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Writers on Macintosh Gain Power

Lawrence J. Magid is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer and senior editor of "The Computer Show," a syndicated television program

Some people say the Apple Macintosh plays second fiddle to the IBM Personal Computer when it comes to word processing. Indeed, IBM and compatible machines do play host to some very powerful word processing programs. But with three new high-end word processing programs on the horizon, the Mac may soon wind up in the lead.

Microsoft will soon release the newest version of “Word,” its popular Mac-based word processing program. A relatively unknown company, Paragon Concepts of Del Mar, Calif., has just released Nisus, one of the most powerful and flexible word processing programs for any personal computer. And computer trade magazines have reported that Claris, a spinoff of Apple Computer, will soon release a greatly enhanced version of the original Mac word processor, MacWrite. Claris has made no official announcement, so I don’t have any details on that program.

I’ve been testing a pre-release copy of Word 4.0 and I’m quite impressed. The new version has at least 300 features, but most users will need only a fraction of them. To avoid cluttering the menus with endless options, the program can be customized so that you see only those commands you actually need.

Any command can be added or removed from any menu, and you can assign a command to a function key or a letter key when that key is used in conjunction with any combination of the Option, Command, Shift or Control keys. You can use a command that’s not on a menu by selecting a special “command” option.

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You can also use Word’s “Short Menu” feature, which provides you with relatively simple menus, making the program less intimidating for new users. When you’re ready for adventure, you select “full menus” to explore the program’s potential.

Word now has an “insert table” feature that allows you to enter text into cells or columns without having to worry about tabs and margins. You tab to the appropriate column and type. When you reach the end of the line, your cursor returns to the left portion of that column, perfectly aligned. Without this feature, you’d have to press the tab key after each line and would have a terrible time realigning your columns. It’s great for parts lists, charts or other documents where you want a lot of tabular information.

The program can now display text in color if your Mac is equipped with a color monitor. However, you can change only the color of the text. The background remains white.

The outlining feature has been improved, and Microsoft also beefed up the indexing and table of contents features. The program can now count words, characters, lines and paragraphs.

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Although Word lacks a drawing function, it is now possible to place boxes or lines around text. You could do that in the earlier version, but it was limited and awkward. You can now place plain, shadowed or double-lined boxes around any group of paragraphs. Like all Mac word processing programs, you can import graphics from other programs. But Word, which comes with a free copy of SuperPaint, includes a facility to automatically update a revised SuperPaint graphic that has been pasted into a Word document. Such “warm links” also work with Excel spreadsheet data and charts.

Word is an impressive program, but Nisus, the newcomer to Mac word processing, is in many ways even more advanced.

In addition to word processing, Nisus has drawing features that let you insert circles, boxes, lines, arcs and shading. You can draw a picture in the middle of a document and have the text wrap itself around the drawing.

Graphics are a nice touch, but the main purpose of a word processing program is writing and editing. Fortunately, Nisus is a very able word processor with a number of innovative features.

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The program’s unique “catalogue” feature makes it easier to locate documents. You can even search and replace text quickly in documents that are not in memory. An unlimited “undo” feature makes it possible to reverse the consequences of any commands you may have issued.

Nisus’ two most impressive features are its macros and its incredibly powerful search-and-replace function. A macro facility is like a tape recorder. You can tell Nisus to watch what you are doing and to “play back” your keystrokes and commands whenever necessary, making it possible to automate complex sequences of commands. It’s also possible to create a macro by typing commands directly into a built-in macro editor. This isn’t as easy as using the record feature, but it offers many more options.

By combining the search-and-replace function with the macro feature, you can write little programs within Nisus to automate virtually everything. When you buy the program, you get about 80 prepared macros. One of these macros searches a document to find a phone number by looking for a string of characters that contain the appropriate attributes. I’ve already written a macro that converts a normal word processing document to the format required by this newspaper. That process, which used to take several minutes and was prone to errors, now requires only a single mouse click. I appreciate that Nisus saves its files as standard text so that I can send them directly over a modem, without having to go through a conversion process as is required with most word processing programs. This also makes it possible to open a Nisus file with any other word processing program.

Unlike Microsoft Word, Nisus doesn’t have a mail-merge function for automatically creating form letters. It doesn’t need one. Instead Nisus comes with a macro that uses the search-and-replace function to locate and copy names and addresses from a master file into a form letter.

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The program has plenty of other high-powered features. There is a spelling checker and a built-in version of “Webster’s Electronic Thesaurus” that gives you a word’s meaning as well as synonyms. There is a “get information command” that gives you statistics on your document, including the number of characters, words, paragraphs and average word length. The program can also estimate the educational level required to understand a document. The analysis is performed instantaneously.

Like Word, there are more commands than most users would know what to do with. To avoid menu clutter, Nisus uses hierarchical or sub-menus to allow you to branch off in different directions. It took me a little time to get used to this, but it does provide a lot of functionality with a minimal amount of screen clutter.

Nisus allows you to assign short-cut keys to menu items, but it works only with the Command key followed by a letter or number. Unfortunately, it does not work with any of the function keys or the keys marked Home, End, Page Up or Page Down. As a result, I find myself having to use the mouse to navigate around the screen, when the simple touch of a key would be a lot faster. Paragon Concepts President Jerzy Lewak says his company is already working on a revised version that will solve that problem. Those who purchase the initial release are promised a free upgrade when it is available later this year.

Comparing Word and Nisus is frustrating in only one respect. I’m having trouble deciding which I like better. Both are fast and fully featured. Word is a little easier to learn, but Nisus’ macros, search routines and graphics make a much richer program. Microsoft is the leading Macintosh application developer, which can be reassuring for users. But Nisus is on the leading edge, and that can be an exciting place to be.

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Microsoft Word has a suggested retail price of $395. Current owners can upgrade for $75 and, from now on, anyone who buys Word’s current version (3.02) can upgrade for free. Nisus costs $395. Microsoft Word is widely available. For Nisus, you might have to call Paragon Concepts at 619-481-1477.

Computer File welcomes readers’ comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, 1641 North First St., Suite 160, San Jose, Calif. 95112, or contact the L. Magid account on the MCI electronic mail system.


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