Still Not Perfect, but Much Better

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

A couple of years ago I wanted to send a form letter to about 15 companies, so I sat down at my Kaypro with the Perfect Writer and Perfect Filer software, which came with the machine, and tried to create and merge a mailing list and letter. It took me two full evenings crammed with expletives and reams of ruined paper.

Recently, I faced a similar task. This time, using a Compaq, I decided to try the new Perfect Writer and Perfect Filer, version 2, recently released by the new owners of the Perfect series, Thorn EMI Computer Software Inc. of Costa Mesa, a division of the British entertainment and consumer electronics conglomerate.

In less than two hours from the time I cut open the wrappers on the boxes, I had the programs installed on my hard disk, a mailing list of 15 names completed and the form letters printed.

The only problem was that when the letter was merged with the mailing list, it lost its left margin. Nowhere in either the Perfect Writer or Perfect Filer manual could I find an explanation, despite several more hours of searching. I finally figured it out for myself some weeks later, long after the faulty letters had been sent.

(When I subsequently called Thorn EMI's technical support service to verify my method, I quickly learned another, preferred method that had an oblique reference in a single paragraph buried in the middle of the manual.)

Although Perfect software, version 2, is still Imperfect software, it's a vast improvement over the original and worthy of consideration.

The new Perfect series is modular, with a central menu giving you access to each separate module. If you have the full library of Perfect Writer (includes Perfect Speller and Perfect Thesaurus), Perfect Filer, Perfect Calc and Perfect Link (telecommunications), you can move freely from one program module to the other.

The program is designed to take best advantage of the IBM PC XT with hard disk or compatibles. But it needs only 128K of random access memory and will run well on a floppy-drive-equipped computer if you don't mind swapping program disks as you switch modules. There are also versions for the Texas Instruments Professional Computer, Apple IIe and IIc and Kaypro II and 4.

Each module will operate by itself, so that you can start with one and add on as need and budget allow. Each costs $199, except for Perfect Link, which costs $129. (Kaypro owners who got the old version with their computers can upgrade for about half price. Call Thorn EMI at 714-751-3778 for details.)

You can merge a Perfect Calc spreadsheet table into a Perfect Writer document, and you can also integrate data from Perfect Filer into spreadsheets or vice versa.

Those familiar with the original version of Perfect software will find many similarities in the capabilities of Perfect Writer and Perfect Calc, but almost all the commands are different and are presented on menus that pop up in the middle of your screen at the touch of a key. (In typical Imperfect fashion, however, the key you hit to get the menus differs depending on which program you are in. A message at the bottom of the screen will prompt you.)

Perfect Filer seems to be a totally new program. Compared to the old one, which was an abomination, the new one is quite good and comes with an excellent manual. There is a well-illustrated chapter showing how to tailor Perfect Filer reports to fit a variety of commonly used, preprinted commercial business forms for invoices and the like.

Perfect Link also is new. I had mixed reactions to it. It is easy to use with information services such as the Source or CompuServe. But it took me quite a while to figure out how to configure it to call the mainframe computer that I use at work. It has many nice features, including the ability to emulate various kinds of terminals, but its operation is awkward, even with menus.

The menus are a mixed blessing in Perfect Writer.

Writer is a program whose history can be traced way back to mainframe computers on college campuses. Thus it offers many features that aid in the preparation of textbook manuscripts and formal papers, such as footnotes, indexing, a variety of heading formats and many other page "environment formats."

The program also has sophisticated printer controls, good enough to set type on a letter-quality printer suitable for photo-composition.

Many users never bother to learn these features, being content with the basic text editing and Perfect Writer's ability to have up to seven files open at a time, any two of which can be displayed simultaneously. It's great for moving blocks of text among files.

The downside was always the cumbersome command structure, which was difficult to memorize. It often took four keystrokes to issue a single command, such as to save a file.

What the new program does is present the commands in English as choices from a series of pop-up menus, but it still takes four keystrokes (and four menus) to do many basic things, such as saving files.

For an occasional user, those menus really do keep you from having to memorize anything. It should be possible to sit down at Perfect Writer once a week or even once a month and operate it with some alacrity.

Probably the folks at Perfect software should be congratulated. They have taken a complicated, difficult-to-learn program and made it easy to use while retaining its capabilities. They just didn't make it fast to use.

Packaged with Perfect Writer is a simple spelling check that is too limited to be relied on to catch all your misspellings and a thesaurus that will help you find synonyms for many, but not all, words.

Perfect Calc has a number of virtues, including the ability to have up to 15 spreadsheets open at once and to share data among them, displaying any two simultaneously. It sorts columns of data and has a full array of formula functions, including statistical functions. Each spreadsheet can be up to 52 columns wide and 255 lines long. In keeping with the other modules, Calc also uses pop-up menus to accomplish many of its tasks.

A separate module, Perfect Graph, that would allow you to make charts of spreadsheet data is planned.

All in all, I'd have to say there's still a bit of hyperbole in the Perfect series name, but I wouldn't quarrel in the least if they wanted to call it Pretty Good Software.

Computer File is changing days. The next column, by Lawrence J. Magid, will appear in the Monday Business section on Jan. 14.

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