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Comparing WordPerfect and LyX

by Larry Ayers


Some months ago I bought a copy of SDCorp's Linux port of Corel's WordPerfect 7, and have spent a fair amount of time learning to use it; during the same time-period I have also been using various pre-beta releases of LyX 0.11, and more recently the new 0.12 release. In this article I will attempt to compare the two pieces of software, both of which are intended to produce high-quality printed documents, but which have such radically different methods of accomplishing this task. It's not quite an apples-and-oranges comparison, but approaches that state.

WordPerfect 7

The WordPerfect Corporation is now owned by the Canadian firm Corel, but a group of former WordPerfect programmers and other employees in Utah (WordPerfect's former home) have formed a company called SDCorp. This company has ported WordPerfect 7 to Linux and other unix variants, and have made the port available as a downloadable demo (see their web-site); the program is also available on CDROM. The demo can be registered by purchasing an e-mailable key-file.

A few years ago WordPerfect was one of the most popular word-processors available, first under DOS then later in Windows versions. It still possesses a significant user-base, but it has been losing ground recently to the ubiquitous Microsoft Word word-processors. Any text-processing system which uses a proprietary document format is reliant upon either other users making use of the same format or the availability of high-quality document filters for translating documents into other formats. Microsoft has made this situation more difficult by continually "upgrading" their Word format in a more-or-less backwards-incompatible fashion, forcing other software firms to rewrite their document filters.

WP occupies an increasingly rare niche in the text-processing world, as it's a full-featured word-processor but isn't one component of a massive "suite" of related programs, such as MS-Word, Applix, and StarOffice (at least in the Linux version; the Windows version is sold as a suite component). This has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side you don't have to bother with making room for components which you might not need, and the tendency towards bloat is lessened. On the other hand, some users like the interoperability of a suite's components, and disk space is cheap these days. If you want a word-processor which is quick to start up, can print well on most printers (including inexpensive dot-matrix machines), and does a good job with included graphics files, WordPerfect is a good choice. Of course, the price is a sticking point for Linux users accustomed to high quality free software. What you get for the money is a wide variety of good printer drivers, many input and output filters for different document formats, easy graphics inclusion, and a time-tested interface and document-processing engine. This word-processor is also less memory-hungry than some competing products, requiring roughly the same resources as does GNU Emacs.

One reason for WordPerfect's popularity is the "reveal codes" feature, which shows an editable view of the current file with the internal formatting codes visible. This gives the user more control of the underlying text-processing, comparable to but not as extensive as the flexibility LaTeX tagging allows.

WordPerfect has its own documentation browser, complete with a handy topic-search utility. Unfortunately the help is nowhere near as complete and detailed as the exhaustive hardcopy manuals which used to be included with the DOS versions.

Making new fonts available to WordPerfect isn't immediately intuitive; there is a separate program called xwpfi in the /shbin10 directory which facilitates this process. Rod Smith has written an informative series of web-pages which contain useful techniques for dealing with WordPerfect and fonts; they are available at this site.

The April 1998 issue of the Linux Journal has a quite favorable review of WordPerfect written by Michael Shappe. Since that review was written the retail price has been reduced, and there is a fifty dollar discount if you have an old version of WordPerfect or a registered copy of any of several competing products. Incidentally, I've never noticed the slight keyboard lag Michael Shappe mentions in his review; my hardware is roughly equivalent to his, but for me WordPerfect keeps up with typing as well any text editor under X. He did mention that his test machine is a laptop, so the difference in video drivers and screen type may have something to do with his slow response.

SDCorp has recently announced student pricing as well, which brings the price ($59.00) closer to those of some competing products.


From the free (or open-source) software world comes a different sort of program with similar purposes. Lyx makes no attempt to display the exact appearance of the document, just a version which is readable and looks good on the screen. Rather then WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) the developers describe it as WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean). The major difference is the reliance upon a configured LaTeX installation. A typical TeTex installation (the flavor of LaTeX supplied with both Redhat and Debian) occupies about thirty megabytes of disk-space (add another five to six mb. for LyX), while a WordPerfect installation needs over seventy. So a LyX installation is really more compact, but some people are put off by the reliance upon LaTeX, as it has a reputation of being abstruse, suited to academics rather than to ordinary people desiring to compose and print out nicely-formatted documents. One of the design goals of LyX is to shield the user from needing to know too much about LaTeX and how it works, though provision is made for users who would like to include LaTeX commands directly.

