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May 2005 • Vol.5 Issue 5
Page(s) 76-78 in print issue
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Let’s Talk About Text, Baby
Text Editors & Beyond
Text editors are the guerrilla warriors of computing. Need to strip the formatting from something on the Clipboard? Paste it into a text editor file and then Cut it back out. Unsure what a file with a bizarre extension contains? Force it open in a text editor and look for clues. Want to insert an HTML tag, view some hex, tweak some code? With a good text editor and a couple of keystrokes, you're gone in 60 seconds.

There's no longer a sharp difference between a text editor and a word processor application, such as Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, and OpenOffice.org Writer. Instead, the two categories mark different ends of a continuum, with Notepad-style minimalist editors at one extreme and overstuffed bloatware on the other end. Traditionally, text editors have smaller RAM footprints and take up less hard drive space than word processors. They also have many fewer fonts (if they even have more than one), formatting options, and specialized functions. Finally, text editors are generally standalone apps with less integration with other software than word processors.

Today, you'll find feature-packed text editors rubbing shoulders with light-duty word processors, such as WordPad, in the middle of the spectrum. Some reasons for the convergence are that bloggers and script tweakers wanted more newly relevant features from their bare-bones text editors, while everyday users grew tired of waiting for Word or OpenOffice.org to load every time they wanted to glance at a formatted document's contents.

I looked at both types of text tools for WindowXP, under the assumption that you're already familiar with Windows' Notepad and WordPad freebies. Compatibility with Microsoft Word documents continues to be a factor for many users, so I tested each application by opening a moderately formatted Word 2003 file, using import features as available.

Text Editor-ish

Despite some rich feature sets, the following applications lean toward the text editor end of the spectrum.

Boxer Software Boxer Text Editor 10.0.0

$59.99 (20-day free trial)
Boxer Software
www.boxersoftware.com
4.5 CPU's

If you are the DIY type when it comes to HTML, this may be the text editor for you. Boxer Text Editor is kind of pricey compared to the rest of this crowd, but its features are aimed squarely at power users. It displayed greeking at the head and foot of my Word 2003 doc, as I came to expect as my testing progressed, but at least it asked me how I wanted it to handle the document's null characters first. Boxer is compatible with Windows95/98/NT/Me/2000/XP.

Version 10 provides color syntax highlighting and printing capabilities for HTML, Perl, and other languages. You can download free, additional syntax highlighting information files for JavaScript, Oracle SQL, and others near the bottom of www.boxersoftware.com/pgdown
.htm#bwin.

Boxer can paste items from the Clipboard as HTML or unformatted ANSI and OEM text. It can also insert common HTML tags, find mates to tags, and remove all tags in selected text at a stroke. The editor can display hexadecimal code, but in a read-only way. Boxer also packs a powerful macro creation tool with support for Boolean logic, variables, and conditionals, among others (try some of the examples at www.boxersoftware.com
/pgmacros.shtml). Yet another set of tools finds duplicate and unique lines of code or text in a file, which can aid in debugging.

Apart from all the esoteric power features, Boxer is a text editor with broad shoulders. There's the usual spell checking (additional language dictionaries are available for download, including huge medical and legal ones), font control, and color highlighting. Come to think of it, there's an awful lot of word processor in Boxer Text Editor. Novices may be overwhelmed by all the features, but developers and Web site administrators will find a lot to love.

JGsoft EditPad Lite 5.4.0

Free (noncommercial use)
JGsoft
www.editpadlite.com
3 CPU's

"Lite" is right for this useful text editor with limited features. EditPad Lite lives up to its name, with no footnotes, TOC, or other academically useful features. It's just enough for many users, but folks who need bells and whistles should look to more specialized apps or AbiWord. EditPad Lite and its $39.95 Pro version are available for Win95/98/NT/Me/2000/XP and many Linux distributions.

Like most Web browsers, apart from Internet Explorer, EditPad Lite presents multiple open documents in tabs. This version doesn't hide the single tab when only one file is displayed, but you only lose about one line of screen estate because of it. For those times when you would rather see two documents at the same time, the handy New Editor icon in the View menu automatically splits EditPad's window in two. The default setting creates two stacked horizontal panels, but you can change this to vertical windows side-by-side or one covering the other.

Font and point size choices are behind an icon and a context menu item, although EditPad keeps a short list of recent choices on the toolbar. Unfortunately, version 5.4.0 applied my font changes to the entire document, not just selected text. I did like the quick Go To Line feature on longer documents, however. I also appreciated the option to keep EditPad's settings in an INI file instead of cluttering up my Registry.

EditPad Lite respects line break conventions for Windows, Mac, and Unix. It lets you convert documents from one of these formats to another, as well as among ANSI, Unicode, and others. You can even use EditPad as an ActiveDisk app on a compatible device from Iomega, meaning you can use it without installing it on almost any PC.

Like Helios TextPad (reviewed next), EditPad Lite removed all formatting from my Word 2003 document and presented its metadata as gibberish and text before and after. I didn't understand why the program preferred to minimize itself to the System Tray rather than shut down, but it was otherwise well-behaved.

Helios Software Solutions TextPad 4.7.3

$32 (free 30-day trial)
Helios Software Solutions
www.textpad.com
3.5 CPU's

Like most text editors these days, TextPad has traditional word processor features, but it doesn't advertise them. You can change fonts and point sizes, for instance, but Helios buried this dialog in the Document Properties entry under the View menu. TextPad is more upfront about its spell checker, macros, and file-comparison features, however.

Instead of tabs, TextPad's default configuration grabs some on-screen real estate to maintain a list of open documents in a side panel. It's a snap to close that side panel and enable tabs, however. TextPad lets you drag and drop text selections among open docs, and you can save them all at once by holding down the SHIFT key as you click Save.

