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Sofware in Review → Office/business → Office suites →

SoftMaker Office 2006 review

By Jem Matzan

What started as a good, inexpensive word processor and later an equally good spreadsheet application has evolved into an office suite that rivals the low-end editions of Microsoft Office and Corel WordPerfect Office, while harrowing OpenOffice.org and StarOffice with better performance and Word document format compatibility. The TextMaker word processor and PlanMaker spreadsheet have been updated with new functionality, better compatibility with file formats from competing office suites, and better inter-program communication between both applications. It's the best cross-platform (Windows, Linux, BSD, Windows Mobile) office suite I've yet used.

SoftMaker Office overview

Germany-based SoftMaker Software GmbH started out in the late 1980s with a DOS word processor and font rendering engine. Both products later moved to Windows in the 1990s, and in the early 2000s began to support a wider array of computing platforms. Today, the TextMaker word processor has evolved into a multi-language, multi-platform professional document creation tool. It's stable, capable, and lightweight, but its crowning feature is still its superior file format compatibility with Microsoft Word.

The PlanMaker spreadsheet is a relatively new addition to the SoftMaker family, this being its second version in production. It is to Excel what TextMaker is to Word -- a cheaper, appropriately-featured replacement with outstanding Excel file compatibility that works on multiple computing platforms, with a less restrictive license.

SoftMaker Office is available for GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, Microsoft Windows 98/ME/2000/XP/Vista, and Windows Mobile/PocketPC, making it the most versatile full-featured office suite on the market.

TextMaker 2006

TextMaker 2006 remains largely the same as its previous version. Graphically it's similar with some small visual improvements, functionally it has not changed to the point that you need to re-learn its interface, and in all other ways you can do a drop-in replacement of TextMaker 2002 without any difficulties. The behind-the-scenes changes and new features in version 2006 include:

  • OpenOffice.org Writer (SXW) and OpenDocument (ODT) file format support.
  • Password-protected Microsoft Word 2003 file support.
  • Format brush, which transfers text formatting from one selection to another.
  • Line, paragraph, and headline numbering.
  • Track changes, which tracks all changes made to documents and lets you accept/reject them later.
  • Sidebar comments, which can add annotations to any part of your document.
  • Cross reference capabilities.
  • Bibliographies.
  • Unicode support, which allows you to write documents in all Western, Central European and Baltic languages, as well as Russian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
  • Improved built-in drawing and image functions. All drawings are fully compatible with Microsoft Word's AutoShapes. You can now change the brightness, contrast, and gamma correction of images directly inside TextMaker. Drawings can be filled with colors, patterns, bitmaps, and numerous types of gradients. You can also align, distribute, mirror, and flip objects, free rotation both in 2D and 3D.
  • Object frames can now be anchored to paragraphs and will move when the paragraph moves.
  • Contour wrap, which corrects the wrapping of text, even around rotated or irregularly shaped drawings.
  • "Sticky" connector lines between objects
  • New symbols library for flowcharts and org charts.
  • TextArt gallery for easy pick-and-choose selection of pre-built type effects.
  • Nested tables.
  • Merge, split, and rotate cells.
  • Repeating header rows (rows with headlines automatically repeat on every new page).

While the list may seem large, there are only a few revolutionary improvements in it for current TextMaker 2002 users. Most notable among the new additions is the expanded file format support, change tracking, and sidebar comments. These features allow TextMaker to act as a drop-in replacement not only for Microsoft Word 2003 or earlier, but also OpenOffice.org and StarOffice -- or at least Word and OpenOffice.org/StarOffice Writer. Documents saved in the native Microsoft Office 2007 file format cannot be opened in TextMaker 2006 as of this writing.

PlanMaker 2006
TextMaker 2006: Superior Linux and BSD word processing

Testing TextMaker 2006 was a real pleasure. I've come to expect good software from SoftMaker, and this significant upgrade to TextMaker 2002 was not a disappointment. It just so happened that while I was testing TextMaker 2006, I was working on some book projects for publishers that prefer to work only with Microsoft Word documents. One of the projects I worked on was written and formatted in an unknown version of Word, then sent to me to make corrections and comments. I'd started out with OpenOffice.org 2.0, but it crashed every time I tried to save the file. This is unusual behavior for OpenOffice.org, and it's not something I'd seen before, but I don't usually work with Word files with embedded tables, graphics, and special formatting. TextMaker 2006, by contrast, had absolutely no trouble working with the same files. Furthermore, it made it easy for me to show changes that I made and comments that I added, and the publisher had no trouble reading the TextMaker-edited files in whatever version of Word he was using. So right off the bat, I was extremely impressed with TextMaker 2006.

