Weaning from Word: Alternatives on the Mac

Malcolm Swanson

Like many other upgrade junkies, I was looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Microsoft's new Office 2004 suite for Macintosh. And, like those others, I found getting an English version in Japan was almost impossible. Locally, only Japanese versions are shipped, and even though the Japan Apple Store www.apple.com/jp/ now offers an English version, there is no upgrade pricing (I eventually bought the academic package from New Zealand).

With such poor local support for non-Japanese users, many people have begun looking for alternatives. The most obvious choice is the OpenOffice suite porting.openoffice.org/mac/. It has most of the functionality of Microsoft Office, is open source (so is constantly being improved), and best of all, it's free! We will be reviewing this suite in a future TLT Wired column, so this month's column focuses on alternative word processing programmes for the Macintosh.

The big hope in the Macintosh community has been that Apple would add to its iLife lineup with an iOffice-style suite to replace its solid, but aging, AppleWorks. That hasn't happened yet, but thankfully the Mac's enthusiastic developer community is offering a few alternatives.


Nisus Writer Express (ver 2.01, $60, www.nisus.com/Express/)

Before OS X came along, Nisus Writer was one of the major MS Word alternatives. In recent years it has languished a little while being ported to Apple's new operating system. Version 1 was extremely slow and buggy, but this latest release is much faster, stabler, and more feature-rich (without the bloat of Word). It is still not perfect (no TOCs or index function, footnotes are buggy, font selection can be hit and miss, and it has display problems at times), but in many ways it even surpasses Word: it handles Japanese text natively, setting styles is far more intuitive, tables are effortless, and it has a useful multiple clipboards function. I particularly like how customizable it is (especially menu items and keyboard commands), and the toolbar that slides out from the document window is far less intrusive than floating palettes. It also feels very Mac-like, which means you don't have a big learning curve. In fact, I downloaded it, had it running in five minutes, and am writing this column on it now! As one reviewer put it, this is a "writer's word processor." Nisus offers a 30-day full featured demo, downloadable from their website. [Editor's rating: ★★★★✩]

Mellel (ver. 1.8, $39, www.redlers.com)

If you're into good-looking software (and like the brushed aluminium look), Mellel might be for you. Its clean looks, small memory requirements, and speed have given it an almost cult following. It's probably the only other programme that comes near to Nisus in performance and features. Being built in Cocoa, it handles multiple languages well (as was written on one website, "An emphatically polyglot word processor from Tel Aviv, with particular support for Arabic languages is a beacon of hope in a divided world.") though changing to Japanese requires a font shift as well. It also has a niceoutline feature to help you plan your writing. There are a few things, however, that go against Mellel in my opinion. Firstly, many standard features it handles in a very non-standard way. That's not necessarily a bad thing—originality can lead to improvement—but it makes learning to use the software harder, and shifting back and forth from other programmes requires a mental shift as well. But the clincher for me is that it uses a proprietary file format—documents created in Mellel can't be opened with other programmes, meaning that if you share files, all parties will need a copy of Mellel. A crippled demo version can be downloaded from their website. [Editor's rating: ★★★✩✩]

Mariner Write (ver. 3.6.3, $70, www.marinersoftware.com)

When I opened Mariner Write, my first impression was how similar it looked to AppleWorks with its black on white interface. The developers have gone to great lengths to keep the interface as simple as possible, but I feel this is to the detriment of the aesthetics of the programme. This stops it feeling as refined as Mellel and Nisus, though I suspect that under the hood, it is not that different. However, there is no doubt it is the fastest of the three reviewed so far, and it is just as feature rich. I found the lack of palettes or menubars to be a disadvantage, as accessing a feature required knowing the keyboard shortcut or scrolling through menus. It is the only one of the three to have a WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) font menu. This always had a time lag when first accessed, but afterwards dropped immediately. Find and Replace, like Mellel, is very limited in scope, though Save As offered almost as many options as Nisus. A 30-day full-featured demo version can be downloaded from their website. [Editor's rating: ★★★✩✩]

CopyWrite (ver. 2.1.4, $30, www.bartastechnologies.com)

As CopyWrite's website says, "CopyWrite is for writing. Word Processors are for layout and formatting." CopyWrite's text tools are limited at best, but that is intentional. CopyWrite is more for the serious writer who has projects that require organisation. It has a useful notes function that lets you add comments or information to a pullout drawer in each document or project, and it allows you to save multiple versions of document drafts for later reworking. The working page displays a browser at the top to help you access documents quickly—handy for large, multipage projects. Another nice feature is that you can quit the application, and next time it is started, it will open any files that were open when it closed. On the downside, CopyWrite also uses a non-standard file format. CopyWrite may be used free of charge unless you have projects with more than five documents, or need the ability to export.

If simple text editing is all you need, you will quite likely be satisfied with the copy of TextEdit included with your OS X software. If you need to edit, search, transform, or manipulate text, then BBEditwww.barebones.com is pretty much unbeatable. If you have specific writing or editing needs—such as script writing, note management, or document organisation—then it is highly likely that something exists. A good place to start looking is www.versiontracker.com/macosx/cat/wordprocessing.

Of the four programmes reviewed above, Nisus Write Express is my personal choice, and the more I use it, the better I like it. However, every writer has different needs, so it's worth downloading a few programmes and finding what feels comfortable. A quick Google search for reviews is helpful, as is scanning through user feedback on sites like versiontracker.com. With Microsoft's seemingly indifferent attitude to English users in Japan, along with a gathering trend in Asian countries to examine alternative operating systems and software, now might be a good time to find an alternative solution, get comfortable using it, and support its future development.

Malcolm Swanson