Perfect Writer. (evaluation) Bud Stolker.
A standard cliche for reviewers of word processing software is to claim that "Soft-Star Super Perfect Word-Master Letter-Writer' (substitute your favorite name) is so easy to learn that "I wrote this review in the first hour I used it.' Somehow such claims never ring true. Any word processor sophisticated enough to handle the needs of today's users deserves careful study.
Because Computer Services Corp. of Amrrica states in its full-page display ads that its Perfect Writer is simple enough for unskilled users, I had hoped to learn it quickly. I wanted to exercise my imperative as a reviewer to use the software to write this evaluation. After all, I can turn a cliche with the best of them. It automatically footnotes; I wanted to provide you with some pithy postscripts. It can format verse; I wanted to paeon Perfect-Writer poetically.
Alas, it was not to be. Though Perfect Writer is easy enough to learn, mastery requires considerable time and practice. Installing the program on your computer can be difficult. For my machine it was impossible. While ultimately I found Perfect Writer to be a superb work, the finest total microcomputer software package I have yet encountered, I cannot recommend it without several strong reservations.
At the outset let me say that I am impressed. This is a significant product--a major achievement in microcomputer software. The advanced features of Perfect Writer belie its modest price. For $289 you get a well integrated series of programs that incorporates an editor, draft printer, fancy print formatter, and a set of configuration programs that fit the programs to any large-scale CP/M-compatible computer. You get a series of lesson files, some for beginners and some for advanced users, that set a standard of excellence other software authors would be wist to study. A padded silk-screened binder with integral pocket encloses a 325-page typeset user's manual and a separate, illustrated command summary printed on sturdy card stock.
When the author says the user's guide is free of jargon and arcane "computerese,' he's not kidding. His step-by-step explanations, supported by dozens of illustrations and diagrams, instruct the user in plain, concise English that makes studying this book a pleasure.
The package includes a document design program that can invoke over 30 predefined formats (business letter salutations, indented quotations, itemized lists, etc.), providing total control over text output, either according to your specifications or its own default instructions. Perfect Writer can automatically create a table of contents that lists and numbers chapters, sections and subsections, headings, paragraphs, and appendices. It even includes page numbers in the contents. Further it can generate na alphabetized index of words and topics, complete with page numbers. It can insert footnotes anywhere in a document that you specify, renumbering them automatically as you add new ones. You can refer to items mentioned previously in the text, and Perfect Writer will automatically calculate the page on which they appear, and insert the page reference for you.
All these features are standard equipment. Optional extras for Perfect Writer include a spelling checker, a mailing list system, and a file manager that can sort, merge, and extract data in a variety of formats. Each of these additional products is $189.
The company is willing to support its customers and its software, judging by my brief conversations with a support specialist, and in any case offers a moneyback guarantee if you are not completely satisfied. What more could you possibly want?
Two things that I want come to mind immediately. One is a computer with enough memory and disk storage to satisfy the need of Perfect Writer for lots of room. The other is a dealer or resident technician to install the program on my dream computer. The Perfect Writer advertisement does not specify what size machine is required to run this software. Nor was the technician I phoned sure, although he seemed otherwise knowledgeable. As it turned out, my 48K Vector Graphic computer is too small for Perfect Writer, though the technician claimed to have heard "scattered reports' of 48K machines running the software. A more realistic minimum is a genuine 56K machine (some CP/Ms reclaim several kilobytes for their own use; these won't do) and dual disk drives with at least 150K storage disk--250K per disk is preferable. That is more muscle than my own machine, with a mere 180K of storage on two disk drives, can muster.
Unaware that Perfect Writer was too big for my machine, I encountered considerable frustration trying to get the program to run. I wound up using a friend's much larger computer to evaluate Perfect Writer. Yet even with Gerry's expertise as a savvy senior software engineer and his intimate knowledge of his own system, we had trouble configuring the software. More on that later.
Comfortable to Use
Within an hour of sitting down at the terminal, I was comfortable with most of the cursor controls. Within five hours I had methodically plowed through the lesson files and tried every command at least once. By the end of a long day I was able to sling text from file to file like a pro. Interestingly, I found two days later that I had forgotten most of the commands--a classic case of too much too soon.
Although the documentation referred to an on-screen help file, none ever appeared. Nor could I find such a file in the disk directory. This was a minor oversight, and presumably by now a "help' command is part of the package. That would be a big help to beginners like me, though using Perfect Writer should become second nature with practice. The command structure is logical and comsistent. The editor offers satisfactory prompting for the more complex operations, as long as you know how to enter the higher level command modes in the first place.
