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Tell me what to install next: writingonlinux@gmail.com

Writer’s Tools for OpenOffice: Awful

Writer’s Tools for OpenOffice is supposed to be a collection of useful tools for writers available in an easy-to-install extension, manifesting itself in-program as an extra menu. What it is is terrible.

To begin with, it doesn’t install properly. Many of the options are totally dependent on a specific database being linked to OpenOffice. Well, it doesn’t link for me. I tell OpenOffice where the database is, hit “OK”, and the database disappears again. Whether this is the fault of Writer’s Tools or OpenOffice, I don’t know. What I do know is that either way this issue should have been addressed as a disclaimer or warning or even as an FAQ somewhere, so users wouldn’t have to deal with this. At the very least an extension should install.

So I can’t talk about the entirety of Writer’s Tools, but I can tell you what I’ve been able to work with, and it isn’t encouraging me to fix this problem:

  • Lookup Tool: gives too many options about where to look up the selected word – everything from Wikipedia to WordNet to a quotations book. It’d be more efficient to give me a Google page at this point.
  • Google translate: requires me to manually input the path to the default browser. Inexcusable.
  • Show on the map: ditto.
  • Every single backup option: virtually useless; you have to back up manually, so really, it’s almost the same thing as hitting “Save As” twice. You’d be better off writing a script. (Double the WTF points are awarded to the “multi format backup”, which “saves the currently opened Writer document in the Word, RTF, and TXT formats”. Why would you ever…)
  • Start/Stop timer: runs off popups, doesn’t keep a running timer anywhere, ugly, stupid.
  • Shorten URL: actually works flawlessly. Bravo.
  • Visual word count: requires you to manually input your goal every time you use it (which can only be a number of words, not, say, pages or lines or paragraphs or any other measurement) and only gives you a popup with a percentage and a progress bar. You can’t edit the document while the window is open. This would have been really neat as part of the status bar or as a toolbar, or at the very least, something that updated in real time. Instead it’s just shit.

Writer’s Tools reminds me of some of the basic Java programs I had to code in the first few classes I ever took of computer science. It’s convoluted, clunky, and overall useless (unless you want to shorten your URLs, that is).

As if this isn’t enough, the extension’s author actually charges $9.95 if you want to read the user manual. Let me make this perfectly clear: the extension’s author, who made an open source extension, charges you almost ten dollars to read the manual. The manual, by the by, is a physical book that is shipped to your home. Oh yeah, it’s also offered as an eBook for $5.95, but what he advertises incessantly (on the Google groups page, the extension page, even the goddamn menu itself) is a physical book.

So you’ve coded an extension on par with a CS student’s homework assignment, and then you have the bloody nerve to create an actual book about it that you expect people to pay real money for? People buy books about operating systems, office suites, programming languages… Dmitri Popov, do you really think your extension is at the same level as these?

Anyway, terrible extension, stay far away from it. If you can point me towards a more useful OOo extension, please do!


Helping OpenOffice feel a little more familiar

When I start using a program that’s supposed to be a replacement for a different program, as OpenOffice Writer is for Word, there are always little differences that bug me. Fortunately, OpenOffice is very customizable, and I’ve found a quick trip into Tools -> Options easily solves most of my problems. Here are a few things I changed straight off to make OpenOffice (and Linux itself) a bit more comfortable for writing.

Feeling locked in

To start off with: that gray boundary around the text. I mean, what?

I get that it’s supposed to help me see where the margins are, but c’mon, I think I can see that easily enough from the text itself. And there’s something off about text that directly touches a border, like I’m looking at a poorly-formatted webpage.

To get rid of this claustrophobic box, untick “Text Boundaries” in the View menu. Much to my surprise, after turning the boundaries off once, they never came back to haunt me again like so many options in Word did. Nice!

A little too familiar

I couldn’t go one quotation mark without that little box in the lower-right corner popping up. Back in my days of writing on OS X, I remembered that box being a minimalistic image of a lightbulb against a purpleish background. Nowadays it is the cheesiest damn thing I’ve ever seen. Before it was just an annoyance, and I never bothered to turn it off; now it’s a borderline embarrassment. Who thought a cartoon lightbulb with a face was a good idea? And if this is supposed to be OpenOffice’s version of an “Office Assistant” – which I’ve no doubt it is – isn’t OO aware of the near-universal hatred for such a thing? If we’re starting afresh with an open-source office suite, why take the pains to replicate that which is undesired in the first place?

Whatever.

Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org -> General -> uncheck Help Agent. It never bothered me again.

A single problem

Sometime after I switched off the lightbulb I realized that, for all its fanfare about correcting double quotes, OpenOffice does not, by default, correct single quotes.

To set right that which is wrong, go to Tools -> AutoCorrect Options (it’s just above regular ol’ Options) and select the “Localized Options” tab. There you’ll find the option to correct single quotes as well as double quotes. Sanity has been restored.

That which is left behind

After changing these three simple settings I found myself warming up to OpenOffice a lot more. There is one last thing I’d like to have back from my Microsoft experience, though, and that’s the fonts.

Before I go any further, I’m going to put up a huge Disclaimer here: There are thousands upon thousands of free fonts. There are even a lot of good ones, including those that come with a fresh install of Linux Mint. I will be exploring free fonts and free font alternatives later on, because getting tied to Cambria and the like while I’m trying to get away from Microsoft Office is at best silly and at worst awfully hypocritical.

Still, I have documents that I’ve already started writing before I switched to Linux, and I’d like to see them in the proper font. Sure, I could change them, but then I have even older documents I might want to reference, and so on and so forth. Long story short, it’s easier to have these fonts available than not. I’m just not going to limit myself to them, that’s all.

As for why I had to go through the following process to get my fonts back instead of simply copying the fonts over from my Windows 7 fonts folder (after all, I am in a virtual machine): the Fonts folder in 7 won’t open up without crashing the whole system, and there’s only so many reboots one can take before one starts thinking “there must be an easier way!” As it turns out, there is.

If you want to legally(ish?) download the new fonts available in Vista and 7 (Cambria, Candara, and the like) you’re in luck – you can download and extract the fonts from the Microsoft Office 2007 Compatibility Pack. And if you don’t want to go through all that trouble, there’s a script that can do it for you instead.

(Note: As of this writing, there’s what I can only assume to be a bug in the script that forces you to run apt-get install curl before running the script itself. So do that before following these steps if you have trouble.)

wget http://plasmasturm.org/code/vistafonts-installer/vistafonts-installer
chmod +x vistafonts-installer
./vistafonts-installer

If the script executes correctly, you’ll now have a wider selection of fonts available in ~/.fonts. Unfortunately there’s one more bug I haven’t mentioned when it comes to these fonts – font smoothing doesn’t work on some of them. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if we installed truly free fonts instead, but it’s better to have some backwards compatibility than none at all.

Oh and, if you’d like to start exploring free fonts instead of grabbing back Microsoft’s, check out dafont.com. It’s my favorite site for that sort of thing.