Thinking about upgrading to Word 5.0? Thinking about switching to a different word processor? Think about Nisus. Nisus is arguably the most powerful word processor to appear on the Macintosh, and it has features that no other program can even approach. Despite this incredible power, Nisus has some potentially serious flaws for creating complex formal documents. This review uncovers the power and the problems to help you decide which program to use. Part one of three.
by Matt Neuburg — [email protected]
(with comments by Adam C. Engst — [email protected])
NOTE: My original review was too long, so Adam decided to cut some of the detailed technical discussion. But he also felt that some readers (including current Nisus users) might want these details. So in this version the tag <more> indicates the omission of material; the full version can be downloaded as TB/Nisus_Review.etx from sumex-aim.stanford.edu or your favorite archive site.
Nisus 3.06, the dark horse of the Mac word-processing world, is a paradox. Devoted users world-wide swear by it; yet it remains relatively unknown, and in a comparative evaluation of word processors in the Sep-91 Macworld it was not ranked top in any of seven document categories. Nisus provides tremendous flexibility and incorporates features borrowed from far pricier page-layout programs; yet it lacks some basic functions necessary to produce acceptable formal copy. It comes with a powerful macro/programming language; yet that language is nearly devoid of fundamental page-description capacities. Nisus is a pure original, a rethinking of the philosophy of word processing on the Mac from the ground up; yet its creators often seem not to have considered the most elementary needs of word processor users. It is the best of word processors; it is the worst of word processors.
Nisus is cobbled together from so many elements, and its look and feel is so different from other word processors, that only a large description can give a fair sense of it. Imagine Nisus as three worlds piled upon one another, of which we will explore each in turn. The bottom is the hugely powerful find-and-replace and macro/programming capabilities from which Nisus derived its earliest incarnation (QUED/M). The top is a suite of page-layout-like capabilities such as page placing, graphic characters, updatable cross-references, footnotes, indexing, and so on. The middle is the word processor itself, where you see, navigate, edit, and format your document. The find-and-replace and macros are solid and worth buying the whole program for, and the word processor milieu is a brilliant tool for entering and editing text, but the page-layout features are, on the whole, badly enough constructed that you could not use Nisus as your chief word processor for generation of large formal documents. Nisus styles itself "The Amazing Word Processor," but I view it more as "The Amazing Text Processor;" creating and editing text is a blast and a half, but building certain types of complex printable documents may prove almost impossible.
Adam suggests that Paragon aimed Nisus not at the market already held by Microsoft Word, but at a hitherto unknown niche, into which he happens to fit nicely: a word-processor for someone who writes constantly but prints infrequently. He’s interested in its abilities to create and manipulate text, and usually couldn’t give a hoot about page layout or long complex documents. I think my own point is that Nisus is so loaded with features that ought to make it into a powerful word processor that it is rather a shame it turns out not to be one.
In what follows I therefore sometimes compare Nisus’s behaviour with that of Microsoft Word. This is not meant to imply that I like Word as a whole. But Word is Nisus’s most obvious competitor, and many of Nisus’s behaviours feel like deliberate improvements upon Word’s way of doing things. Besides, a common question floating around the nets just now concerns upgrading to Word 5.0 or switching to Nisus. So this review aims at helping you form your own answer: in brief, it probably depends on what you do. If you’re interested in output of long complex documents with tables and other such features, stick with Word. If you want perhaps the most powerful program in existence for text creation and manipulation, go for Nisus.
We begin with the middle level, the word-processing milieu.
One senses Nisus’s originality from the moment of starting to type. The blinking insertion point vanishes and does not reappear; lines of text after it do not move out of the way as you type, but are temporarily ignored. The program is busy following your typing; only when you pause is the screen updated. You may like this, or it may drive you mad; it is wonderful when you’re typing, but if you spot a mistake a character or two back and hit Delete right after some typing, it may take a frustratingly long time (on a 68020 or 68000 machine) for Nisus to leave typing mode and respond to your Delete keypress. It’s nice that even if Nisus doesn’t update the screen smoothly, it doesn’t forget what you’re typing and doesn’t force you to wait up, something often noticed with other programs on slower Macs.