TextPad provides lots of text-manipulation tools you didn't know you needed, such as the option to capitalize just the first letters of selected words. Factor in the program's time-saving keystrokes, and you will find that the longer you use TextPad, the more you come to rely on it.

True to its text editor roots, TextPad stripped out all formatting from my Word 2003 file, including the hyperlinks. (The text of the URLs remained.) As expected, it also kept the summary information and metadata as greeking at the top and bottom of the document. TextPad's Help file is more thorough than most, and the Web site offers tons of tips and FAQs. The editor is compatible with Win95(SP1)/98/Me/NT4(SP6a)/2000(SP4)/XP.

Word Processor-esque

On the word processor side of the continuum, you'll find AbiWord and PolyEdit.

AbiSource AbiWord 2.2.5

Free
AbiSource
www.abisource.com
4.5 CPU's

This light word processor should worry Microsoft every bit as much as Linux and OpenOffice.org. It's free, yet offers all of Word's most-used features without the bloat. More importantly, it was the only application in this roundup that preserved all of my Word 2003 document's formatting, including color highlighting and font attributes. It also hid the metadata, however, which some users prefer to snoop through to figure out which user created a document and to whom the copy of Word was licensed.

AbiWord is available for Win95/98/NT/Me/2000/XP; SUSE, Red Hat, Fedora, and Mandrake Linux; Solaris; and Mac OS X (Cocoa). Further off the beaten path are versions for QNX, BeOS, HP-UX, AIX, and others, with varying levels of support. As for human languages, version 2.2.5 (I tested version 2.2.3) offers dictionaries in 27 languages via download.

Besides its default, proprietary ABW file format, AbiWord can open and save documents in the usual TXT, RTF, and Word DOC formats. In addition, it can create HTML/XHTML files, MHTs, and compressed versions of ABW (ZABW) docs.

AbiWord proffers big icons for easy access to all the usual word processor options, such as justification, view zoom, and column formatting. Its font and highlight color features work like Word's, except with more highlighting hues from which to choose. More advanced features include mail merge, footnotes and endnotes, and revision tracking.

AbiWord underlines suspected misspellings, although at times the AI seems a little confused as to what part of a word it underlines. My installation added a handful of international versions of Courier and Times New Roman to the fonts already present on my PC. However, most of the fonts I tried looked suspiciously similar, leading me to conclude that not all are fully supported.

One major improvement over version 2.2.1 is that using Zoom to enlarge the on-screen view in AbiWord 2.2.5 doesn't cause the document to print at the same scale. Also, version 2.2.5 fixes a glitch in click-and-drag text selection over multiple pages. In short, few typical users won't find AbiWord perfectly adequate for word processing and text editing alike.

PolySoft Solutions PolyEdit 5.0 RC Wombat

$24.95 (free 30-day trial)
PolySoft Solutions
www.polyedit.com
4 CPU's

This highly tweakable, feature-rich word processor runs under Win95/98/NT4/Me/2000/XP. Besides its tabbed interface, the first thing you'll notice is an extra toolbar of icons lining the bottom of the window, not the top. Don't fret, though; all toolbars are movable and they crowd together without complaint.

PolyEdit can compress and encrypt documents saved in its ETF format, using the Blowfish algorithm in addition to the unfortunately, recently broken SHA-1. It can embed objects and images, the latter including PNG files, JPEGs, BMPs, GIFs, and icons. The processor supports basic tables and multiple columns, as well as hyperlinks, and features syntax highlighting for C++ and other languages.

Another key feature for many users is PolyEdit's email client, which has a simple address book with an import feature. Speaking of importation, the app also offers some conversion flexibility for all of the common formats, plus Lotus, ROT-13, and KOI-8. Lastly, but by no means finally, there's a love-it-or-hate-it IntelliComplete feature that automatically guesses the words you're typing to save you time.

PolyEdit offers to import documents made with Word through version 2000, but not my Word 2003 document. When I opened it in the normal way, PolyEdit stripped all formatting but the hyperlinks from the text and added the expected greeking at the top and bottom.

Version 5.0 has no revision tracking or footnotes. Also, the Help file is a joke unless you're looking for shortcut keystrokes. Still, you'll have a month to use PolyEdit free and find out if it does everything you'll ever need. As a lean, mean word processor or a text editor with serious benefits, PolyEdit is definitely a contender. Just don't ask me where the "Wombat" name came from.

Text Talk

The free, powerful AbiWord processor is the smartest choice for most users, hands down. If you're not in the "most users" category, you know which specialized features you need, such as programming language, FTP, or blogging support. Try any of the above (their time-limited evaluation versions are fully functional) until you find the right combination of power and comfort.

by Marty Sems

Linux & The Mac


The open-source world is rife with variations of emacs and vi, the two big guns of Linux's text editor scene. Most distributions come with derivatives of one or both. For the latest official versions of emacs, check www.gnu.org/software/emacs
/emacs.html
. As for vi, consider the vim clone at www.vim.org. Graphical environments may also pack GUI text editors and light word processors, such as KDE's KEdit, KWrite, and Kate.

On the Mac side, OS X comes with TextEdit, which offers light word processing power and can retain much of the formatting of Word 2004 documents. As Open-Office.org for the Mac is still not quite ready for prime time, many mainstream users turn to the $79 iWork Suite and its Pages word processor. Look for shareware and freeware alternatives at guide.apple.com/uscategories
/productivity.lasso.

10 Reasons To Say Goodbye To Notepad


1. Saving a file often moves the cursor
2. Word Wrap can introduce spaces
3. May hang when opening large files
4. Can't do syntax highlighting or printing
5. Can't save in any format but TXT
6. Can't email or FTP
7. No spell checker
8. No macros
9. No tabs
10. It's Microsoft!

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