0 (could view but not edit objects)

    Spell Check

1

1

1

    Grammar Check

0

0

1

    Styles

1

1

1

    Tables

0

0

1

    Fields

0

1

1

    Page Numbering

0

1

1

User-friendliness

1

1

1

Total Points

3

5

10

With a score of 10, StarOffice blows away the other Linux word processors.

Although StarOffice laid waste to the competition, that is not to say that KWord and AbiWord are worthless. Despite their limitations, I would offer that both KWord and AbiWord are excellent alternatives to Microsoft's Notepad and Wordpad. StarOffice 6.0, on the other hand, is the Linux application best suited as a replacement for Microsoft Word.

As a colleague reminded me the other day, the vast majority of people working with Microsoft Word only use about 5 percent of the application’s features. So if standard word processing (with maybe a few bells and whistles) is your typical day-in, day-out routine and you're looking for an alternative to the Microsoft trilogy of Word/Wordpad/Notepad, consider StarOffice 6.0/KWord/AbiWord (respectively). They're cheaper, have almost all of the features you'll need, and interoperate with the equivalent Microsoft products very well.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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