Double-clicking selects a word, as one expects; but triple-clicking selects a sentence, quadruple-clicking selects a paragraph, and quintuple-clicking (not as daunting as it may sound) selects the whole document! Option-dragging enables rectangular selection, as in Word, which can be handy for selecting and manipulating columns of text. Selection has an excellent intuitive "feel," and operates much more conveniently than in Word. For example, in Nisus, shift-triple-clicking after the insertion point selects from the insertion point to the end of the sentence; in Word, you have to use a hard-to-remember keypad command. In Word, double-clicking to select a word and then shift-clicking elsewhere extends the selection to include the whole word where you shift-click; in Nisus, it extends the selection only to the letter where you click, and will embrace the whole word only if you shift-double-click instead (though double-click-dragging will extend the selection a word at a time).
Moreover, Nisus features non-contiguous selection (hold down option-command to select without deselecting any previous selections). Adam feels this should be standard in absolutely all word processors, because it is inherently Mac-like: you select a number of like objects and perform a single action on all of them, just as you do in the Finder. You can, for example, select all and only the scattered bits of text you want to italicise and then italicise them all at once with a single menu choice; or select a number of lines, cut or copy them, and paste them back in later to create a quick list. This feature is also basic to many macros (more on this later).
You can move around the document (or extend a selection) by keyboard combination shortcuts. I find these difficult to remember, and long for something like Word’s simple key-pad shortcuts. Adam disagrees; he finds Nisus’s choice of option-arrows and command-arrows no more difficult or arbitrary than Word’s use of the keypad, and excoriates Word for this mapping of the keypad to navigational movements (keypads do not exist on certain Macintosh models, and the use of the NumLock key can be tough on a beginner). My point, though, is that the keyboard combinations for these commands cannot be directly user-modified in Nisus, whereas in Word they can be.
Moreover, although key combinations allow you to move by character, word, line, or paragraph, there is no quick way to move to the start or end of a line, and no way to move by sentence (even though the triple-clicking mentioned above clearly shows that Nisus knows what a sentence is). Further, although hitting Enter brings the insertion point into view (handy after scrolling to examine a different region), there is no way to return the insertion point itself to where it just was earlier, so that if you accidentally rocket yourself to the wrong place, you have to find your way back manually (whereas in Word, hitting keypad-0 would get you back instantly). The same problem arises in another form after pasting a large amount of text. After the paste, the insertion point is located at the end of the inserted material. But what if you need to be at the beginning? In Word, keypad-0 gets you there; in Nisus, you’ll have to hunt for the spot manually. Of course you have to decide for yourself if this is the sort of feature that actually makes a difference to you (for Adam it doesn’t).
On the other hand, Nisus does provide you with the capacity to give places in your text names of your own choosing via the Mark Text command, and then later on to jump to any named place with the Jump To command. This can be a very handy way to navigate. Of itself, it involves enough menu- and dialog-selection that it isn’t the sort of thing one would want to do before every paste; but (and this is characteristic of Nisus) you can combine this feature with the ability to modify the menu command keys (discussed below) and to write macros (ditto), in such a way as to work around the difficulty with pasting, in essence writing your own command whereby a command key-combination of your choice would mark your current location and then paste, all in one go, and another command key-combination would then jump you to the beginning of the paste. <more>
Similarly, there’s no reason you couldn’t write a macro (accessible by a command key-combination of your own choice) to jump to the beginning of a line, or to the end of the next sentence (in fact, a macro that jumps you to the end of the next sentence is included with Nisus).
And this raises a curious philosophical problem: where, in a program’s milieu, should such tools as Jump To End of Sentence properly dwell? If you’re hooked on Microsoft Word, or you think (like Microsoft) that the purpose of word processing on the Mac is to let the user play video games with text, then it should be part of the word processor’s interface, a textual analogue to some nearly mindless physical screen- or keyboard-action. But if you think that users have some intelligence, and that the purpose of a computer is to be programmed and made to do its individual user’s bidding, then you don’t mind building the machine that will accomplish the tasks you have in mind; you don’t care if the capacity to jump to the end of the sentence has to be constructed at the bottom level, the level of nuts-and-bolts programming. And this is what Nisus permits you to do.
My own prejudices make me sympathetic to Nisus’s approach. My first home computer was an Apple ][c, and I learned to program it top to bottom in Assembler; and I held tenaciously to it for years, refusing to switch to a Mac because, in my view, Mac programs were not, in general, as powerful as Apple programs were in this sense: they imposed their own limitations on the user, rather than empowering the user to accomplish her own goals, the way the great Apple programs did. To the extent that Nisus does thus empower the user, I think it is the greatest word processor in its price class; but when it doesn’t, I feel more unhappy with it than I would with Word, because Word makes no pretence of empowering the user in the first place.
