Word processing on a Palm OS-based handheld device seems a silly idea. A tiny, 160 by 160 pixel screen, limited font support, and no hard drive or keyboard? Processor speed and RAM put to shame by a Mac from 1993?
Yet here I am, composing this article on a Palm IIIxe – and not just to prove a point. Even compared to a state-of-the-small laptop like an iBook, a Palm device is more convenient to carry. It’s silent and works for weeks on a single set of batteries. Backups are automatic with every HotSync. It’s easy to use nearly anywhere – I wrote this article while sitting on the couch next to my sleeping daughter and edited it while waiting for her to get a haircut the next day.
With a folding keyboard such as the Palm Portable keyboard, I can carry my electronic writing tool kit in a pocket or two, so I’m more likely to have it with me. The Palm’s limited hardware also forces programmers to think hard about which features are necessary and which are fluff.
So when I went searching for a word processing application for my Palm, the options included two well-crafted packages: DataViz’s Word To Go 4.001 (part of the Documents To Go suite) and Blue Nomad’s WordSmith 2.01.
Each offers a good set of composition and editing features, Macintosh synchronization, and little else to get in the way. But the two programs, while superficially similar, follow different philosophies. Which is best depends on what you need to do.
The Tool versus the Knife — Many a computer geek has a belt clip that carries a Leatherman multi-tool – blades, screwdrivers, files, pliers, and other gadgets ready to pivot into use at any moment. None of these tools is as good as its stand-alone equivalent, but few people keep a toolbox handy all day. The multi-tool’s value is that it does the job admirably when it’s all you have.
Professional chefs, on the other hand, sometimes carry a single Henckels knife from job to job. That knife will not tighten a screw, file a fingernail, or turn a bolt, but it’s no compromise – it is the best possible handheld implement for the many things a chef needs to cut.
Among Palm word processors, Word To Go is a Leatherman tool, while WordSmith is a Henckels knife. If you work with a variety of documents mostly on your desktop computer and need to put them on your Palm for light editing or inspection, flip out Word To Go’s workmanlike cutter. If you plan on doing serious writing work on the road, WordSmith’s finely honed blade will be more your style.
On the Palm: Simplicity and Nuance — At first, Word To Go and WordSmith looked almost the same to me: a sparse on-screen editing area with minimalist toolbars, a scroll bar, and a title tab. Each lets me select, copy, paste, italicize, boldface, indent, and otherwise format my text. Both programs support bookmarks, colored text (on color handhelds), and external keyboards. Each preserves some formatting elements from Mac documents and discards or hides others. Both offer fully functional downloadable trial versions. Oddly, neither program understands HTML or checks spelling (though Blue Nomad is working on a spell checker).
As I worked, WordSmith stood out. First, I noticed that it had four full menus, compared to Word To Go’s sparse two. WordSmith can search and replace, while Word To Go can only search. You can hide WordSmith’s toolbars, making up to 15 lines of text visible. It can replace the Palm’s built-in Memo Pad, and can read and write standard Palm DOC files.
WordSmith’s toolbars have more features but take up less space. Its document navigation, paragraph formatting, outlining, and font control are much more powerful, and it has 10 separate clipboards to hold text for pasting. If you have a keyboard, the Palm stylus is hardly necessary. But if a keyboard isn’t handy, WordSmith includes a number of simple, time-saving stylus shortcuts.
Blue Nomad has made even the small things slightly better. For instance, superscripts and subscripts are visible onscreen, and WordSmith displays the document name in the title tab, while Word To Go shows only its own name.
Word To Go isn’t a lightweight, however. Its basic typing, editing, and formatting tools are good. It permits some editing of tables and lets you save documents or the application itself to SD/MMC memory cards, where WordSmith doesn’t. I found that its scroll bar works better. And most significantly, Word To Go is part of a suite that includes a spreadsheet program and (as a free add-on) a PDF reader.
On the Mac: Choices Are Good — Palm OS handhelds are irrevocably wedded to their desktop cradles – they are "connected organizers," after all. And it is on the desktop where Word To Go outshines WordSmith.
