Small, modular programs are among us. Not many, but a few, and it’s a trend I hope to see more of in the future. Why pay for and store the program code needed to do something you don’t want or need. This is one of the main design philosophies behind Nisus Software’s new low-end word processor, Nisus Compact, which costs about $95 discounted. Nisus Compact has three main draws. First, it includes a number of useful features for PowerBook users. Second, it introduces a neat categorizing utility called File Clerk that actually may succeed where the Hierarchical Filing System fails, and third, Nisus Compact is a good example of a program that sacrifices frills, not power, in the quest for a small, fast, word processor. I’d also like to congratulate Nisus Software for naming Nisus Compact using real English words and avoiding the ad-speak "Lite" or "Kompact."
What’s gone — I’m not just beating a dead pet peeve above. "Compact" really does describe Nisus Compact, because it looks at first glance like nothing so much as Nisus with about half of the menu choices missing. Gone are the colors and the more esoteric styles like boxed text. Gone are the macros, entirely, as are the indexing and table of contents tools. Cross referencing, glossaries, graphics, placed pages… Nisus Software removed it all. Considering what I do, which is write a lot of straight text without pretensions of desktop publishing, I only miss a few things in Nisus Compact. High among those are macros, the Get Info… feature (which I use constantly to check how much space I’ve got when creating a TidBITS issue), and the more sophisticated items in Nisus’s Preferences like Auto Indent and the ability to tell it not to open an Untitled document at startup. Luckily, Nisus’s Intelligent Paste, which puts spaces in around pasted words correctly 98% of the time (unlike any other Macintosh program that I use), has been built into Nisus Compact as the default.
What’s still there — But why am I talking about what’s not in Nisus Compact? I’ve already cheated significantly in this review, but with good reason. Above I told you what Nisus Software took out of Nisus to create Nisus Compact; in this section I’ll tell you the major items that are still present; and in the next section I’ll talk more about what is new to Nisus Compact. As a result, you may wish to find issues #116 through #118 of TidBITS, which is our definitive review of Nisus, perhaps the most complete one ever done (Nisus has a lot of features worth writing about). After you’re more familiar with Nisus’s standard features, you’ll understand better what’s cool about Nisus Compact.
Nisus Software left a shell of Nisus’s GREP-based pattern-matching searching abilities. By that I mean that you are limited to about what you can do in Microsoft Word 5.0. Well, it’s not that bad, since you can find the GREP patterns matching Any Character, Any Word, Any Text, Any Digit, and you have the OR function and, most importantly, the Found replacement value (so you can search for any set of three characters, a dash, and four numbers, and replace each set with precisely what you found, but in bold, for instance). Unfortunately, some of the more powerful parts of Nisus’s PowerSearch aren’t present. I see no reason why they took out PowerSearch as it stood in Nisus – if you’re going to include pattern matching at all, why cripple it?
You can define character styles and attach Named Rulers to them, giving you all the power of Nisus’s styles, and all of the fancier keyboard shortcut tricks like command-up arrow work just fine. You can have as many Undo’s as you could possibly want, limited only by memory and the number 32767, and you can even place and move graphics in the graphics layer, rather than as characters, if you hold down the Control key when selecting them. Everything in the file format (which is identical to Nisus’s) is supposed to transfer back and forth without problems. In my tests, that was true, so even though Nisus Compact can’t create colored text or certain special styles, it can display them and retain them in files. Even goodies like the Nisus Catalog are present, although Nisus Compact doesn’t manage files as well as Nisus can.
What’s new — Nisus Compact has two main features that do not exist in Nisus – the PowerBook utilities and the File Clerk. Nisus Compact can store itself in memory via a checkbox in the Preferences, a feature which presumably limits disk accesses on the PowerBook, extending battery life. There’s an option for thicker cursors, and I gather that you also get a battery monitor in the Info bar at the top of the screen. Nisus Compact adds the current time to that Info bar too, so you don’t even have to run SuperClock or Now’s AlarmsClock. Finally, I hear that you get a Sleep item in the File menu when on a PowerBook.
The File Clerk is completely new, and a bit harder to explain. It has two parts, the File Clerk Catalog (a list of files you’ve categorized) and the Categorize dialog, which lets you categorize files. If the File Clerk Catalog is open when you close a file, it will pop up the Categorize dialog, which has four columns of categories. You can also select a file in the normal Catalog (a list of files in the current folder) and click the Categorize button to pull up that dialog. Anyway, Nisus Software has defined the four columns as File Type, File Contents, Action, and Proper Names, and they’ve also provided a decent-sized list of suggestions, so File Type includes things like Letter, Notes, and Report, and Action includes things like To Send, Urgent, To Finish, Finished, and so on.
You can add your own items to these four categories, and you can change the column names as well, if they aren’t appropriate. I think most people will find them more or less on target. To categorize a file, you simply click on one or more items in one or more of the columns. Click to select, click again to deselect, no shift keys or anything else to fool with. For instance, if I was going to categorize a letter to my mother about visiting her, I would select Letter from the File Type column, Personal and Travel from the File Contents column, To Send from the Action column, and my mother’s name from the Proper Names column. I’m quite impressed with the File Clerk because I’ve found it a quick and unobtrusive method of categorizing files without having to type in categories each time or select items from pop-up menus. From what I’ve heard, it blows Word’s Summary feature out of the water.