The text window can be scrolled vertically or horizontally. Icons at lower left and upper right of the window allow you to: split it horizontally or vertically (or both at once, giving four panes and four sets of scroll bars); show or hide a horizontal and/or a vertical ruler (a unique and occasionally invaluable feature); toggle between text and graphics mode; or show or hide a row of page, line, character, and memory information. A terrifically helpful little feature is that the display of what page you are on refers to what page is showing, not what page contains the insertion point, and it updates as you move the scroll thumb, before you even let it go – a valuable help for navigation.
You can open numerous documents at once; you can even open multiple copies of one document, though only one can be written to. Then Nisus is ready to manipulate your windows for you. With just a click, all windows can be tiled or stacked; menu choices allow you to choose any window, send back the front window, or toggle the front two. With click-combinations, you can close back windows from the front window, select or scroll in a back window without making it active, make two windows scroll in synchrony, and more. Nisus is also smart about multiple screens, so if you zoom a window on an SE/30’s small screen, it zooms to that size, whereas if you zoom a window on a second 13" color screen, you get a much larger window (most programs zoom only to the main monitor, extremely frustrating when you have two screens).
An icon at the upper right also lets you open a page-layout view window – a window which can be left open while you work elsewhere. This reflects Nisus’s larger philosophy of window management, a sort of "anything can be a window" approach. A scrolling list, called the Catalog, provides a private version of the Standard File Open dialog; but it’s a window. Macros are loaded through macro files; the currently open macro file is a window. The Find/Replace dialog, the Spell Checking dialog, the current Glossary, are all windows. The Clipboard is a window – an editable window, and there are ten of them! Any or all of these windows can be left open for easy access and manipulation.
But then why wasn’t this splendid windows philosophy carried on to footnotes? When you create or edit a footnote, a new window does not open; rather, the current text window changes into a footnote window. There is thus no way whatever to edit a footnote and see the main text at the same time! But since the whole purpose of a footnote is to comment on the main text, to be able to see both simultaneously while working on the footnote would seem to be essential. Adam points out that there may be historical reasons for this: the first release of Nisus had no footnote capabilities at all, because Paragon said they were working on footnotes, but wanted to avoid the vaporware label that crippled the eventual release of FullWrite. Version 2.0 came out shortly thereafter with the footnotes included, but the rush may have precluded the use of a separate Footnote window. Still, I find Nisus’s method of windowing footnotes rather inconsiderate of how people actually use footnotes when they work; and even Adam, who doesn’t use footnotes, agrees that he would like to see Paragon come up with a more flexible way of displaying the footnotes, perhaps using a separate window or by splitting the screen.
Here’s another irritation. It’s neat to be able to tile windows (Adam says he once tiled 54 windows, approximately one megabyte of TidBITS text, on a 13" screen). But if you tile, say, just the top two windows (probably the most common situation, and one available with a single click), they are tiled side by side: that is, you see two thin vertical columns consisting of only the left bit of several texts. What’s the sense of that? You cannot read any of the texts, because you can’t see the entire line of any of them. What is not provided is any fast way of tiling above-and-below, so that you might see several full lines of one window and several full lines of another (though of course you can manually resize and adjust the windows to this position).
Menus, too, show the originality of Nisus’s philosophy. A number of menus are hierarchical. You can make the Macros menu and the Windows menu pop down directly from the title bar of a window with a click while holding down the option or command key, so you don’t have to go to the trouble of finding your way in from the menubar. A click while holding down shift and option will drop the Macro menu from a window title bar but instead of executing the menu selection, you will be put into the current macro file with your cursor ready to edit the selected macro, a very useful shortcut for those of us with numerous macros. And finally, an option-click on the menu bar of the clipboard window allows you to select which of the ten clipboards to display.
You are free to assign command-key combinations to any item in any menu. These command-key combinations may involve a function-key, a keypad key plus command, or a normal key plus command; and, in addition, any or all of shift, option, and control. Furthermore, you may make a command-key combination up to three characters in length! Note that this is not like the terrible WordStar commands, like Control-K-Q to save a file; since Paragon merely provides the facility and does not force it upon you (any idea what Command-F15 does in Word?), it turns out to be one of the most useful features in Nisus. This is because you can assign a shortcut for infrequently used commands and still remember them easily. The Save As command is a good example. If you wanted to assign a keyboard shortcut in Word or even QuicKeys, you’d probably have to settle for something like Command-Shift-Option-S, because you want to be able to remember the shortcut as being the shortcut for Save. But then what do you use for Spell Check? In Nisus, though, you can just assign Command-S-A to Save As (hold down command, hit S-A in quick succession) and never worry about forgetting because you’ve used a built-in mnemonic. Adam adds that utilities like QuicKeys would do well to emulate Nisus in this regard since it’s getting harder and harder for him to think of meaningful key combinations for his QuicKeys macros as the number of them continues to increase.
