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Tech Review: Helpware: WordPerfect for the 21st Century

My last encounter with WordPerfect was in the days when PCs ran on DOS 2.12 and had two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives. At the time, in the last century, WordPerfect was the undisputed king of word processors. But it was slow, cumbersome and required users to refer often to its manual, which was large and heavy and read like it was written by wonks whose first language was software code.

If you wanted to spell-check, you had to insert the spell-check floppy. Other at-the-time revolutionary features required more floppy-swapping.

Hard drives came along soon after. My first was a 20-meg monster that set me back more than $500. That’s megabytes, not gigabytes or terabytes, by the way. Twenty megs is about what a fancy Photoshop image might consume today. In those days, you installed the dozen-or-so WordPerfect floppies onto the hard drive and prayed that the drive wouldn’t crash. I digress, but I actually witnessed a hard drive go up in smoke. After that, we had regularly fire drills.

And then, roaring down the digital gravel road, came Microsoft Word for DOS. It was arguably easier to use, even though it required disk-flopping from a storage container the size of a toaster. I got the hang of it, did some customizing so that it would run a complicated TV-log macro, and when it moved to Windows, I climbed on board. WordPerfect was left in the dust.

When I discovered that there was a newish (2012) version of the software out, WordPerfect Office X6, I was prepared to compare it to the last time I used it. It’s come a long way, but it’s hardly a bargain; you can get the standard version for less than $200 when its maker, Corel, deigns to discount it, which is often. I tried the standard version, but there are more feature-added versions available.

Unlike its ancestor, WordPerfect is easy to use and intuitive. When you launch the program, a sidebar on the left side of the screen, called PerfectExpert, helps you get started with formatting, fonts, tabs, headings, bullets, footnotes and tables of contents, to name a few standard word-processing features. A feature I especially like, since I tend to be somewhat wordy, is one that changes type size and spacing so that, say, this endeavor would fit on one page. There also are tools for collaboration, including adding comments, comparing documents and emailing a document as an attachment. If you’re so inclined, you can publish an e-book using this version of WordPerfect. Help files are downright helpful and include tutorials.

The usual ribbon of icons, resembling Word and Word wannabes such as Open Office, adorns the top of the screen, but there aren’t nearly as many of them, and compared to Word, they’re less layered and much less complex.

The WordPerfect standard suite also comes with the Quattro spreadsheet program and a PowerPoint-like program called Presentations. If you’ve ever used Excel and PowerPoint, you’ll feel as home with Quattro and Presentations. Also offered are student and legal editions and a professional version that includes Paradox, a database program, and a lot of other bells and whistles the typical user probably wouldn’t need.

I had some annoying hiccups during installation. I downloaded a 30-day free trial of the software, only to have to contact Corel’s tech support all the way up to Level 2 techies to get it working. While those folks scratched their heads, the program somehow activated itself. A customer service number that’s part of the activation process was no longer active and stayed in place for days after I brought it to their attention. Corel offers 30 days of installation tech support by email, but if my experience is any indication, don’t expect much. The trial version can be downloaded at www.corel.com/wordperfect.

One more annoyance: During installation, I made a huge mistake by allowing WordPerfect to change all my Word documents to WordPerfect format. When I double-clicked on a Word document, WordPerfect opened. It even converted the documents in my Dropbox folder. That nearly put me over the top. I couldn’t figure out how to turn that feature off, and I didn’t want to burden tech support with two problems at the same time. I had a moment of panic until I realized that I could open the documents from within Word. Still, it was annoying enough that I uninstalled WordPerfect and its components way before my 30 days were up.

And here’s the kicker: Even after I uninstalled the program, every Word document on my PC and even those in the cloud stayed in the WordPerfect format, so that when I double-clicked on them - big surprise - there was no association with Word. I figured out how to fix it, by changing the file association, but would someone new to computing know how to do that? So user, beware.

That said - and that says a lot - WordPerfect Standard is powerful enough for the average user and feature-rich enough for more advanced users. All its documents are Microsoft Office-compatible.

If I were on a budget, I’d still spring for Microsoft’s Home and Student suite, which costs as little as $139 on Amazon. I’ve seen it even cheaper at Frys.com. But if I were a nostalgia freak who remembers WordPerfect in its DOS heyday, I might give it a trial run. Just be certain that you back up your Word documents to a removable drive.

Harold Glicken is a retired newspaper editor and software enthusiast. He can be reached at noahm436gmail.com.