Both DataViz and Blue Nomad are established companies, but DataViz has been making Macintosh software far longer. It shows. Documents To Go includes an installer, while you must expand and install the WordSmith files manually on your Mac and Palm. DataViz’s long experience with its MacLinkPlus conversion utility means that Word To Go reads and writes several generations of Microsoft Word formats, as well as AppleWorks and ClarisWorks, plain text, and Palm DOC files.
Other components of the full Documents To Go package handle a variety of spreadsheet types and even convert Acrobat PDFs for handheld reading. I half-expected integration with MacLinkPlus on my computer, but it wasn’t there; Documents To Go uses its own internal conversion engine.
The Macintosh synchronization program for Documents To Go closely resembles MacLinkPlus’s as well. It is a much more Mac-like application than WordSmith’s minimalist dialog box, which seems a basic port from Windows. Although both packages support dragging and dropping files, Documents To Go also provides a full complement of menus and buttons to control how synchronization works. It includes such niceties as a contextual menu plug-in, too.
WordSmith, on the other hand, imports and exports only one type of formatted text from your Mac: Rich Text Format (RTF). RTF is a wise choice, since nearly every Mac word processor, from Microsoft Word to AppleWorks to Nisus Writer, can save to RTF. (Strangely, RTF is the only major format Word To Go does not support.)
Unfortunately, you cannot move a plain text Mac document to your Palm with the WordSmith synchronization conduit – you must either convert it to the Palm DOC format with another utility (such as Sync Buddy or MakeDocDD), add it to the Palm Desktop application as a memo, or save it as RTF from your word processor first. Those like me who like to write in BBEdit or another text editor on our Macs would appreciate if Blue Nomad could save us the extra steps.
Blue Nomad, formerly known as BackupBuddy Software, is best known for its BackupBuddy Palm utility. Backup remains one of WordSmith’s strengths. For example, if both the Palm and Mac versions of a document have changed since the last synchronization, the Palm version takes precedence – but the Mac version is also automatically backed up.
Both packages include a few features that don’t appear on the Mac side. Luckily, none of these Windows-only features are essential and both programs remain strong without them.
Blue Nomad says that they will release a Mac OS X version of WordSmith once Palm, Inc. makes native Mac OS X conduits available – sometime this fall, perhaps. DataViz, which has already released a Mac OS X version of MacLinkPlus, is likely to do the same.
How Will You Slice It? If you need to import a variety of files into your Palm – whether from Word, AppleWorks, a text editor, Excel, or Acrobat – and if you don’t need to change them extensively there, Word To Go is one of a broad array of serviceable tools to keep the basics of your office suite in your pocket. Your inner multi-tool geek will applaud how much you can do.
If you’d rather satisfy the discerning palate of your inner word chef, though, then you need a less versatile but more refined instrument – a real handheld word processor with which you can write every day. If you can live with more rudimentary RTF-only file conversion and a Mac experience with more rough edges, then look at WordSmith. Over time you’ll appreciate its finesse in the Palm environment. Maybe Blue Nomad can put similar effort into addressing some of WordSmith’s desktop shortcomings.
Word To Go requires a Power Mac with Mac OS 8.1 or higher, a handheld with Palm OS 3.0 or higher, 32 MB of RAM and 20 MB of disk space on the Mac, and 330K of memory (plus room for documents) on the Palm. It is part of the $70 Documents To Go suite; a 30-day, 4 MB trial download available. The Add-On Pack, which includes the PDF viewer, is currently free, though it usually costs an extra $20. There is extensive Mac HTML help but no full manual.
WordSmith requires a Power Mac with Mac OS 8.1 or higher (Mac OS 9 recommended) and 450K (plus document space) available on a Palm OS handheld. It costs $30 as a 1.3 MB download. The trial version is limited to 100 editing sessions before it will no longer synchronize, and 200 before rich text editing stops working altogether, but it continues to read DOC and Memo Pad files indefinitely. The electronic manual is quite complete, but too large to import onto most Palm OS devices. Handmark’s WordSmithPro is a retail version of the same product.
[Derek K. Miller is a homemaker, writer, editor, Web guy, and drummer based in Vancouver, Canada. He carries his Palm IIIxe and Leatherman Wave almost everywhere, but his Henckels knives stay at home. He tries to keep his weblog interesting.]