Popular word processors like WordStar and Electric Pencil frequently favor a compass arrangement for cursor control: the "east' key moves the cursor right; the "north' key moves the cursor up, and so forth. Perfect Writer, on the other hand, assigns the most commonly used instructions mnemonically: control-F for forward one character, control-B for backward. The next higher level of commands employs the same mnemonics, but uses the escape key for so-called "Meta' commands: Escape-F moves the cursor forward one word; escape-B goes back a word. Commands used even less frequently require both an escape and a control character.
In this regard Perfect Writer bears a strong resemblance to EMACS, a venerable screen editor developed at MIT in the early 1970's The EMACS design philosophy has merit even today, despite the extra keystrokes sometimes required. Multiple key commands that broaden the repertoire of available functions adapt well to computers with definable keys. With Perfect Writer it is easy to configure any key to deliver any command.
Flexibility and Safety
The function-and level-oriented mnemonics, whili requiring the user more or less to memorize commands, also provide for greater flexibility and safety. Because less frequently used (and more potentially damaging) commands require a multiple command sequence, you are less likely to blow an entire editing session with an injudicious keystroke. Many is the file I have lost while using Electric Pencil I by typing a control-O ("exit to operating system and destroy buffer') at the wrong time. Quitting Perfect Writer requires a control-X, control-C; then a final verification that you do, indeed, intend to end the session.
Other control-X sequences signal other major operations, such as opening and closing files, entering and leaving split-screen windows, and moving text between files. You can even lock out the edit commands so that you can review the text without fear of inadvertently changing it.
At every critical point, Perfect Writer prompts you for verification. The editor reserves two lines at the bottom or the screen for command prompts and status information. With such a sophisticated editor, this feature is not only desirable but necessary. The ability of Perfect Writer to manipulate text files is awesome, and it is possible to blunder on a grand scale. The author of the program wisely provides several ways to make a graceful recovery from gross errors, allowing you to recall text that you have deleted, to cancel the last command entered, or if all else fails, to abandon your temporary text buffers and try again with the original files.
When it comes to managing files, Perfect Writer takes an unconventional yet elegant approach. A "virtual memory' scheme enables you to work on files larger than the memory capacity of your machine. It simply swaps data between disk and memory when it thinks you are not looking. If you haven't typed anything for several seconds, the editor briefly flashes a "swapping' message and activates the disk drive. While this sounds like a perfect way to lose characters by typing while the disk drive is running, I found that the swap process works very well indeed. Unless you start to type in the split second that the drive first activates, Perfect Writer can handle your keystrokes and interleave its own disk file maintenance. Try as I might, I was unable to drop more than a character or two, and even that required fast reflexes. I was working with a fast 8' disk system, however. Swapping could be an annoyance on slower 5-1/4' drives. The delay time between last keystroke and start of disk file maintenance is easily adjustable to suit your preference.
You can access up to seven lengthy text files at a time, and display portions of any two of them in split screen windows whose sizes you can adjust as you move text around. The split screen enables you to move a sentence, or several chapters for that matter, from one file to another. Simply mark the beginning and end of the text, "delete' it into a buffer file, point to the spot in the other file at which you want to insert ti, and "yank' it back from the buffer. With paragraphs it is even easier, since Perfect Writer recognizes paragraphs as basic units of text. Place the cursor anywhere in the paragraph, and Perfect Writer automatically figures out how much text should be moved.
A typical command sequence for moving a paragraph to a different file (escape-H, control-W, control-X, O, control-Y) is straightforward, though it sounds complicated. True, you'd better pay full attention to opening both files, setting up the split screen text window, and marking the appropriate text in both files. But consider the alternatives. You could merge the two files (assuming you had enough working space), delete the excess data, edit and then save an updated file. Or you could extract the information, kill the excess, merge it with the new file, edit and save the new file, and delete what was left from memory. Then you might want to load in the old file, erase the text that you have lifted, and resave that file.
You get the picture. Perfect Writer can save a great deal of work.
It operates with ease in situations that show up the shortcomings of less powerful software. With a high-capacity disk system, say half a megabyte or more, each of the seven open text files can be larger than 64K, the practical limit of random access memory in 8-bit machines. And you don't need to know or care how the computer manages all that information. Advanced filehandling routines do the work without a crash, without a complaint, without even a dropped character.
Installation A Problem
So why am I so hesitant to recommend Perfect Writer? For one thing, it can be difficult or impossible to imstall without considerable effort and research. For another, its rich command vocabulary makes it more complicated for the casual user than a less flexible word processor. And it works efficiently only on the largest CP/M systems.
Installing the screen editor and file handler can be quite simple if you are using a standard terminal. The chatty and helpful configuration program explains the process, offers a comprehensive list of terminals that it "knows,' tests the cursor control features you select, and then sets up a file that takes into account your preference in screen formatting and disk file management.
