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Yes, Windows is Dumb: WordPad

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Excerpted from
Yes, Windows Is Dumb
Easy Ways to Master Your PC
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt


Microsoft's odd but useful WordPad 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

WordPad is an oddity. It's the word processor that comes free with every Windows 95 PC. It's very modern, very easy to use, very powerful—and, unfortunately, very limited.

Microsoft developed WordPad as the replacement for its aging and cranky freebie word processor called Write. WordPad is a major improvement over Write: It's a full 32-bit program (able to take full advantage of the 32-bit code in Windows 95 and Windows NT), it knows how to handle the latest wrinkle in Microsoft's drag-and-drop system (scraps of text can be dragged out of WordPad and dropped onto the desktop), and it just plain looks better. WordPad works better than Write in other ways, too: It knows how to save its window size and position, it can open and save documents in Microsoft Word format (but only Word 6 and Word 7) and it can create and display colored text within a document.

All this is academic if you've never used Write. (Hackers and even serious programmers will point out, however, that Write did have one advantage over WordPad. It was possible—it is possible, if you dredge up your old copy of Write—to use Write as a binary-file editor. You can actually change program code by opening an EXE or DLL file within Write, making a change and then saving the file, as long as you make sure you haven't added to the byte length of the file.) Write is still used by millions of Windows 3.x users, but it is disappearing fast. WordPad must be judged on its own.

And, on its own, WordPad is a friendly and competent word processor. In many ways, it looks and behaves like a junior Word. (Its interface and control buttons mimic those of Word 6 and Word 7, also known as Word 95, and its two toolbars can be dragged to new positions just as Word's toolbars can be. But WordPad's toolbars can't be customized.) WordPad can handle documents of any size, too. This makes WordPad ideal for viewing and editing texts that are too big for Microsoft's inexcusably limited (and never updated) text editor, Notepad. WordPad also scores well in an area that is often ignored by the computer press: It is exceptionally stable, handling all the tasks that are thrown at it without slowing down and without protesting. I've never been able to get WordPad to crash.

The most obvious shortcoming of WordPad is the absence of a spelling checker. (This is remedied in a free replacement for WordPad called Cetus WordPad, which you can download from Cetus using this link.) This isn't an oversight; Microsoft didn't design WordPad as a full-featured word processor, and the company probably made the right decision in keeping WordPad's program code reasonably lean by leaving out a spelling checker and other features. (Cetus WordPad, which does have a spelling checker, takes noticeably longer to load and, of course, takes up more space on your hard disk.)

Less obvious but more limiting is WordPad's curious inability to create fully justified margins. WordPad's default is the standard one of left-justified text, also known as ragged-right text, and that is fine for nearly all informal documents (letters, faxes, school reports and so on). It will also produce paragraphs or entire documents in which the text is centered or right-justified (ragged left). But formal documents usually look better when the text is justified against both the left and right margins, which WordPad cannot do. (A personal note: I write a weekly newsletter on technical topics for my office mates using Microsoft Word, which takes up nearly all the limited memory on my office PC. I'd love to write it on WordPad—gaining back about 90 percent of my PC's available RAM—but I can't, because the design of my newsletter requires justified margins.)

WordPad also falls down in its ability to display some of the graphics embedded in (or linked within) Microsoft Word documents. Were it not for this failing, which shows up as misaligned pictures or graphs—or sometimes even missing pictures or graphs—WordPad would make an outstanding mini viewer and editor for Word documents. You may not find problems with most Word documents, but, if you do, and if you need a way to display them on PCs that do not have Word installed, consider Microsoft's free Word Viewer. (At least two versions are available from the company's Web sites. One displays Word 6 and 7 documents and the other displays Word 8 documents as well. Word 8 is the internal Microsoft designation for Word 97.)

Another shortcoming is perhaps important only to those who want to use WordPad as a general text reader (as a replacement for NotePad, in other words). When straight text files are opened in WordPad—files that are not word-processor documents—WordPad displays the text using a Courier font. This is a monospaced font that old-timers should recognize as the standard typewriter face of a few decades ago. It's easy to read and keeps spacebar-aligned charts—of the kind that was common in technical documents of the 1980s—perfectly lined up on your screen and in your printout. But this default font can't be easily changed. You can, of course, highlight the entire document (Control-A is a quick shortcut to do that) and then choose another font, but what's needed is a simple way to get WordPad to switch to another font as the default when it opens a text. Various schemes to change WordPad's behavior have been suggested (none of which I'll mention here, mostly because they either don't work or don't actually change the default behavior), but the solution is to let this typewriter font take over and do its thing; after a while, you'll get to like it.

Finally, I'll mention what appears to be an oddity in the way WordPad operates when you drag the icon of a file to its open window and drop it there. Most simple word processors and text editors open the dropped file no matter where you let go of the button. In other words, you can drag the icon anywhere onto the program window and let go; the text is then opened in the window. But WordPad adheres to Microsoft's primary standard of object linking and embedding (OLE, pronounced olay), in which objects that are dropped on the menu bar (or any other solid part of the window frame) are opened, while objects that are dropped within the window are embedded. This isn't the place for an explanation of OLE, but a few simple experiments on your own PC will show you how it works. Just be sure to drop the file icon onto the menu bar (or a blank part of the toolbar) if you want to view it or edit it, and drop it onto the open window if you want to embed it.

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