Freeware Forum

Free Word Processing and Text Editing Options for Macs and iOS

Low End Mac Staff - 2012.02.16

WordStar, an early word processing program.

We call them computers because they are great at calculating numbers, but one of the most common uses for personal computers has been writing. We've come a long ways from the days of WordStar and SpeedScript, where you had to type special characters to toggle bold or italic on and off. The IBM PC could show bold and italic, but only in one font and a single size. The Mac gave us WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processing with MacWrite, and the rest is history.

SpeedScript for Commodore 64
SpeedScript, a free C64 word processor.

In this week's Freeware Forum, we're going to talk about the tools we use for writing, whether that's a full-fledged word processor, a text processor, a desktop publishing program, a "works" application, or an HTML editor.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): My first Mac project was done in PageMaker on a friend's Mac, using text files exported from SpeedScript on my Commodore 64. When I got my own Mac, I used MacWrite, which came bundled with my Mac Plus. That's as close to freeware as I came for a long time. One problem with MacWrite is that it would corrupt files, so when ClarisWorks (now AppleWorks) came out, I was happy to move to an integrated works program without those problems. To this day I still use AppleWorks. After all these years, it amortizes to being nearly free.

MacWrite, the Mac's first word processor.

I have beloved Microsoft Word 5.1a on my Macs, although I rarely use it. I also have Microsoft Office 2004, which I won in a trivia contest at the local Apple Store, but it's certainly not freeware - and I hate it. I only use it to open files other people send me that have to be viewed in Word or Excel. I still prefer AppleWorks for my word processing and spreadsheet needs. I've tried the demos of Pages and Numbers but been unimpressed.

The most commonly used word processing app on my Macs is Bean, which I use mostly to open Word .doc files. It's much faster than bloated Word. I also have freeware NeoOffice and and LibreOffice, but they seem even slower and more bloated than Microsoft Office, so I only use them when I have files that require them.

I actually do most of my writing for the Web, and I do it using a WYSIWYG HTML editor. I've been using Claris Home Page since 1997, and it's the primary reason I run a Mac with OS X 10.4 Tiger and Classic Mode to this day. On the freeware side, I use KompoZer 0.7.10 on my G4 Power Macs (I don't like version 0.8 at all) and BlueGriffon on my Intel Mac mini. Both are based on Netscape Composer and do the job, but each has some quirks that I do my best to work around - as I've done with Claris Home Page for 15 years now.

My primary text editor is freeware TextWrangler 2.3, the last version that let's me do batch search-and-replaces on the thousands of pages that make up Low End Mac. That feature disappeared with version 3.0, undoubtedly to give users a reason to upgrade to commercial BBEdit.

In between a text editor and a word processor is donationware Tex-Edit Plus, which I use mostly to open articles Charles Moore sends in. I'm sure he has a lot more to tell you about it.

I have to admit that it's kind of strange that my favorite apps come from the late 1990s - Home Page and AppleWorks - but why mess with something that works so well?

Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): My must-have free text tool: KompoZer WYSIWYG web page editor.

The name is a play on Composer and reflects that KompoZer is a descendent of Composer, the web page editor that was included with some versions of the Netscape browser. As the old Netscape code was open sourced and became the basis of the various Mozilla projects, the web page editor evolved through Mozilla spin-offs - first Nvu (no longer supported) and more recently KompoZer. The SeaMonkey project - which (like some Netscape versions) includes a browser, email software, and a web page editor - includes something similar, but it's ugly!

Some of what I like:

  • It does a reasonable job of creating clean code without needing to focus on raw HTML code.
  • It offers a source view for the times when you do need to look at the code, for instance to embed a YouTube clip, add a JavaScript script, etc.
  • It's cross-platform, with versions for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, etc. None need particularly new or high-end hardware or OS versions.
  • It's free.

It doesn't come with a bunch of predesigned templates, like Apple's iWeb, for instance, but that's not necessarily a bad thing!

I've got well over a thousand pages online in a dozen or so domains that I've done with KompoZer (on one platform or another) or one or another of its close cousins. Works for me!

Leaman Crews (Plays Well with Others): Like many long-time Mac users, I fell in love with Word 5.1 for Mac and never got over its obsolescence. So in looking for a word processor ever since, the standard is to try to find something with the look, feel, and functionality of Word 5.1. Over the years, nothing really came close, hence I mostly stuck with the newer versions of Word, despite the increasing tendency towards bloat and a sharp decline in usefulness (unless you count the usefulness of Office for Windows compatibility).

In the free Bean, I finally found something that sort of hits the spot. It's far more powerful than TextEdit (the free word processor that comes with OS X) and far more nimble than any version of Word for Mac in the last 15 years. It's not quite the same as Word 5.1, but at least I finally have a no-cost word processor that I actually enjoy using.

When it comes to coding and scripting text editors, I am a die-hard BBEdit guy. It's not free, though. I suppose I should then recommend TextWrangler, as it is BBEdit's free and slimmer-featured cousin.