When I say that you can assign a key combination to any menu item, I really mean it. If the menu item is one that changes or in some other way comes and goes – for example, a particular font that may or may not be loaded – Nisus allows you to assign it a key combination that is completely name-dependent; if the item is present, the key combination applies to it. Or, you can make your key-combination position-dependent instead; it always designates, say, the first font, regardless of what it is.
What’s more, the menu items available in menus can change, not only according to what mode you are in, but according to what modifier-keys you hold down. In the Edit menu, the Copy command appears in the usual place; but if you press shift it changes to Append Copy, and if you press option it changes to Clear Clipboards. This works even if you have already selected the menu; you can press different modifiers or combinations of modifiers and watch some of the menu items change right before your eyes. (In certain cases, though, such as a User-Defined Style, option-selecting opens an item for editing rather than applying it, and this fact is not registered by any change on the menu.)
The editing tools offered in these menus also reflect of Nisus’s originality. Not only can you Cut or Copy, you can Append Cut or Append Copy, gathering additional material into the clipboard without wiping out what is already there – and remember, you have 10 clipboards to work with, and can look at any one of them (though not several at once, alas). You can Paste; you can also Swap Paste, swapping what’s in the clipboard with what’s selected in the document. You are given virtually infinite Undo and Redo power: all changes to your document are remembered (up to a number that you set, based on how much memory you want to devote to this) and you can move backwards through the list, undoing them all one by one. Just about everything can be undone, so one has very little fear of making alterations to a document. Saving the document does not affect the Undo level, so there’s no need to fear accidentally selecting all and replacing your document with a single character the instant before an autosave utility kicks in and saves the single character; in other word processors your document would be toast. Not so in Nisus. What’s more, a very cute recovery feature is that if you Copy when no text is selected, the text that you last deleted – even if you deleted it with the Delete key or by over-typing it – will be moved onto the clipboard, whence it can be Pasted!
The only capacity I miss is that you cannot Paste as Text Only, stripping what is pasted of all character formatting and making it conform to its surroundings. (It turns out that it is possible to write a macro to permit this; the method, attributable to Jon Matousek of Paragon, is so unlikely that I cannot believe it was ever discovered.) Also, I actually have a complaint about Undo: when you Undo, the insertion point is not restored to where it was, so that you can undo the effect of some dumb thing you did, but you may well lose your place in the document. Surely it would not have been that hard to add the location of the insertion point to the list of things Nisus is memorizing each time it adds to the Undo list. [Adam: Picky about those insertion points, isn’t he? Am I strange or do very few people actually ever notice where the insertion point ends up after some action?]
Another place where a valuable suite of menu items appears is under Style. This refers in the first instance to character styling, and you get a lot of options here. In addition to the usual Bold, Italic, Underline, you get two levels of super- and subscripting, three kinds of underlining, strike-through, overbar, boxed (apparently useful for creating a blank box with an option-space that can then be filled in with an X later on), inverted (white on black), and eight colors. The colors are not trivial additions, even if your monitor is black-and-white. You can use them to help in the writing of powerful macros, as a way of marking text temporarily. Further, making text White, the background color, renders it invisible without stopping it from taking up room; this is valuable if you want to make an indent match exactly the width of some text above without resorting to the ruler.
I do sometimes wonder about the menu status of certain items. For example, if I want to type a forced return or a soft return, I have to hit characters from the keyboard, which I must remember; they are not menu items, and they cannot be made menu items. But if I want to type a forced page break, I go up into the menu. Why don’t these actions, which seem to me perfectly parallel, have the same status? Why should one be available from the menu, while the others require that I remember a keyboard code? However, Adam replies that lots of reviews have criticized Nisus for having too many menus, so there’s no reason to put commands like soft return into a menu when almost no one ever uses them and most people wouldn’t even be sure why they would want to, whereas forced page breaks are extremely common and should be put out front. In fact, Adam goes on, the basic problem Paragon faces is that Nisus has so many features that it’s hard to decide where to put them. In some ways Nisus’s interface is quirky, but they do some things that make perfect sense. For instance, Font, Size, and Style are all right in the menubar since those are some of the most commonly used menus in any word processor. In any case neither I nor Adam agree with those who criticise Nisus for its heavy use of hierarchical menus.