January 30th, 2006 • 5:32 pm
More and more these days you read hardware product reviews that say that the latest computer model provides “more than enough” power for most common computing tasks, such as writing e-mail, browsing the web, composing word processing documents, etc.
There are numerous examples of this, and again in the recent reviews for the new Intel-based iMac, I’ve seen this argument.
Today, I’d like to give a simple example that demonstrates that, contrary to what these product reviews seem to imply, today’s computers are not necessarily too fast or too powerful for simple computing tasks.
While I do a variety of things with my computer, there is no denying that the primary activity for me is word processing. As a professional translator and writer, I spend a lot of time composing and editing documents in text editors and word processors.
I also use writing tools that help me be more efficient in my work. I am particularly attached to Spell Catcher X, which is not just a universal spell checker, but also a universal automatic correction/completion tool.
I know that software titles such as Microsoft Word 2004 and Pages 2.0 come with their own spell checking and automatic correction/completion features—but I find it utterly pointless to use application-specific features, because it means having to customize each and every application in accordance to my own spell checking and automatic correction/completion needs.
I want to be able to use the same dictionaries and the same automatic correction/completion glossaries everywhere in Mac OS X, wherever I have to type text.
For example, since my employer is the Nova Scotia Department of Education, I very frequently have to refer to Nova Scotia and to the Department of Education. I have two glossary entries for this, “nsc” for “Nova Scotia” and “ded” for “Department of Education.”
Thanks to Spell Catcher, I can use these abbreviations in nearly all the Mac OS X applications where I might have to type that text, including Word 2004, Pages 2.0, BBEdit, Mail, Safari, Excel 2004, etc. I only have to define the glossary entries once in Spell Catcher, and then they are available in all applications. The automatic completion works as soon as I type the abbreviation followed by a space or return character.
The problem with Spell Catcher’s universal automatic completion feature is that it has to work everywhere, and that the reality of today’s Mac OS X applications, including Apple’s own products and third-party applications, is that they don’t all have the same level of support for Spell Catcher’s interactive “input method.” This means that Spell Catcher’s developer, Rainmaker Inc.’s Evan Gross, has to include a number of workarounds in his product that ensure compatibility with the widest possible range of applications.
I know this, because I have been a Spell Catcher beta tester for a long time now, and I have had ample opportunity to discuss compatibility issues with Evan. For example, Spell Catcher has a feature called “direct replacements” which can be turned on in its preferences window, under “Interactive › Typing.”
What this option does is that, when I type “ded” followed by a space, for example, instead of having to backspace (i.e. delete the four characters one by one), Spell Catcher can directly replace “ded” with “Department of Education.”
Unfortunately, this option is only fully supported by a small number of Mac OS X applications. Even though it is an improvement provided by Mac OS X that avoids backspacing, a large number of Apple’s own applications do not support this feature properly, including Mail 2.0 and Pages, for example. For these two applications, you have to leave the “Make replacements directly” option off if you want Spell Catcher’s automatic correction/completion features to work properly. (In Spell Catcher, you can customize the preferences on a per-application basis, so you can turn the option on only for those applications that support it.)
The trouble with the backspacing method (in which Spell Catcher quickly deletes the glossary abbreviation character by character before replacing it with the glossary expansion) is that it is not instantaneous. It is very fast, and works well for most users on most recent machines. But I can be a very fast typist at times, and sometimes when I type a Spell Catcher abbreviation such as “ded” in an application such as Pages or Word 2004, and continue to type more text after the abbreviation and the space character without pausing even for a fraction of a second, then things can get too fast for Spell Catcher and it ends up screwing up the order of some of my keystrokes.
So for example if I quickly type, in one fell swoop, “ded and ” (i.e. the abbreviation “ded” followed by a space followed by the word “and”), sometimes I end up with:
Department of Education nad
It doesn’t happen all the time when I type very quickly. It probably depends on whether other background activities are taking place at the same time in the application in question or elsewhere on the system while I am typing and while Spell Catcher is expanding my abbreviations. But it certainly happens on a regular basis in applications such as Word 2004 and Pages, which do not support direct replacements, forcing Spell Catcher to use backspacing and insert the expansions “manually,” character by character.
