Category Archives: Reviews

Zoho Writer: An excellent online alternative

I recently gave my opinions on OpenOffice.org’s word processing software Writer. My conclusion was that while they have certainly made improvements over the last twenty years, it still just doesn’t hold up to Microsoft’s behemoth package, either online or off. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternative for those who seek: I also mentioned in that post I would be reviewing Zoho Writer, the online word processor from (obviously) Zoho, which turns out to be a very competent competitor to Word. It’s not the perfect replacement, but it comes pretty close for everyday use, and then some.

Zoho offers many applications and services, all of which are relatively competent.  And I’m not talking just basic office suite stuff either; they have everything from CRM platforms to retail inventory management. For an online service, they have a surprising breadth of applications on order.

Zoho Apps

Zoho Apps

As you can see, there is a lot there. For this review I’ll be focusing on their word processor Writer, which I feel is a highlight of their office productivity suite, but it’s important to note the range of capabilities they have, especially as compared to other online options. I also want to mention that their PowerPoint equivalent, Show, is absolutely fantastic as well, while their version of Excel, Sheet, is also very good. It doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the suite in terms of functionality or design, but that’s not to say it’s not good – it is. But it has significant room for improvement, especially considering its less involved and less usable interface, with sparsely-populated toolbars, buried commands, and no sidebar, especially when considering it’s for such a powerful program as a spreadsheet. Indeed, it’s the one instance in which I can say OpenOffice’s alternative, Calc, is the better option, with more features, a more familiar interface, and better design all around.

That being said, Zoho is the superior option for everything else, and OpenOffice doesn’t provide any enterprise functionality or features beyond the basic office suite anyway. Here we’ll be talking about Writer, a name shared with the OpenOffice equivalent (so don’t mix them up!) and it will hopefully give a good impression of how it all works.

I threw together a nonsense document to mouse around with, and below you can see the spell check, which gives the initial suggestion as well as alternate suggestions, which is nice, although it doesn’t offer meanings / definitions as does Word. You can also see the Format menu in the sidebar to the left with all the functionality you would expect, including Cut / Paste / Format Painter / etc., as well as standard font and paragraph formatting options. Two additional features I think are very useful are the Quick Text option, which allows you to specify a particular piece of text that can be inserted with the click of a button or shortcut key; very good if you frequently use the same phrase or sentence or whatnot in a document. The other nice feature is evidenced by the very faint two boxes you can see in the left margin; the plus and text boxes. See those? You might have to look closely. The box with the plus is an insert menu, and the text box opens a formatting menu.  They follow your insertion point automatically, and they turned out to be quite a convenience.

A variety of page layout templates are also readily available, with more available for download and very easy to implement.

Zoho Writer format menu and spell check

Zoho Writer format menu and spell check

Page Layout Templates

Page Layout Templates

 Paragraph Options

Paragraph Options

Although this document is hardly complex, inserting an image and table is something that can trip up even stalwart word processors, and that was true here as well. Inserting the image was easy and worked fine, however arranging it for word wrap was more problematic. Smaller images resulted in much more layout success.

Inserting a table was also quite easy, and I especially like the live preview it provided as I hovered the mouse over the design options, all of which were neatly contained in the Design tab of the table options window. This is very similar to how Word will open custom contextual tabs that provide additional functionality depending on the specific element you’re working with.

Manipulating the table was much easier than manipulating the picture, which wanted to jump around the page, and even manipulating individual cells was very smooth; everything from changing their dimensions to their color to their alignment and everything in between worked perfectly the first time.

Image and table (with table options) in Zoho writer

Image and table (with table options) in Zoho writer

Now is when I need to mention the biggest advantage of (Zoho) Writer over (OpenOffice) Writer: .docx compatibility. OO Writer doesn’t have it, and that’s a huge knock, a terminal knock, actually, against it. With Zoho Writer, when saving a document, you have multiple options: You can save to a cloud service, and Zoho has collaborated with many as you can see (although I couldn’t help but notice the logo for OneDrive is oddly blurry, while the others are very clear), or you can download the file as a Microsoft Word .docx, or even as an .odt file, which is the open standard used by OpenOffice itself.