I found ODT and SXW format compatibility to be as-advertised, or at least it seemed to work with all of the plain documents that I had on my computer. I've never been able to use OpenOffice.org to reliably create heavily-formatted documents, so I didn't have any on hand to test with.

The new drawing functions are interesting, but I don't think anyone who is used to creating graphics with The GIMP, Photoshop, Pixel, CorelDRAW, or Paintshop Pro will feel compelled to abandon those programs when creating drawings for documents.

TextMaker is designed to create format-heavy documents, and I think it's appropriately armed for that duty. When it comes to plain text writing, I don't think TextMaker 2006 stacks up to WordPerfect version 10 or later, or even Microsoft Word or StarOffice 8 Writer. While all of the basic functions work, the spelling dictionary is terrible, there are embarrassingly few predefined paragraph styles to work with, and there is no grammar module to verify sentence structure and catch correctly spelled typos ("an" instead of "and," "of" instead of "off," etc.). I had to train the dictionary heavily on the first dozen documents I created or edited. OpenOffice.org requires some training as well, but not nearly as much as TextMaker did.

PlanMaker 2006

Like with TextMaker, there are few obvious changes in version 2006. New features include:

  • Improved international currency support.
  • The Goto button is now easier to access.
  • You can now quickly select cell ranges from dialogs.
  • The ability to create forms with input fields, checkboxes, drop-down lists etc. has been added.
  • Unicode support has been added. PlanMaker can now be used for creating worksheets in all Western, Central European and Baltic languages, as well as Russian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
  • The Insert > Symbol dialog gives you access to the full Unicode character set.
  • Hyphenation support for 33 languages.
  • Menus and dialogs can now be shown in 9 languages.

One thing I have learned about spreadsheets over the years is that there is no standard use for them. Spreadsheets are not designed to do any one certain task, and are not geared toward any industry or profession. A spreadsheet acts as a small, WYSIWYG-oriented database for tabular data, and as a graphing tool for the same, but I have seen spreadsheets used in production as address books, time sheets, expense forms, and invoices. Taking all of this into account, it's nearly impossible to test a spreadsheet for a review.

PlanMaker 2006 looks and works like Microsoft Excel 2003, and seems to generally be more compatible with Excel-created files than OpenOffice.org 2.0. With the original release of PlanMaker, SoftMaker created a demonstration page to show how much better its Excel compatibility was than OpenOffice.org. That page has been updated for more recent versions of PlanMaker, Excel, and OpenOffice.org, and can be found here. The test cases can all be downloaded from that page so you can test the results for yourself, though I have found the screen shots to be accurate with regard to PlanMaker 2006 and OpenOffice.org 2.0. Obviously these test sheets are designed to show the flaws in OpenOffice.org and the strengths of PlanMaker at the same time, and won't necessarily apply to every situation. Still, if Excel compatibility on non-Windows platforms is important to you, PlanMaker 2006 appears to be the best choice.

PlanMaker 2006
PlanMaker 2006: still the best Excel replacement

PlanMaker also loads and renders files much more quickly than OpenOffice.org 2.0. In trying to open all of the above-mentioned test sheets at once, OpenOffice.org took more than a minute -- I thought it had crashed, and was about to kill its process before I saw the progress bar inch forward after more than 30 seconds of apparent inactivity. Opening the same files in the same fashion in PlanMaker took less than 10 seconds.

The only significant shortcoming I found in PlanMaker was its minimal file format support. Obviously it can read from and create worksheets and templates in the Excel file format up to version 2003, and files created with the previous version of PlanMaker, but it can't read files created with Lotus 123, OpenOffice.org Calc (both the old format and the new OpenDocument format), or Quattro Pro. Microsoft Excel 2007 files cannot be read from or written to with PlanMaker 2006. It does have support for a variety of plan text formats though, as well as StarBase, dBASE, DIF, and SYLK.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

While testing Softmaker Office 2006 for this review, I was asked to do a technical review of a book for a major publisher. Since publishers tend to work exclusively with Word and WordPerfect file formats (with the exception of O'Reilly, which supports OpenDocument files), it's important to either use Microsoft Word or a program that has optimal compatibility with it. I started out using OpenOffice.org 2.01, but in addition to the inconvenience of the note display (notes are represented by colored highlighting, and you must double-click or mouse over them to see the actual note text), one of the chapter files I was working with caused repeated crashes whenever I tried to save my changes. In another chapter file, all of my notes were not saved when I saved and closed the document, resulting in several hours of lost work (I thought it had been saving every time I hit ctrl-s, but apparently something wasn't working right). I continued with TextMaker 2006 instead, and not only was the notes view much improved and more like Word (along the margin with full note text shown), but it had none of the fundamental file problems that OpenOffice.org had.

