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AbiWord: Like MS Word but Without the Junk

By Jack M. Germain
Mar 24, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Word processing is perhaps one of the most essential uses for a computer on any platform. The Linux OS offers more obscure word processors than other OSes; however, few of these apps offer users the staying power of AbiWord.

AbiWord: Like MS Word but Without the Junk

(click image to enlarge)

The closest competitor to AbiWord is OpenOffice Writer, though AbiWord, like many other word processing apps in Linux, lacks a fully developed suite of programs such as spreadsheet and presentation apps that rival the functionality of OpenOffice. Still, it excels at processing words and is far ahead of other Linux writing tools.

Linux users can shuffle among word processors such as KWord, Ted and Maxwell, among numerous others. Often, the distinguishing factors with these writing apps are their feature sets. Many of them are little more than glorified rich text editors.

When it comes to choosing a full-fledged word processor, I have a very exacting two-part standard. It must display the online pages of Web sites that run my articles. I copy and paste the screen content directly into a blank word processing page. And it must handle Microsoft Word docs without my going through hoops. Like it or not, Microsoft Word is the industry standard. I have both AbiWord and Writer tweaked to always open and save files in Word format.

Early on in my migration to Linux from Microsoft Windows, I favored OpenOffice Writer because it comes with a suite of other apps that reliably open Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft Excel files. But since then, I have developed a working affinity for AbiWord for word processing. AbiWord does not have presentation and spreadsheet apps so it is not a complete office suite replacement.

AbiWord, though, rarely crashes when handling graphics-ladden documents. OpenOffice Writer, by comparison, often buckles under the load in both my Ubuntu and Puppy Linux OSes on all five of my computers.

AbiWord Basics

AbiWord is a multiplatform word processor. It runs on all flavors of Linux, Microsoft Windows, QNX, FreeBSD and Solaris. It is tightly integrated with the operating system, taking advantage of the Linux functionality for image loading and printing capabilities.

It has the look and feel of Microsoft Word but has far fewer of Word's complexities. This makes AbiWord much easier to use without constantly scrolling through the user documentation. It reads and writes to nearly three dozen file formats. These include Portable Document Format (.pdf), Office Open XMS (.docx), Outlook Express Email (.eml), OpenDocument (.odt) and Applix Words (.aw), Rich Text Format documents (.rtf) and HTML Web pages.

Its advanced document layout tools are a breeze to use. It is relatively easy to put a professional spin on the appearance of documents containing tables, bullets, lists, images, footnotes, endnotes and styles with AbiWord.

AbiWord is relatively small and requires much fewer resources to run than other writing apps. This compact size makes AbiWord the hands-down choice of Linux OS developers of portable or embedded configurations. This also makes it an ideal choice for older hardware where RAM may be an issue.

A plug-in system gives AbiWord added functionality. These include document importers, a thesaurus, image importers and a text summarizer.

Useful Extras

AbiWord fits right into any office environment, regardless of language or document style required. For instance, it has dictionaries for more than 30 languages.

It supports right-to-left, left-to-right and mixed-mode text. So AbiWord supports European languages, as well as Hebrew and Arabic.

Mail Merge capability is an often-forgotten tool in many wanna-be business-class word processors. Not so with AbiWord. Its Mail Merge tool automates that task with special fields inserted into a template document. These codes guide the insertion of data from Relational Databases, Comma Separated Text files or Tabbed Text files.

One of AbiWord's unmatched features is how it works in a server environment. It has a command line interface that allows users to generate form letters, print documents or convert documents to any file format AbiWord supports.

Cool Collaboration

One really cool feature, and one that could be a boon to organizations that must rely on shared documents: More than one person can work on the same document concurrently.

This is possible thanks to the close integration of AbiWord to the free Web service. Storing collaborative documents online allows easy document sharing and format conversions on the fly.

This feature is fully available in the latest release, AbiWord 2.8.1 released late last year. However, if you do not need the collaborative feature with, earlier versions of AbiWord are no less adequate.

I have the latest version on my two Ubuntu configurations and version 2.6.3 on my Puppy Linux machines because it is "hard wired" into the start-up files. Most of the functionality I use daily is available in the earlier version.

Enhancements Entree

However, version 2.8.1 has some enticing enhancements that make upgrading worth your while. For example, it has real smart quotes and high-quality True Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) support.

I particularly like the ability to view multiple pages side by side. This feature lets me get more use out of the real estate on my wide-screen monitors.

As part of the stronger emphasis on collaborative writing, AbiWord now can distinguish text written by different writers using various text highlight colors. This real-time editing updating only works with documents stored on the server.

Using annotations or comments is much more effective in this latest version as well. I can annotate any piece of text with a remark that will show up when I hover over it with the mouse. A list of all remarks can be displayed in the footer area on every page.

Carries Cairo

AbiWord now uses a rewritten printing framework based on Cairo, a 2-D graphics library. Cairo produces consistent results on all output media while taking advantage of display hardware acceleration when available, for instance, through the X Render Extension.

Cairo supports multiple output devices that include the X Window System, Quartz, Win32, image buffers, PostScript, PDF and SVG file output. It also includes experimental output for OpenGL (through glitz), XCB, BeOS, OS/2 and DirectFB.

This results in better image printing. Instead of continuing with a printing system based on the GTK port, AbiWord now relies on the gnome print system. Putting all that techno-talk aside, I am pleased with the printing results in version 2.8.1.

Bottom Line

AbiWord is a very capable word processing program. It is easy to use and has a very low learning curve.

Few word processing programs can perform close to the level reached by Microsoft Word. You will not find all of the bloated and seldom-used feature sets bundled in proprietary apps. However, AbiWord meets or exceeds expectations for the typical writing tasks done in small or large business settings.

You will need alternatives for presentation and spreadsheet apps.

However, AbiWord creates and prints smart-looking word documents with little or no training. This makes it a very good choice for everyday writing needs.

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