LaTeX users often edit their marked-up text in a text editor (Emacs with AucTeX is popular), leaving either xdvi or a Postscript previewer such as gv or ghostscript running so that an updated view of the formatted document can be viewed at will. This also works well with LyX, though it will seem to be a cumbersome approach to users accustomed to the single document view of a standard word-processor. Using LyX I more often don't view the formatted document until a late draft, as the LyX-formatted view, though not identical to the printed output, is close enough for writing purposes.

If you have previously tried the last beta release, 0.10.7, 0.12 will come as a pleasant surprise. After dozens of developer's releases in the past year many bugs have been dealt with (and new features added), but even more significant from a new user's perspective is the greatly improved documentation. Several levels of help and introductory document files are included, ranging from very basic (intended for people who have no experience with LaTeX) to an exhaustively complete reference manual. Midway is the very well-done User's Guide, which helped me get up to speed quickly. All of the documentation is available from the menu-bar. Naturally (since LyX is still in beta) some of the documentation is still incomplete, but in its current state it is superior to much of the commercial software documentation I'm familiar with.

An interesting site-specific document is generated during installation and is subsequently available from the help-menu. It's called LatexConfig.lyx; it consists of an inventory of LaTeX packages found on your system along with pointers for obtaining useful packages which may be lacking.

LaTeX (and thus LyX) is unparalleled in its handling of documents with complex structure, dynamically keeping track of section numbers, footnotes, and references even in book-length documents. WordPerfect's abilities in this area are sufficient for most needs, but lack some of the dynamic updating LyX is capable of.

Though most non-academic users have little use for accurate rendering of mathematical equations, LyX provides an easy-to-use and convenient interface to LaTeX's mathematical modes. WordPerfect includes an Equation Editor which can do most of what LyX can, but it's much less intuitive. I was able to enter equations into a LyX document without reading the manual, whereas WordPerfect's interface is cryptic, and it seems some study of the documentation would be necessary to get very far with it.

Many LaTeX users are still a little irked that while LyX can convert its internal format to usable LaTeX, converting an existing LaTeX document still isn't supported. Included with the LyX source (though not with binary distributions) is a Perl script which can do limited conversion from LaTeX to LyX. It doesn't work with all documents, but might be worth a try. This sort of conversion is planned for a future version of LyX, along with compile-time user-interface toolkit configurability. In other words, LyX could be compiled with either the current XForms toolkit, GTK, Qt, or perhaps Motif. There have been numerous complaints about the appearance and usability of the XForms widget-set, with which LyX has been developed; personally I don't think it all that objectionable, but being able to choose would still be welcome.

Recently Matthias Ettrich, who started the LyX project a couple of years ago, impulsively (along with one of the main KDE developers) ported LyX to KDE, using the Qt tool-kit. Strictly speaking, there was nothing wrong with doing this, as the source for LyX is free. But some of the other LyX developers were unhappy about this, as it raised the possibility of a fork in the development, and they were informed about this port after the fact. The source for the Qt LyX port is available from the main KDE site; it wouldn't compile for me, but you may have better luck (for some reason, I've never been able to compile the KDE stuff). After a few more beta source releases binaries of KLyX will be made available.


These are both high-quality packages, but if either of my two teen-age kids needs to type something for school I'll steer them towards WordPerfect. It can be immediately be used by someone familiar with MS word-processors. LyX has a little more of a learning curve, and its dependence on a working TeX installation is often seen as a drawback by those unfamiliar with TeX. Any up-to-date Linux distribution includes configured TeX packages which are easy to install. LyX has the advantage of using a more portable document format; files saved as LaTeX source can be edited in any text editor. It's also free, and under active development.

Since the initial release of WP 7 for Linux there have been no bug-fixes, either as revised binaries or patches (that I know of). I imagine the resources devoted to working on the SDCorp port hinge on the quantity of copies sold. I wonder just how many licenses have been sold; in the free software world, program enhancements and bug-fixes tend to be proportional to the number of users and user/developers. Commercial software doubtless is affected in similar ways.

In my case, I've been able to get higher-quality printed output with WP than with LyX, but the reverse is probably true for users with different printers. Luckily the demo of WordPerfect will let you determine just how well the appropriate printer driver works with a specific system. Rod Smith's above-mentioned web-pages are an invaluable reference for setting up printers and fonts for WP, while the LyX documentation contains a good overview of configuring Ghostscript and dvips for use with LyX. It's not necessarily an either-or situation; I like having both programs available, as they each have their strengths.

Copyright © 1998, Larry Ayers
Published in Issue 27 of Linux Gazette, April 1998