Gerry and I found a bug in the Heathkit terminal installation. The Heath option that we selected tested out correctly, but when we tried to run the program, the main menu appeared on the screen and immediately erased itself. Because the installation program allows you to edit any command for any terminal, we had no trouble changing "clear screen' to "clear to end of screen.' That solved the problem. A user who is not technically oriented might have had trouble, though, since the installation program does not test for this particular feature. It tests for everything else, and therefore can lull you into a false sense of security.
And that's one trouble with Perfect Writer. It is advertised as easy to use. The ads say "you're off and running in no time.' Not so. You had better know your system--and CP/M--thoroughly before trying to install these programs. Printer configuration is the really hard part. We tried to set up Perfect Writer to use Gerry's Spinwriter, one of the standard machines supported by the Perfect Printer module. The first time we tried to bring up the printer, Gerry's Votrax speech synthesizer spoke up instead. Several hours later, after poring through the manual and trying repeatedly to make the Spinwriter print, we gave up for the night.
The following evening we set up the Spinwriter as a "vanilla' printer: one with no underlining, boldfacing, proportional spacing or other fancy features. That made it easy to patch in. The printer worked impressively, even though we were using slow, inefficient, and unsophisticated CP/M printer output routine (the "list device'). The Perfect Writer print module gave us several unexpected features in this mode. It was smart enough to back over text and retype characters when necessary for boldface, underlining, and italics. It reserved whole extra lines into which to drop superscripts and subscripts. The ability of this clever software to maximize the capabilities of a dumb machine is a real bonus for people with inexpensive printers.
Not For The Faint of Heart
Heartened, we again tried to select the special Spinwriter driver routine for high speed output with all the extra Spinwriter features. Again we failed. Gerry found the problem. The Perfect Writer people neglected to take into account one of the most sophisticated features of the printer: a special printer status line can be hardwired to the computer to make the Spinwriter perform at maximum efficiency. Perfect Writer doesn't support this.
We could have fixed the problem by tearing apart the printer and flipping switches on a hidden circuit board. Then the printer would have been able to use a software status routine. We couldn't make this change because we didn't have the extra-cost Spinwriter service manual with all the necessary information. In any case, such a job is not for the faint of heart.
This difficult installation process is the weakest link of Perfect Writer. While the publishers have addembled a superb total package, they have made a critical marketing error in ignoring of understanding the complexity of the installation process.
Computer Services Corporation has targeted its ads to the new cadre of noncomputer people who can effectively use Perfect Writer: small business owners, managers, authors, grantsmen, pool typists. The manual is written for naive users who need know nothing about CP/M or their computer. The price is attractive, but for $289 retail price, what dealer in his right mind is going to spend several hours installing a custom version of Perfect Writer? And what alternative does that leave the unskilled end user except to go find a capable software engineer like Gerry, or return the package for a frfund?
I strongly recommend that Perfect Writer be installed by a dealer. Only the most dedicated computer users or those with common system configurations should attempt to patch in Perfect Writer without professional support.
I further believe that Perfect Writer is for use only by folks with the most brawny CP/M systems. At least 56K, high-density disk storage, and an 80-character video display are all musts. I got far enough into the installation process on my own machine to see how Perfect Writer performs on an older 16-line by 64-column screen: not well. The last few items in the main menu appear only temporarily before being erased by the initial command prompt.
A 40-character Apple screen would not support this menu at all. Anything less than a full 24-line display would suffer, too, because of the need to display two (and sometimes three) status lines on screen in addition to your main text and perhaps a second text window as well.
To be sure, the blame for our installation woes cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the Perfect Writer people. They have carried the configuration programs to a level of extreme simplicity. Still, it is not enough. Certainly the software author can not be held accountable for the fact that every CP/M system is a little different. And it is certainly not his problem that my Vector with its memory-limiting ROMs doesn't have the guts for such powerful programs, though he certainly could have told me what hardware his program requires.
Complicated But Bug-Free
Despite these problems, I think the program itself is terrific. It is the best of its type, bar none. And lo and behold, the editor itself seems completely bug-free. It is not for everyone. The command structure requires some study and requires more keystrokes than other text editors. Whether or not you need such a complex system is a personal decision.
It is a little too complicated for writing grocery lists.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Perfect Writer for people who want its power and flexibility, and who have adequate machines on which to run it. Today that means CP/M-compatible systems. But the real strength of the program lies in its transportability to larger 16-bit computers, such as the IBM PC, that can tap its full potential. A Unix-type version is inevitable, I suppose, and that should be a piece of software to be spoken of in reverential tones.
When today's hardware catches up with the kind of software foreshadowed by Perfect Writer, perhaps microcomputers will have truly arrived as powerful silent partners that quietly do our bidding, enhancing our efforts and amplifying our achievements. Certainly Perfect Writer points the way.
Photo: Console screen provides a separate window on two different documents.
Products: Computer Services Perfect Writer (editing equipment)