So I personally am sold on SoftMaker Office 2006. It's an invaluable tool for me, not just on my primary GNU/Linux desktop workstation, but also on my OpenBSD laptop, which runs SoftMaker Office via FreeBSD binary compatibility. It's the best word processor and spreadsheet program you can get for the GNU and BSD platforms, and is the functional replacement for Microsoft Office on non-Windows PCs. Between SoftMaker Office and OpenOffice.org, I don't know how the less able, less stable, less user-friendly, and more expensive Microsoft Office can continue to dominate the market for much longer.

Despite the improvements since TextMaker 2001 and PlanMaker 2003, there is still more I'd like to see in the next version of SoftMaker Office:

  • Tabbed document views. This is one of the little extra features of WordPerfect that make me miss it on GNU/Linux (but not enough to go back to Windows), and it's something that many people are familiar with from the tabbed views in text editors like GEdit and JEdit, HTML editors like Dreamweaver and Bluefish, and Web browsers like Opera and Firefox. TextMaker already uses only one program instance per document, which is a step in the right direction (there's nothing worse for desktop organization than a program that needs to have a new instance for every open file you're working with), but since I regularly work with multiple documents, it would be a considerable advantage to me if I could switch documents with one mouse click rather than fishing them out of the Window menu. While it is possible to tile or cascade document windows, neither of those features is a replacement for tabbed views.
  • 64-bit binaries. If the TextMaker and PlanMaker code is finely crafted -- and I suspect it is, because it has been ported to so many platforms -- then it shouldn't be too much of an effort to make it 64-bit clean. This is something that OpenOffice.org is struggling with at the moment, and Microsoft Office is just now addressing. People who work with large documents would undoubtedly see an improvement in performance, especially with background spell checking enabled. Aside from that, having a 32-bit compatibility layer on a 64-bit operating system includes a lot of overhead.
  • A better English dictionary. The built-in dictionary in TextMaker is not as good as OpenOffice.org, and nowhere near the superiority of WordPerfect with its built-in Oxford Concise dictionary. I would like to see SoftMaker go the extra mile and license a dictionary like Corel did for WordPerfect. As a professional writer, I find it much easier to have all of my writing and reference tools in one program, rather than having to have an Internet connection to have full access to the resources I need.
  • A grammar module. This is another reason why WordPerfect is still the king of word processors -- it has an outstanding grammar checking facility. English grammar is not and, as far as I know, has never been taught thoroughly in American schools. As a result, we have to learn English grammar backwards, either by forcing ourselves to read up on the rules and implement them properly, or by learning a foreign language that has a more rigid grammatical structure. Even if you know all the rules and follow them, the grammar module still has a lot of value as a way of catching correctly spelled typographical errors (such as "an" instead of "a," or "see" instead of "sea").
  • A "professional" edition. I appreciate the fact that SoftMaker Office doesn't have an unreasonable pricetag. However, professional writers frequently need something with a little more octane, even if it costs more. If the above suggestions can't be included in the standard SoftMaker Office package, I would like to see a version of TextMaker with a complete English dictionary, grammar checker, and the InfiniType font package built in. These things combined in a cross-platform word processor would make it an indispensable tool for journalists and authors, and bring a more meaningful identity to TextMaker.
  • Collaboration functionality. Personally I think most collaboration is best left to intranet-based Web applications, but right now if you need to work directly with heavily-formatted documents in a collaborative environment, your only choices are Microsoft Office and Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
Purpose Word processor and spreadsheet suite
Manufacturer Softmaker GmbH
Device and OS support Microsoft Windows 98/ME/2000/XP/Vista, Windows CE, PocketPC (Windows Mobile), FreeBSD, and GNU/Linux.
License Proprietary, minimally restrictive
Market Home desktop and business users, especially those who need optimal Microsoft Word file format compatibility on a variety of computing platforms.
Price (retail) U.S. $70 or &eu;70 for the full version; half that for the upgrade
Previous version N/A
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