Novice to Novice

As part of a regular series by and for novices, Dean gives a novice's point of view on some of the many spreadsheet and text editing programs that run under Linux.

sc (6.21, on disk set 'AP') and oleo (v0.03.2, from Sunsite) are both simplified spreadsheets similar to early version of Lotus-123 or Excel. Both programs have a fair variety of functions but lack the bang! of their MS-DOS counterparts. I had no problems installing either one because binaries were included in the archives. Both ran without fault. The problems I did have were primarily related to cursor movement. I'm spoiled; I like to use the cursor keys and PageUp and PageDown. Both programs used keys and combinations that may be familiar to Unix users, especially Emacs users, but aren't familiar to this Novice. For example, the Lotus-123 '/' command didn't bring up the menu. Also you can't just type a number into a cell; you must first hit the '=' key (like Excel). I received an out of memory error in sc when I tried to get the cursor to (g)o to cell zz3000. Sure I was running sc through X-Windows but the swapfile was active. Like I said, I'm spoiled.

xspread (1.1L2, from Sunsite) is an X-Windows spreadsheet based on sc. Like sc the data is entered via '='. Unlike sc '/' does bring up a Lotus-123-like menu. If you had to use any of the freeware spreadsheets mentioned this would get my recommendation, simply because of the Lotus-like menu.

Text editors

vi and Emacs (GNU version) are the two most popular and renowned text editors in Unix. Most of the following appeared on the main Slackware CD and had installation scripts available.

vi is on most every system and is a useful compact program, though I don't care for it personally. The commands and three operating modes aren't the most intuitive—not that DOS's edlin fares better by comparison (though DOS's newer edit does shine). My advice to novices is to learn it just in case. Again, this program is everywhere so it helps you to have at least a basic understanding of how to work it.

GNU emacs (19.27, on disk “E”) is not a program, it's a lifestyle. Either you love it because it can do almost anything or you hate it for its obscureness. I know it overwhelms me. The X-Windows version is amazing. It has a menu bar to make things easier and the menu choices are bizarre and unique. You can read your mail or news, learn from the tutorial, search by most anything. Choosing calendar lets you play with Mayan, Islamic, Hebrew, and some other dates. “Moon phases” is an option. A diary is available. As for word processing I didn't think it so hot. In X-Windows, I expected the ability to change fonts or typesizes and there was no obvious way to do so. Comparing emacs to Microsoft's Word for Windows will show even greater inconveniences for the would-be Unix word processor. But emacs can apparently do so much for so many types of people—programmers, writers, e-mail readers—that to focus on just one area doesn't quite give it a fair appraisal.

[The reason that it doesn't compare well with work processors is that it isn't one. Even in the DOS and Windows, world, programmers don't use Word for Windows to write the programs, nor do they use Brief to write theses, as a general rule—Ed]

A mild warning: if you don't have the option to run it from CD, expect emacs to use a little over 20 megs of your hard drive.

And that's all I will say about vi and emacs. If you want more in depth information about any of the programs look for HOW-TO's, FAQ's, and books. Linux Journal had an article about customizing emacs in the September 1994 issue. A good basic intro to vi is in Matt Welsh's “Linux Installation and Getting Started” guide.

A quick aside: I don't care for vi but I use it; I like the X-Windows version of emacs but I don't use it yet. In general, I find the non-X-Window command structure of the emacs programs too arcane. In part, this is because I'm coming over from DOS where most text editors have available the Wordstar-compatible commands or where most everything is mouseable. Since I use a “modern” word processor, many of the Unix programs I found seem outright brutal. For me <F1> should always be the help key, not some ^h-? combination requiring three hands.

Emacs clones

Lucid Emacs (19.10) is a clean variant of GNU Emacs and is very nice. Unlike the GNU version it doesn't bombard you with a variety of unusual options. It appears to focus on basic text editing and that's it! Cursor key and mouse movement and all the other basics are there. The one immediate nitpick I discovered is that when you change the font or type size for a sentence, word, or a block, all the text in the file gets changed. [This is because Lucid Emacs, like GNU Emacs, is a text editor, and you are changing the font that the whole file is displayed in—Ed] Like GNU Emacs, Lucid will eat up about 20 megs of hard drive space so you may want to choose between the two and/or run it from the CD.

jove (4.14.10, on disk “AP”) stands for “Jonathan's Own Version of Emacs”. Unfortunately I couldn't explore whatever differences exist between this and the real emacs since I'm not an expert user of emacs. One obvious difference is the amount of hard drive space used. jove doesn't come close to the over-20 megs that emacs consumes. Other than that, the same annoying obscure commands are present.