But the free text editor I use the most is actually MacVim. Using vi, vim, or any of its GUI variants (of which MacVim is one) involves a steep learning curve, but a few years ago I took a Christmas break to finally make myself learn the ins and outs. When you work on Unix-based systems, especially in remote shells via SSH, you need to know a console-based text editor to get anything done, and that pretty much means you need to choose sides and become an Emacs guy or a vi guy. I chose the latter, because it seems vi and/or vim is included by default in every Unix-based operating system. Once you get to learn its "command mode/insert mode" paradigm and formulate a cheat sheet of codes to keep handy until you memorize those codes, it's not bad at all - and extremely powerful.

BBEdit is no slouch, but sometimes I can accomplish a massive text transformation with a single command in MacVim, whereas the same operation in BBEdit would mean a lot of pointing, clicking, and dialog boxes.

Charles Moore (several columns): My first "computer" word processor was just that - WangWriter II - in an eponymous "floor model" dedicated word processor whose operating system had to be loaded off a 5-1/4" floppy disk at every startup. WangWriter II was entirely menu-based and keyboard driven, with a monochrome green alphanumerics-only 10" monitor. The keyboard was excellent, and the built-in daisy wheel printer was slow and amazingly noisy, but it did a very creditable job with the right font (involved changing daisy-wheels) and a carbon ribbon. The machine was a gift from my cousin, who snagged it as surplus when the telco he worked for replaced the hulking Wang machines with Intel 386 PCs. He thought it was time I moved on from my old Remington typewriter, and I owe him a big debt of gratitude for giving me a gentle shove into the digital age.

The big WangWriter quickly convinced me that computers were the future of writing platforms, and a year later I got my first PC - a used Mac Plus that had belonged to a University English professor friend and which came loaded up with Microsoft Word 4. I really liked that primitive version of Word, and I upgraded to Word 5.1 when it was released several months later. I loved Word 5.1 - and still do. It remains the benchmark by which I measure word processing software. I haven't used it as a production application for many years now, but my ancient copy still runs on my Pismo PowerBooks under OS X 10.4 Tiger Classic Mode.

Unfortunately, Word 6 (a.k.a. "Word for Windows for the Mac") was as awful as Word 5.1 was excellent, and in protest I switched to the somewhat quirky, but interesting and powerful, Nisus Writer. The latter was actually a pretty capable text editor as well as a word processor, and it was partly instrumental in persuading me that for most of the stuff I was doing, I really didn't need a full- featured word processor at all, and that in turn led me to Tom Bender's $15 shareware Tex-Edit Plus, a styled text editor that still supported enough formatting features to meet most needs I had for printing out hard copy documents, and was well-suited to supporting the vast majority of my work, which is plain-text based. TE+ also has powerful text cleaning tools, the best AppleScript integration I've encountered in any application at any price, and it even supports inline graphics and audio if one is so inclined.

Consequently, Tex-Edit Plus has been my primary writing tool for some 15 years now, and with Tom having recently upgraded it for OS X 10.7 Lion compatibility, its future seems assured for the foreseeable future. The latest version, 4.9.11, also still supports OS X 10.4 Tiger and PowerPC Macs, so I have seamless document compatibility across all three of my production Macs.

When I do need the greater power of a word processor, I use either the sublime Bean, LibreOffice, or Google Docs - all of which are free. I do also use OS X's bundled TextEdit app for some utilitarian tasks, and also the freeware TextWrangler for certain functions it supports that TE+ and Bean don't.

Of course for the past seven months, I've also been working on an iPad, and while I consider the iOS experience second class computing compared to a Mac - and worse than second-class when it comes to working with text - I get reasonably satisfactory performance with the freeware version of PlainText, which supports Dropbox seamlessly and automatically once configured, and the trifecta of text processor apps from German developer Infovole - their $7.99 flagship program TextKraft, the multilingual-oriented $2.99 SchreibKraft, and the friendly-priced but still very capable 99¢ 1a Easy Writer. All three feature welcome enhancements to the default iOS text entry and editing user interface, as well as manual Dropbox synchronization.

The future? Who knows? Tom Bender tells me that worrisomely at version 10.7.3, Apple still hasn't fixed some serious AppleScript bugs in OS X Lion, and there's conjecture that Apple is simply losing interest in the Mac OS, with its central focus now on the iOS. If I end up migrating to Linux or even Windows 8, I'll have to find some new text tools.

Simon Royal (Mac Spectrum): I don't use any heavy word processing apps; I don't need the advanced features of Microsoft Office. For the past few years I have used the fantastic Bean as it can read and write .doc files. If I need anything heavier, I use OpenOffice, but that is very rare.

I used NeoOffice for a while, but that was purely because it was the only app that could open the then-new .docx files from Microsoft when Microsoft Office for Mac couldn't.

For text editing or web writing, I use TextWrangler. Its free, simple, and colourises HTML code. It also has the superb multifile search-and-replace, which I used for the one hundred or so pages of my web site.

I have yet to find a word processor for the iPhone so I can write while on the move without my laptop. LEM

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