Writer's Other Drives options

Writer’s Other Drives options

Zoho Writer Save dialog and File menu

Zoho Writer Save dialog and File menu

As one would hope, there are also multiple ways to get some statistics about your document. They run along the bottom as one would expect, but I am also a big fan of the Document Properties as accessed by clicking on the ‘i’ with a circle around it at the upper right of the window. Not only does this provide a wealth of information about the document itself, but coming from an HCI perspective, having the page count, word count and character count in individually shaded, easy to see and immediately locate, is genius. In terms of information presentation and information availability it puts those interrelated metrics right next to each other yet separated visually and thereby forces them in a cognitive whole.

Not to get too far off topic, but the reason I’m so enamored with this design choice is that humans, in order to make sense of, and order out of, information and stimuli presented to them, engage in several practices that help them in organizing what they see. One of them is known as Proximity, in which spatially similar images are considered as part of a larger group, even if they’re not related, so when they are related, as these three metrics are, our ability to process them, their meaning and their relation to each other is increased even more. Another is Similarity, in which when considering multiple individual field objects, those that are similar in some dimension, whether it be shape, color, orientation, or whatever else, are considered to be part of the same group, again even if they aren’t. Those are two reasons presenting that specific document information is so brilliant – it addresses the way we as humans process information.

Consider the Windows logo below. This is an example of both proximity and similarity. We consider the logo as a single shape because the four smaller squares that comprise it are both similar and proximal.

Example of Similarity and Proximity

Example of Similarity and Proximity

This is the Writer document properties pane, that uses these concepts to such great effect.

Document Properties

Document Properties

It even estimates the average reading time. There is nothing I don’t like about this information window, it’s one of the best interface designs I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Before I just put up the rest of the menu dialogs for your perusal to give you an idea of how they’re implemented, I also want to address a nice usability touch they have incorporated in the form of a support icon. See that little blue envelope there way on the right hand side?

Support icon

That’s the Writer support icon, and it opens up a window that allows you to offer feedback or ask questions directly. For a free service, that’s pretty remarkable. It really gives the idea – true or not – that they are at least receptive to feedback or requests for help. I was very surprised by that, and pleasantly so.

Writer support

Writer support

As you can probably tell, I think Writer is a great program. It’s not often I get to gush over software, but this company is so unknown, comparatively, yet they have such a well-designed and functional, free service, I’m surprised we don’t hear about it much more often. According to their webpage, they are a private company but one with five thousand employees! They hold user conferences and expos – that is not small time, yet their name recognition, even with millions of users, is small. If I may be so bold, even sacrilegious to some, I’ll even go so far as to say it destroys the offerings from Google. The only service that can compete is Microsoft’s Office 365, and even then it’s just a little better, plus Zoho integrates with all of them anyhow. Zoho has really created something great, and I encourage anyone interested in alternatives to standard office suites to give it a try.

Here are some functional dialogs if you’re interested in seeing all the options available before taking the plunge.

 

The new Samsung Galaxy S8+

Samsung Galaxy S8+

I’ve been using my new Samsung Galaxy 8+ for a few weeks now, and must say I like it. It has a slew of new features such as the occasionally functional face-recognition method of login, which according to Samsung I should not use if I have a twin, and I end up using the login PIN about half the time anyway, since wearing sunglasses, being in bright/low light, having your head at a different angle than what the phone expects, or wearing a Freddy Kreuger mask all seem to interfere with its accuracy. It also eschews the previous models’ physical home button for an on-screen equivalent, which can sometimes get lost in app overlays, and the back button rotates with the orientation of the phone which means it sometimes points up, not back. Plus it no longer comes in glorious gold, but I did get a neat metallic grey-blue.

Samsung Galaxy S8+

Samsung Galaxy S8+

The metallic blue branding on the box let me know I was in for something special. I wasn’t such a big fan of the quick start card telling me to follow the instructions on the phone, which in turn told me to follow the instructions on the card. I was almost stuck in an infinite loop.

Lovely Blue Lettering

Lovely Blue Lettering

Hmm...

Hmm…

Even with those caveats, it’s a great phone. It comes standard with 64GB of internal storage, however I popped in a 256GB MicroSD and have enough storage for everything. While other Galaxy’s supported this, my previous S5 did not and I ran out of space almost immediately, which caused repeated battles with those pesky storage demons for months on end. On the front, the S8+ is adorned with a magnificent 6.2 inch AMOLED screen that wraps around the edges, an ‘Infinity Screen’ as Samsung brands it, and you can slide in panels from the edge that house frequently-used apps. I never do that, but you can.

