The right word processor invaluable for collegians

HOME COMPUTING

September 06, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

If you're heading off to college with a new computer (or you're a parent who just made the investment for your son or daughter), chances are you spent a lot more time worrying about the new hardware than the software that runs on it.

Before the school year gets too far along, it's a good idea to take a look at the software you're using and see if it meets your needs. If it doesn't, a visit to the college bookstore can turn up some real bargains in top-of-the-line programs, thanks to publishers who are willing to take lower profits today in an effort to hook tomorrow's corporate PC users.

The most important program for any student is a word processor for term papers, reports and essays. It's the only tool many students really need, and a good one can make a student's life a lot easier.

Virtually every IBM-compatible on the market today comes packaged with Microsoft Windows, which includes a rudimentary word processor known as Windows Write. Its formatting capacity is too crude for anything more than simple letters, and it lacks such niceties as a spelling checker, thesaurus or footnote handler, but I'm amazed at how may people use it.

I guess they figure that's what a word processor looks like, or they may think a full-fledged word processor isn't worth the extra money.

It's definitely worth investing in something better. A good word processor can save its owner hundreds of hours over the course of a year, help a student organize and check his work and produce beautifully formatted output with a minimum of effort.

At the very least a word processor should be able to open several files simultaneously, allowing you to switch quickly between your notes and your main document. It should make quick work of changing indents and line spacing to accommodate standard academic styles that require extended quotations to be indented and single-spaced.

The word processor should also provide flexible footnote handling. It should renumber automatically if you insert a new footnote between existing notes. Some professors want footnotes at the bottom of each page, while others prefer endnotes. Your word processor should be able to handle both.

A spelling checker is a must, and an on-line thesaurus can be useful if you believe in Mark Twain's adage that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Built-in outlining capabilities can help you organize your work.

Grammar and style checkers are more problematical. While they can help really bad writers, my experience shows that their analysis and advice are wrong as often as they're right. Be careful with them.

That covers the basics. If you're a business or science major, you'll undoubtedly want the ability to import numbers or charts from a spreadsheet, or create tables on your own.

Top-of-the-line word processors have basic spreadsheet, charting and graphics capabilities built in.

Engineering students may want the ability to format and edit equations using mathematical and scientific notation.

For serious academic work on longer documents, you may also want features that track chapters, subchapters and sections and then create indexes and tables of contents. The best word processors can handle all these chores.

Differences not great

From a strictly technical standpoint, it doesn't matter which word processor you choose if the program has the features you need. Most of them have adopted similar pull-down menus and command structures, so the differences between them aren't as great as they were years ago.

Some colleges require a particular word processing program, which makes it easy for students and professors to exchange documents on disk or through computer networks. If that's the case, you may not have a choice. If there is no standard, you should decide first whether you want bare bones or a powerhouse.

If you don't need much more than basic capabilities, you may be happy with the word processor in a relatively low-cost integrated program, such as Microsoft Works, Claris Works or PFS Window Works.

Many computers come bundled with one of these. Microsoft Works is available for IBM-compatibles running DOS or Windows and for the Apple Macintosh, while Claris Works is available in Mac and Windows versions.

These programs also include basic but workable spreadsheets and data bases, along with other utilities. And to various extents, they make it easy to import information from one program into another.

That means you can paste a table of numbers or chart from your spreadsheet into a word processing document without much fuss. While all standalone word processors have import features, they may require an extra step or two.

On the high end, a handful of word processing programs dominate the market. WordPerfect has long been the standard of business users running DOS, although it's also available in Windows and Macintosh versions. It's not as popular on campus.

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