Evan Gross has been aware of the problem for a while, but he says that fixing it would be a rather complicated undertaking involving lots of low-level things. I fully understand that this is not a huge priority for him, because it only occurs for very fast typists, and only occasionally, and only in certain applications.
But it is certainly something that I had been hoping to eliminate for a while.
And guess what? My new G5 Quad is the first Macintosh computer where I have been unable to reproduce the problem. No matter how fast I type in Word 2004 or Pages on the G5 Quad, the system is obviously fast enough that Spell Catcher always manages to replace my abbreviations with their expansions without scrambling any letters in the words I type after the abbreviation.
In other words, the G5 Quad is the first machine (for me) that is fast enough to eliminate the problem altogether, without Evan Gross having to actually fix his software to work around the problem.
So on the one hand you could probably argue that the G5 Quad is overkill for me. I am not a video editor. I rarely push my G5 Quad to the limit. (The only time I have seen the four CPU indicators go up and remain up over an extended period of time was when I imported my collection of 10,000 digital pictures into iPhoto 6 the other day.)
On the other hand, the G5 Quad is the first machine that I own that is fast enough to completely eliminate the problem with scrambled characters in words after automatic glossary expansions by Spell Catcher in applications such as Word 2004 and Pages. This was a very real problem for me. It was not a deal-breaker and I had learned to live with it over the years. But it meant a higher amount of correction than my actual typing should normally require.
Apple and Microsoft would probably argue that it’s a problem with Spell Catcher, since the problem does not occur when Spell Catcher is not used, and their own automatic correction/completion features are used instead. But, as I said, using application-specific features is not a realistic option for me. Using a system-wide tool such as Spell Catcher provides provides too many benefits for me to go back.
Since the problem was with Spell Catcher only, it was unrealistic to expect Apple or Microsoft to fix the problem any time soon. I have submitted “enhancement requests” to Apple asking them to support direct replacements in Pages and Mail, but so far I haven’t received any response. Apple obviously has other priorities. As for Microsoft, there is simply no hope in hell that they would ever bother to change their products to make better use of Mac OS X’s built-in technologies and improve compatibility with another third-party product such as Spell Catcher. I am willing to bet that there isn’t a single Microsoft engineer at the Mac BU that even tests Microsoft Word with Spell Catcher. Evan Gross must be commended for having managed to provide such a high level of compatibility with Microsoft products on the Mac.
In conclusion, what this particular example shows is that, even for relatively simple computing tasks such as composing documents in a word processor or text editor, in certain situations, a machine such as the G5 Quad is not overkill.
It would probably be overkill if all Mac OS X software were as well written as Spell Catcher itself. But Spell Catcher has to coexist harmoniously with programs such as Word 2004 and Pages 2.0, which are not written to take full advantage of Mac OS X’s technologies and are probably much slower and much less efficient than they should be. Apple and Microsoft might be able to hide the performance shortcomings in their software with hardware that keeps getting faster and faster. But, as my example demonstrates, it doesn’t take much to uncover the inefficiencies of these applications, which can make them sluggish and prone to performance problems even on fairly powerful hardware.
In fact, I am afraid I have to report that, even on my ultra-fast G5 Quad, Word 2004 still exhibits these very annoying stalls where there is a delay of a fraction of a second between my action and the expected result on the screen. These stalls have plagued every version of Word for Mac OS X (i.e. both Word X and Word 2004) and never existed in the classic Mac OS. Even on my G5 Quad, I still see them. It’s quite unbelievable. But it’s a perfect illustration of how badly inefficient Microsoft’s software for Mac OS X is. Microsoft’s software for Mac OS X is fundamentally flawed, and we only put up with it because we have no alternative. (I know that not everyone experiences these stalls, but as far as I can tell not everyone uses their Mac as quickly and efficiently as I do.)
So in some respects, yes, the G5 Quad provides more computing power than I will ever need. But in other respects, in some essential aspects of my daily computing activities, the G5 Quad is not overkill for me and is actually the first machine that is almost fast enough for me.