Quality software abounds for less than the cost of a pizza


I WAS BROWSING through the software department at a big office supply warehouse store the other day when I noticed a rack full of programs priced at less than $10.

Normally, the only thing you expect to find in that kind of display is a bunch of old kick 'n punch games with names like Revenge of the Radical Ninja Terrorist Nematodes.

But here I saw word processors, spreadsheets, databases, even a desktop publishing program or two. And they were packed in real boxes-- not baggies -- with four-color printing on the front and back.

Almost all the titles had the words "Home Office" displayed prominently on the cover, which shows that publishers believe there's a market for inexpensive programs that allegedly do the same things that people do with computers at work.

I admit to being skeptical. After all, what kind of word processor can you expect to get for $7.95? Especially when the box says it contains IBM, Apple II and Commodore versions of the software.

On the other hand, I said, how bad can a word processor be?

So in the interest of informing my readers about some really cheap software instead of the semi-expensive stuff I usually review, I risked a grand total of $14 and picked up a couple of titles.

The Comsi Home Office Word Processor turned out to be a waste of money, even at seven bucks. But Spinnaker's Easy Working Writer was a pleasant surprise. This is a company that knows how to make good, low-cost software.

The IBM versions of both programs are designed for minimal systems with 256K of memory and a floppy drive. They'll even run from a single disk, although you won't have much room to store documents.

They both use pull-down menus, which make it easy for beginners to master such basic tasks as loading and saving files, editing blocks of copy, and formatting text. Both also have spell checkers.

Aside from a few sheets of basic installation instructions, neither program had a written instruction manual. This is hardly surprising given the price of the packages. However, both programs had manuals the program disk. You can print the manual yourself or call it up from within the program.

The COMSI word processor is little more than a fancy text editor, and not a particularly good one at that. It does allow you to work with multiple documents simultaneously, but that's its only virtue.

It does not support any particular printer (which means no boldface, underlining, etc). The on-disk instruction manual is little more than a list of commands and doubles as a not-very-helpful help feature.

Some of COMSI's editing features border on the bizarre. For example, every time you delete a block of text, the program takes you back to the top of the file. I won't waste more space here on the program, other than to advise you to pass it up.

Easy Working Writer comes much closer to being a workable program, particularly if your word processing is limited to business letters, basic school reports, and the like. That may suffice for many home and small business users.

Written in 1988, Writer appears to be an early version of the word processor Spinnaker now includes in Better Working Eight-in-One, a spiffy, integrated bargain-basement package that also offers a spreadsheet, database and communications software.

Writter supports a variety of Epson, IBM, Okidata, Star and Panasonic dot-matrix printers. Given the age of the software, most of these are older models, but you can probably find a driver that will work with a newer printer.

Don't expect to play many formatting tricks. Writer supports underlining, boldface and italics in the printer's default typeface. That's it, but it may be enough for casual users.

Writer lets you add headers and footers to documents, with automatic page numbering. You can define blocks of copy and change the type attribute or line spacing of the block. While you can set margins and tab stops for the whole document, you can't indent blocks of type.

The screen displays your document more-or-less as it will look when you print it. This includes the spaces at the top and bottom of each page, as well as headers and footers.

There are a couple of nice features. For example, if you're working with floppy disks and run out of space, the program allows you to format a new floppy without exiting to DOS and losing what you've written.

You also have a choice of saving your document in Writer's own format (including printer codes) or as a standard text file that can be imported into other word processors.

The spelling checker shows its age. The dictionary is not large and inaccurately flags compound or hyphenated words and some contractions. You can add these words to the dictionary as they come up, but it's a pain in the neck.

The spell checker also lacks a look-up feature. When it flags a word it doesn't recognize, it doesn't offer alternative spellings. It's up to you to correct it. But what do you expect for seven bucks?

The on-screen help function is reasonably thorough, and if that ,, isn't enough, you can call the disk-based user manual to the screen without leaving your document.

At 22 pages, the manual is brief but covers most of the bases. It's written in a conversational, tutorial style aimed at beginners. If you read it, you'll learn how to use the program, although Writer's menus are so simple and intuitive that you won't have to refer to the manual often.

In short, Easy Working Writer is surprisingly complete for the outrageously low price. I wouldn't use it for serious writing, but for occasional letters or school reports that don't require footnoting, margin changes or other formatting tricks, it's as good as programs that cost 30 times as much.

If you're willing to spend a few more dollars, you can get a much improved version of Writer, along with the other goodies, in Spinnaker's Eight-in-One program, which retails on the street for about $40.

Beyond that, you'll jump to about $100 for integrated programs such as Microsoft Works, Lotus Works or PFS First Choice. These are all excellent packages for home and small busines use.

But if your expectations aren't too high and your wallet is thin, Easy Working Writer will do the job for the price of pizza.

For information, contact Spinnaker Software, One Kendall Square, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

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