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Spell Catcher: Catch-all Utility for Writers

When Casady & Greene released Spell Catcher earlier this year, I decided to give it a try. Spell Catcher’s principal claim to fame (though it has many secondary claims) is that it can check spelling in any program, using the same interface and dictionaries. Spell Catcher 1.5.6 is based on the now-discontinued Thunder 7, a long-standing workhorse for writers.

Spell Catcher has a suggested retail price of $79.95, though the street price is some $20 less. Thunder 7 users can upgrade for $19.95, and there’s also a cross-grade offer. Casady & Greene bills Spell Catcher as working with any Macintosh, so long as it’s a Mac Plus or newer. They recommend having at least 2 MB RAM available for Spell Catcher’s use, 2 MB free hard disk space, and System 7.0 or later. (My contact at Casady & Greene points out that if you keep your dictionaries small, you can get by with as little as 700K of RAM available.)

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Installing Spell Catcher went smoothly, and – after restarting – I used the Spell Catcher control panel to activate Spell Catcher in Eudora 3.0, Word 5.1, ClarisWorks 4.0v4, and Nisus Writer 4.1. In these programs, Spell Catcher adds a new menu to the menu bar, which it indicates with an exclamation point.

Insta-Correct — Spell Catcher’s optional Interactive Checking monitors typing, and beeps at you if it detects a misspelled word, with different sounds for different types of errors. You can ignore the beep or activate the Suggest Spelling window by either pressing Command-[ or choosing Suggest Spelling from the Spell Catcher menu. The resulting petite dialog box offers a numbered list of spelling suggestions. To choose a selection quickly, simply type its number or double-click it. You can also enter a correction or add the unknown word to a dictionary. When you add a word, you can also quickly choose and add common variants, such as a plural form.

On my Power Mac 7600, I had smooth sailing with the Suggest Spelling window, but – on my Duo 230 – suggestions for fixing problems came up so slowly that I often found it easier to type them instead, if I knew what was wrong. (If the correct spelling came up quickly, Spell Catcher helpfully allowed me to choose it without waiting for all suggestions to list.) Spell Catcher has a preference for reducing the buttons in this window to black and white, and though this is supposed to speed things up it doesn’t do much for my Duo.

A Quick Fix — If a misspelling is one you make frequently, you can set up a glossary entry so that whenever you type the word incorrectly, Interactive Checking automatically fixes it without beeping. Spell Catcher also comes with a 1,071 preset glossary entries that correct common errors without beeping, such as typing "teh" when you mean "the".

The glossary immediately made me wonder if I could use it for text I type frequently, like my email signature or snail mail address. I found that the glossary only works for up to 255 characters, so it’s fine for small things, but won’t hold commonly used paragraphs.

Careful manual readers will learn that to insert a Return in a glossary entry, you must press Option-J. I’m not fond of this quirk – for one, I didn’t realize it right away; for two, the two-line text box where you create a glossary entry doesn’t show Returns by moving text down to the next line; instead you get a triangle character where the Return should be and your text continues on the same line. Another quirk that bugs me is that this same text box only can show 68 characters at once (34 per line).

At first, I thought the glossary replacement feature worked far more slowly on my Duo 230 than on my Power Mac, but later I learned (and observed) that replacement speed depends largely on the application in question. I found replacements of misspelled words in Word 5.1 and Eudora 3.0 work just slowly enough that I can detect them happening, though they don’t affect my touch typing at all. Several times per day, I’m pleasantly surprised to watch errors fix themselves while I continue typing.

However, Spell Catcher in ClarisWorks is a touch slower, and in NisusWriter 4.1, longer words (like "unsuccessful"), correct themselves more noticeably – I have time to type about five characters during the replacement, and those characters don’t appear until Spell Catcher completes the replacement. The slowdown is only pronounced when words must be retyped: insertions of glossary entries in place of short abbreviations – such as typing my snail mail address in place of "snailm" – were much faster.

Interactive Checking can also optionally help with situations where you accidently type two uppercase letters in a row; for instance, typing "APple" when you mean "Apple." I quickly found that I needed a override to this feature, and – indeed – one can quickly toggle Interactive Checking on and off via either a keyboard shortcut or the Spell Catcher menu. The Spell Catcher menu icon changes color to indicate the Interactive Checking status.

Will the Beeps Drive You Batty? If you worry that Spell Catcher’s beeping every time you made a mistake would drive you batty, you might be right – I certainly thought so at first. But, after a day or so, I’d taught Spell Catcher my most common special spellings and added a number of glossary shortcuts for a few typos I make frequently. I also learned to type more carefully, and thus improved my accuracy enormously in a short time. Later on, I realized that you can even turn the beeps off, or simply have Spell Catcher just flash the menu bar when it detects an error. There’s also a Tone option for customizing the pitch and duration of the beep.

The Check’s in the Menu — Spell Catcher can also check the spelling in any selection, and the Check Selection spelling checker dialog box is somewhat bigger than the petite one mentioned earlier. It has buttons for Ignore All and Replace All. A Statistics button leads to a word and character count, along with readability ratings. Spell Catcher took about 3 seconds to come up with statistics on a recent TidBITS issue on the Power Mac 7600; 5 seconds on the Duo 230.

