Classic attempt to perfect word power: The leading word processor has put on a new face. Tim Nott finds some cracks in the make-up

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The Independent Online
WORDPERFECT has always enjoyed the reputation in PC circles as the number one word processor for 'power' users. When potential employers see that name in a CV, they know that behind the shoulder-padded, razor cut presented for interview is the disciplined mind and body of an office athlete - the kind that play squash for money.

In spite of the onrush of Windows, Microsoft's graphics-based operating system, there are, so the WordPerfect Corporation claims, more than 10 million users of its eponymous product.

Power users go for WordPerfect because it is a text-based program working directly from the PC- compatible's basic Dos operating system. Power users know the keyboard shortcuts for all the most esoteric commands.

Not for them the easier to use but slower 'wimps' way of operating programs working under Windows. To them, working in 'wysiwyg' mode - what you see is what you get - in little Windows full of Icons you use a Mouse to Point and click at - wimps - is mere frippery. Wimps like lots of silly 'drop down' lists of instructions and 'scroll bars' to play with. The demon power user is interested only in throughput - as much as and fast as possible.

But in a fast-moving industry, WordPerfect users have been waiting three years since the last upgrade - excluding the unsatisfactory hybrid WordPerfect for Windows. They now have the recently launched WordPerfect 6.0. But this new Dos version may come as a shock, for not only does it sport wysiwyg editing, but a Windows-style graphical user interface as well, with an impressive screenfull of sculpted instruction buttons and bars. Below the usual 'menu bar' is a formatting 'ribbon', displaying point-and-click controls for typeface and size, margins, columns and so on.

Below this - or, should you wish, at the bottom or side of the screen - is a button bar, to which commands or sequences of commands -'macros' - can be attached. The advantage of this is that different menu bars, with different sets of short-cut macros can be saved for different jobs.

Although previous versions of WordPerfect could use some scalable fonts - typefaces which could be displayed and printed in different sizes - these were only visible in 'preview' mode, not the working version of the document. Now you can use the most common font software such as Postscript and TrueType and, when working in 'graphics mode', see the selected typfaces, sizes and styles as they will appear on the printed page - what you see is what you get.

It is something that users of Windows programs have long taken for granted. They have also taken for granted the ability to see smaller type sizes clearly on the screen. However 'hinting' - the technique whereby the appearance of text at small sizes is enhanced by distorting the characters slightly to fit the underlying dot-pattern of the monitor - is not provided with WordPerfect 6 and it comes as a shock to see how ugly and illegible a screenfull of scalable text can be without it. (The effect can be alleviated by 'zooming' in on the page to magnify it.)

All this might not please hardened WordPerfectionists who go for maximum throughput by working in text-only mode, with a standard-size typeface on screen. Fortunately, therefore, all this frippery can be turned off, allowing the user to return to the classic WordPerfect 'clean screen' - with no control instructions displayed. However, the new graphics-based approach brings other benefits at which even power users would not scoff, such as the ability to wrap columns of text around irregular graphics and to insert spreadsheet-like tables.

Mail merge - combining a standard letter with a long list of names and addresses - has also been improved and there is a facility to address envelopes. Fax support has been added, too - with a fax- modem attached, not only can you send a document from memory but you can also receive and view faxes whilst working in WordPerfect. Other Nineties essentials include indexing and tables of contents, as well as Grammatik, the style and grammar checker by Reference Software, a recent WordPerfect Corporation acquisition.

In line with the new, user- friendly approach are a series of on-line tutorials to cover the basics and 'Coaches' that help out on other specific tasks, such as creating tables or using the outliner.

The graphical approach has a price, however. Although it will still run on a 286 processor in 480 kilobytes of memory with about 8 megabtyes of hard disk space, to enable all the new features, you will need at least a 386 processor, memory management software or MS-Dos 6 and a daunting 16 megabytes of hard disk. In graphics mode there is also a speed sacrifice - even on a fast 486 processor changing the typeface of a paragraph is a leisurely business.

In spite of the speed sacrifice and hardware requirements, WordPerfect has done a remarkable job in demonstrating that there is still life under Dos.

All but the most austere fundamentalists among existing users should welcome the new features and the program should attract more new users from the Dos redoubt.

However, it is doubtful whether existing Windows users will be seduced - too many of WordPerfect's new clothes are last season's fashion to wimps.

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