What good will categorizing do? Well, if you’ve got a ton of documents like I do, you probably have a decent method of organizing them. Even still, it can be hard to pick the right one at any given time. The File Clerk Catalog provides a list of all the files that have been categorized, and since that list is likely to be pretty long, you just click the Show Categories button, then click on the appropriate categories, and the File Clerk will narrow the selection for you. What I especially like is that as you narrow the selection, it removes unnecessary categories from the list, so the available category choices shrink as you go. When you finish the selection, you go back to the File Clerk Catalog window and only the matching files are listed. Double-click, and there’s your file. There’s also a pop-up menu for limiting the files to ones created within certain dates, and if the several choices aren’t appropriate, you can type in your own specific date ranges. Overall, I think the File Clerk is an excellent way to avoid the tyranny of the Hierarchical Filing System, and I anxiously await its arrival in the full-fledged version of Nisus.
One other new feature – despite the fact that the Find feature isn’t as powerful as Nisus’s, Nisus Software did add fuzzy find, so you can find words (more likely names) that you can’t necessarily spell. For instance, "nekecerie" matched "necessary," despite being abysmally spelled. I don’t know how often I’d use this, but it’s neat nonetheless.
What should be there — What I’d like to see more than anything else in Nisus Compact is the ability to transfer macros to it from Nisus. If Nisus Software really expects us to use Nisus Compact on our ubiquitous PowerBooks and the full-fledged version on our more powerful desktop Macs, then this single feature would allow us to keep a basic set of personal functions on both machines. Many of the features that Nisus Software has removed from Nisus aren’t really necessary for working with text on a daily basis. If you use Nisus and have a bunch of macros built up, your macros are an integral part of your writing environment. I don’t need a glossary or indexing, but I do need my personal macros that do Smart Quotes correctly, unlike all known Smart Quote features, and re-wrap return-delimited lines from online services. People could also create libraries of macros for the public, so if you wanted one little feature, you could just download that macro. Commands that weren’t appropriate to Nisus Compact would have to be filtered out, of course, but I still think it would be a spiffy addition.
What should be fixed — I heard that Nisus Software’s main programming team took only three weeks to convert the core of Nisus into Nisus Compact. That’s impressive, and they did an excellent job on the whole. Nonetheless, there are still some problems. Nisus Compact is as much of a CPU hog in the foreground as Nisus is, and some communications programs will work very slowly in the background. However, MicroPhone II 4.0’s ZMODEM implementation never so much as hesitates, even with Nisus running full tilt in the foreground. Nisus Compact claims it prefers 900K of RAM, which is odd for a program designed for the anemic memory systems of many PowerBooks. Nisus Software said that you can set the memory size down to 500K, but that will limit your number of Undo’s and the size of the file you can have open. 700K is probably a fine compromise. The programming haste also shows in a few places cosmetically. For instance, if you try to use a module that’s not loaded, the resulting SFDialog that lets you find it has some icons at the bottom that are cut off a third of the way down. These are nits, and Nisus Software has probably fixed them already since I have a very early version.
Modularity — As it ships, Nisus Compact has no dictionary, no mail merge, and no ability to customize the keyboard shortcuts. You do get a balloon help module, but you have to purchase the dictionary and the mail merge/menu keys module separately from Nisus Software for $29.95 for one or $39.95 for two, and other cool modules are in the works. If you own Nisus already, Nisus Compact can use the same dictionaries, and you may not want the mail merge or menu keys module. I think Nisus Software chose wisely which modules to break out so Nisus users don’t pay for something they already have and no one has to mess with mail merge or menu keys if they don’t wish to spend the money. Interestingly, unlike Word 5.0, you can load modules after startup if you wish. Nisus Compact will simply ask you to locate them, although it doesn’t store the locations for future use, which would be nice.
In the end… — I think Nisus Software is on the right track with a small, fast word processor that doesn’t bristle with desktop publishing features. They are specifically aiming Nisus Compact at the PowerBook user, and there’s no reason to assume that a PowerBook user will want less power, just fewer speed- and space-consuming frills. On the whole, Nisus Compact succeeds admirably – it is small, fast (even usable on a Classic), and capable of almost anything you could want to do on the road as far as document creation and manipulation goes.
Aside from smoothing the rough edges, I think Nisus Software could go further in providing a powerful, yet quiet (free of bells and whistles) word processor. A Macro Player module would be great, of course, and I’d like to see the full PowerSearch (but not PowerSearch+ – no one carries a GREP manual on the road) implemented as well. By leaving out these important text-manipulation features, Nisus Software unfortunately reduced the power in the name of compacting the program. There’s a difference between power and frippery – Nisus Compact has little or no frippery, and with just a touch more power in the areas I’ve mentioned, it would be an absolute killer of a word processor for home or the road, especially for those of us used to the full power of Nisus.
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