When Spell Catcher checks a selection, it instructs the program in question to copy the selection to the clipboard, and then checks the text in the clipboard. When you finish a spelling check, you get a dialog box where you confirm that you want to paste the changes back into your document. If this works smoothly and doesn’t mess up formatting in the applications you use Spell Catcher with (it worked smoothly for me), you can set it so the changes paste in automatically. I experienced problems in Word 5.1 where Spell Catcher would tell me that I didn’t have any text selected. I was consistently able to work around this problem by invoking the Check Selected command a second time.

Thesaurus & Dictionary Services — I was pleasantly surprised to find that Spell Catcher integrates a competent thesaurus that includes word definitions. To invoke the thesaurus, you type a word and then press Command-], or choose Thesaurus Lookup from the Spell Catcher menu.

Along with an 86,000 word Large Dictionary and 50,000 word Small Dictionary, Spell Catcher comes with optional dictionaries for HTML coding, Science and Engineering, Law, and Medicine.

Quirks and Quibbles — There are a few problems with Spell Catcher’s spell checking. For one, I’ve grown to rely on Nisus Writer’s Ignore All feature, which applies a special character style to words the spelling checker should always ignore in a document. (Some other word processors have a similar feature.) Spell Catcher’s Ignore All can’t go around applying character styles to individual documents; instead, if you tell it to Ignore All of a certain word, it will do so in all documents until you restart the Mac. I’m not sure how Spell Catcher can realistically improve in this area, but I’m loathe to give up my style-based Ignore All.

In addition, Spell Catcher attempts to check URLs. I find this particularly annoying with Interactive Checking turned on, because my Mac beeps every time I type a URL.

But That’s Not All — I hadn’t realized until I started exploring, but Spell Catcher is a full-featured writers’ utility. Its Interactive Checking includes a few old friends, such as an automatic Smart Quotes feature and Double Space Eliminator. These features can both be overridden with keyboard shortcuts and can be turned on and off by application.

There’s also a Ghostwriter feature, which, when turned on, retains keystrokes you type on a document by document basis. Ghostwriter creates folders for each day, and then in each folder, as applicable, folders for each application. Inside the application folders it keeps actual files, which have the same names as the files you actually worked on. If you type documents straight through with little jumping around or deleting, you’ll end up with copies of your documents. The more you scatter typing throughout a document, the less useful Ghostwriter will be, but the idea is that a Ghostwriter file could be a lifesaver in the event of a bad crash. Whether I worked on my Power Mac or Duo, GhostWriter did not bog down my work in the slightest.

You can turn Ghostwriter on universally or only in certain applications and set different preferences for its behavior relative to different applications. Settings include how big the file should be before it’s retained and how long to keep old files around. For example, in the case of Eudora, Ghostwriter retained files for each email document that I read or worked on, and for each mailbox that I opened. I changed this by setting Ghostwriter to retain only files containing one character or more. Since I never type into mailboxes or messages that I read, this significantly reduces unnecessary empty files.

Other features center around massaging text selections in small but useful ways. For instance, you can quickly straighten or curl quotes, or uppercase and lowercase text in various ways.

No Processed Cheese Here — Another feature worth mentioning is the manual. Lately, I’ve noticed more and more manuals taking on a corporate tone to the point where the writing more resembles processed cheese food product than prose. This manual is not particularly folksy or humorous, but it reads as though real live people wrote it. After thoroughly covering how to set up and use the application, it gets into the nitty-gritty of how to create your own dictionaries and how to make them work well in context with what’s going on behind the scenes.

The manual explains that Spell Catcher performs lookups through a "hashing" technique. Instead of directly comparing each word you type to each word in the dictionary until it gets a match, the software uses a series of comparative algorithms to decide quickly if a word is correct. This yields fast performance with an extremely small margin of error.

Getting to the Point — Most programs with spelling checkers and thesauruses offer those features as a mega-megabyte sized collection of modules and dictionaries. Should I decide to use Spell Catcher full-time, I could discard those files as my hard disk fills up, and – for future installations – I could choose not to install them. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have to learn new spelling and thesaurus features in future programs.

In the final analysis, I think most writers will find Spell Catcher a handy tool, and I wish I’d had it when I was in college. Students with writing assignments and anyone whose job description includes writing should definitely consider Spell Catcher.

An important caveat, however, is that performance for suggesting spelling replacements started trailing off on my Duo 230 (that’s a 33 MHz 68030, so it’s faster than an SE/30, but slower than a 68040-based Macintosh). I’m not known for my patience when it comes to software speed, but I’d recommend treading carefully if you are thinking of installing Spell Catcher on anything much slower than my Duo.

I won’t settle on Spell Catcher permanently, however, until I’ve investigated an upcoming release from JEM Software, called Online Army Knife (OAK). OAK may have shipped by the time you read this, and it will offer universal spell checking, but take a more Internet-oriented approach and include a different mix of additional features. Another product that offers universal spell checking is Spellswell Plus, by Working Software. Given our tendency to end up reviewing multiple products in a category, no doubt we’ll take a look at Spellswell Plus as well.



A Deal — We’ve worked out a deal for TidBITS readers who wish to purchase Spell Catcher from Cyberian Outpost. If you use the specific URL below, you can order Spell Catcher online and receive a $5 discount.

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Casady & Greene — 408/484-9228 — 408/484-9218 — <c&[email protected]>

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