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Onward Online Soldier: OAK, the Essential Batch Spelling Checker

Late last year, I reviewed Casady & Greene’s Spell Catcher, a handy utility that helps with spelling and other writing tasks (see TidBITS-353). I was particularly taken with the fact that I could set up its user dictionary and Interactive Checking glossary once, and then use them in any program – words I taught the user dictionary while in my word processor would also be understood when I spell checked an email message. At the time, I promised to review other, similar utilities, and the next one up is Online Army Knife 1.21 (OAK) by JEM Software.

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OAK aims to provide spell checking and other services to Internet users, particularly in Internet-related programs like email clients or HTML editors that lack adequate spell checking features. Additionally, in Swiss-Army Knife-style, OAK piles on additional features: grammar checking, playing a QuickTime movie, opening GIF, PICT, or JPEG graphics (and optionally converting them to a variety of formats including EPS and TIFF), opening and converting among WAV, SND, and AIFF sounds (plus a basic sound recording feature), encrypting text (encrypted text can be decrypted by anyone owning OAK or the OAK decrypter), and removing high-ASCII characters like curly quotes that can be messed up when sent over the Internet.

I won’t deny the potential uses of any of these features, but OAK put itself on my list of must-have utilities after I experienced its most important feature – batch spell checking (a feature Adam suggested in part to JEM Software after he grew tired of linear-mode spell checkers).

OAK is a control panel and an application, so after installing it, I put an alias to the OAK application in my Startup Folder. OAK launches as a small window containing eight buttons. Press a button, and you’ll see a short list of options relating to the button. You can hide OAK just like any other application, so it’s easy to hide if screen real estate gets tight.

The Basic Batch Check — At a basic level, OAK performs its spell checking via the Spelling button. Press it, and you may choose to check the contents of the clipboard or a file. (You can also spur the spelling checker into action by selecting text in any program and issuing a configurable keyboard shortcut.) OAK responds by listing possible errors in the Batch Processing dialog box. If a mistake occurs more than once, OAK only lists it once.

I’ve found this list to be a great convenience. To process the list of possible errors, I first select words I want ignored, and then I click the Ignore button (the Ignore option can be set to work until you quit OAK). Second, I select words I want learned and click the Learn button. Finally, I select the remaining words and click the Correct in Context button. This button leads to a more traditional spell checking window, which can be driven completely from the keyboard. There’s also a button for starting a Grammar Check or checking for doubled words.

To measure speed, I batch-checked a recent TidBITS issue. It took OAK a hair more than a second to list 24 unknown words out of 4561 total on my Power Mac 7600 (120 MHz PowerPC 604) and almost ten seconds to complete the same task on my Duo 230 (25 MHz 68030). According to JEM Software, OAK can check as large a file as you have memory available.

The batch checking is great, so great that I intend to keep OAK installed just to use it with Eudora and other instances where I work with unformatted text. Unfortunately, OAK won’t replace Spell Catcher in my software collection. When OAK pastes text into a document after a spelling check, styles and formatting tend to disappear. In my testing, serious loss-of-formatting problems arose after an OAK spell check in Word 5.1, Nisus 4.1 and 5.0, WriteNow 3.0, and WordPerfect 3.5. However, OAK and Word 6.0 got along well for the styles and formats I tested. JEM Software may add Word Services support to a future OAK version, which might help avoid this problem.

The Interactive Zone — Beyond basic batch checking, OAK offers interactive checking features galore, including a real-time spelling checker that doesn’t suffer formatting problems, so you can use it with most programs. Turn on the Real-Time option and OAK puts up a tiny Unknowns & Suggestions windoid that floats over application windows. If you type a word OAK doesn’t understand, OAK (optionally) plays a sound or flashes the menubar. The sound or flash is your cue to look in the Unknowns & Suggestions windoid, which contains two lists. The left-hand list shows words you’ve typed that OAK considers misspelled. When you click an alleged error, OAK displays suggestions on the right. If you deal with the error right away, you can simply tell OAK to skip, ignore, or learn the word, or you can choose a suggested fix. You can even click the Glossary button so the next time you make that mistake, OAK automatically replaces it with the correction. You can also deal with errors later – OAK stores them in a list in the windoid. I don’t like dealing with errors later because all OAK can do is paste corrections into your document at the location of the cursor, not over the mistake.

If you turn on the appropriate options, OAK can instantly uppercase letters accidently left lowercased and instantly fix accidental character transpositions (i.e. incorrectly spelling "Apple" as "Appel").