In the US, the phone runs on an 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon at 2.35 GHz, which is powerful but on-par with competitors. International markets get Samsung’s own 8-core, ARM-based Exynos processor running at the same speed. Both are plenty fast and more than capable for most mobile applications, especially with 4GB of RAM packed in alongside. I was hoping to use Qualcomm’s own Vellamo benchmarking suite to put it through its paces, however it was nowhere to be found, so I fell back on the stalwart and well-established GeekBench 4, which provided a comparatively average single-score of 1830, but a scorching, second-place multi-core score of 6032, placing it only behind Huawei Honor V9. I should also mention that the scores earned by the phone are much higher than what they are reporting for the S8+ on their site.

GeekBench 4

GeekBench 4

(It needs to be mentioned as a warning that I also intended to use the well-known and oft-utilized AnTuTu mobile benchmark, however on boot it insisted I download an additional ‘phone verification app’ and even loaded the Play store to do so. I don’t know why it would require that, I’ve never heard of such a thing, it sounded very fishy, and the reviews of it were foreboding. Therefore, although I like AnTuTu generally, I must recommend that you not use it for mobile bench marking purposes.)

I was also quite pleased at the 3500 milliamp battery life: Using Google Maps for navigation, after an hour of use my battery power was still in the high 80 percentile, whereas the Galaxy S5 would have been long dead by then. Speaking of which, it also supports Qi wireless charging, however be aware that is a misnomer: While you can rest the phone in a dock and have it charge thanks to two coils in the back, the dock itself still has to be plugged in. It doesn’t just magically charge from the air, although I am still waiting for that feature. The 12-megapixel rear camera takes stunning photos, and you can even elect to have them stored in RAW format. May as well, you’ll have the room. I don’t use the front camera except for the once-in-a-blue-moon mobile Skype call, so I can’t comment in any meaningful way on its quality, however it’s an 8 megapixel component.

In the first image below, taken at a mid-level setting and moving at ~70 miles an hour, the wind farm comes out quite clear with separation among colors from the rich blue at the top to the white of the mills in the center (even considering the haze that muddies the contrast along the horizontal center) and the darker colors of the earth and road at the bottom. Minimal blur with good color even at speed. Below that, a few pictures from my trip to Monsterpalooza in Anaheim, and even in low light conditions there is still sharp contrast and detail, except when an area of the image was in competition from multiple light sources as can be seen in the sign to the right of Frankenstein.

Wind Farm

Wind Farm

Another aspect of the phone I really appreciate this time around is when a known or suspected scam call comes in, the phone displays the contact name either as ‘Potential Fraud’ or ‘Potential Spam.’ I don’t know what the difference is, and like to think I could guess it anyway, but there have been no false positives or missed calls because of it so far. Also note the beautiful 1080P screenshots the phone takes.

Potential Spam

Potential Spam

I’ve been very happy with it so far. I haven’t had the chance to run it though its paces save for some movie streaming from my Plex server, which worked flawlessly, and with everything else it hasn’t hiccuped, stuttered, or frozen up yet. It doesn’t even get as hot. I’m still not thrilled about the lack of a physical home button, and once I transfer over all 13,672 files in my music library and see how it handles that in terms of performance and usability I’ll have a better idea of its overall capabilities. They’re also sending a complementary GearVR version 3, but every two weeks they inform me it will take six to eight weeks so I don’t know when it will get here, but with the S8’s USB type C connector, it won’t work with my old version 1, but I’ll update as soon as I can put it through it’s VR paces too.

This is so very strange

Corsair Strafe

I recently built a new PC, and decided I wanted some flash to go along with it. I put in a motherboard and fans that have some LED elements, and kept the inside to a generally red theme. The nice thing is, the fans are RGB so I can switch them to any color I want, or even have them cycle through colors. No functional application, but nifty to look at.

I’ll be doing a video walkthrough of it soon, but here’s a picture to hold you over until then. And yes, that’s a reference GeForce 1080. It’s by Zotac, a brand I’ve never dealt with before, but it seems to be doing fine so far. Of course, it’s only an office machine.

The new PC

The new PC

Going Up