Although the batch checker ignores email addresses and Web URLs, the real-time checker flags pieces of them that it doesn’t understand. (I had to teach it the likes of www and com.) This trait is particularly annoying in Web browsers. Future versions of OAK should feature an interface for turning OAK off in applications where it’s not wanted.

There’s also a glossary for storing commonly used blocks of text, and it’s easy to edit the glossary or add additional entries. For example, I used the glossary to make it so every time I typed "ti", OAK expanded my typing to "TidBITS." I also used it for my standard email signoff, long company or product names, and my snail mail address. The glossary does not come preconfigured with entries for common typos and their corrections, but it’s easy to generate a custom set of typos quickly if you pay attention and use the Glossary button in the Unknowns & Suggestions windoid. Also, the folks at JEM Software have pointed out that the transposition fixer eliminates many common typos.

A Kajillion More Features — OAK has additional features that you might expect, like one that stores keystrokes so you can rescue data in the event of a crash, and features that you might not expect, such as one that helps you complete crossword puzzles and another that enables you to launch programs with a keyboard shortcut and set up a schedule for your Mac to launch programs on its own automatically.

There’s also a grammar checker that will be mainly of use to people having trouble with common usage rules. Most grammar checkers offer a haystack of inappropriate suggestions, making it hard to focus on the few needles that point to important problems. OAK’s grammar checker flags words in a document that match its list of 25 commonly confused word pairs (pairs range from simple ones like "your" and "you’re" to the less common "stationery" and "stationary"). When OAK flags a word, it notes a possible error and gives information about proper usage for each word in the pair, often with a tip for remembering the information. You can keep your word choice or exchange it for the other word in the pair. You can easily remove pairs from the grammar checker or add your own.

Additionally, Online Army Knife comes with MemoEdit, a text editor intended to replace Simple Text for basic text editing needs. On top of SimpleText’s basic functionality, it has a simple Find and Replace command and a sleek color selector (for coloring text) where you wave your mouse around on a multi-colored field, and watch the RGB numbers posted beneath the field update correspondingly.

Spell Catcher Comparison — I used Spell Catcher for about three months before switching to OAK for this review. My main frustration with Spell Catcher was that it has no clue about URLs, a problem that OAK’s batch checker does not share. Another issue was that Spell Catcher’s Interactive Checking performance was noticeably slow in ClarisWorks 4.04 and NisusWriter 4.1; OAK is a snappy performer and did not experience slowdowns with those programs. Further, I found it hard to recommend Spell Catcher for use on machines slower than my Duo 230. OAK’s Real-Time spelling checker is a little slower to suggest replacements on the Duo, but overall performance is fine.

Spell Catcher has been tweaked over the years to focus on the needs of writers and match many different writing styles (and the latest release, version 1.5.7, includes a few additional tweaks). It curls straight quotes, eliminates double spaces, and comes with a glossary that automatically corrects 1,000+ typos. Unlike OAK’s all-or-nothing approach, these features start turned off and you turn them on as needed on a per-application basis. It comes with a thesaurus, but not a grammar checker. Spell Catcher’s Ghostwriter feature helpfully organizes saved keystrokes by day and application. Also, it comes with numerous dictionary options for different languages and professions; OAK only supports American-English speaking Internet users. Both programs have useful manuals that read as though real people wrote them; OAK’s is a bit more casual and personal.

OAK is a young, enthusiastic program with new ideas. Don’t try its batch checker unless you plan to keep OAK installed, because once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back to the clunky, linear method of spell checking. Another big difference between OAK and Spell Catcher is that OAK’s glossary accepts far longer entries than Spell Catcher’s somewhat grudging 255 characters. And, of course, OAK comes with tons of other frills and utilities that add to its overall value.

According to JEM Software OAK works with any Macintosh running System 7.1 or later and requires 1 MB of available RAM to run its core spelling and grammar checking features. A full installation takes about 4.5 MB of disk space. The suggested retail price is $128; direct orders placed before 01-Jul-97 cost $69.95. Spell Catcher/Thunder 7 owners can crossgrade for $49.95 (and the OAK glossary can import a Spell Catcher/Thunder 7 glossary), and owners of several other competitors can crossgrade for $59.95. A seven-day demo is available on JEM’s Web site; the download is sized at about 1 MB.

JEM Software — 800/335-0935 (orders through Ariel Publishing)

<[email protected]> — 303/422-4856 (fax)

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