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WordStar vs. WordPerfect: a 'standard,' a challenger

This is a tale of two word-processing programs. First, the legendary WordStar. The product of MicroPro International, it was the first full-featured word-processing program written for personal computers. Today, it has become the standard for comparison and will run on almost every microcomputer on the market. In fact, a number of computers come with WordStar thrown in.

Second, a package called WordPerfect from a group named Satellite Software International. It is a ''second generation'' product, which means it was designed from scratch for the newer, larger, more powerful desktop machines, like the IBM Personal Computer. WordPerfect has garnered a number of glowing reviews lately.

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Comparing and contrasting these two packages provides insight into the progress being made toward creating software that is easier to use, more powerful, and often less expensive.

When it comes to practical matters, a word processor is slightly faster than a typewriter for straight typing. It's in editing and revising that the word processor's efficiency stands out. Changes can be made without retyping entire pages or documents. Then there are the added capabilities, such as a spelling checker.

Another computer-facilitated function is merging. This allows the operator to type a single form letter, for example, and fill in blanks such as name and address with special codes. The letter can then be ''merged'' with a list of names and addresses (or any other information) and an individual letter is printed to each person on the list.

While most word-processing programs do the same things, they do them in different ways. And that fact brings us back to WordStar vs. WordPerfect.

* WordStar ($495):

Many experienced computer users have a love/hate relationship with this program. On the one hand, it will do almost anything a writer wants. (And what it doesn't do, supplementary programs now available will probably provide.) It is a mature code with virtually all the bugs ironed out.

On the other hand, WordStar was created in the days when micros had small memories and their keyboards had only a few more keys than those found on a typewriter. The result: The program was written in a series of overlays that are continually being read into memory from the disk, making it run relatively slowly. Also, specialized functions had to be accomplished by a series of multiple keystroke sequences.

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Moving the cursor (the blinking light which indicates where the next character will appear) to the left is accomplished by pressing the control key. and the ''S'' key simultaneously. To move right, you must press control key and the ''D'' simultaneously. Once you have mastered these commands, you will find that the program's control over the cursor is erratic: It is very easy to overshoot your goal.

Other operations require more complex sets of keystrokes. To mark a portion of text in order to delete, move, or copy it, you move the cursor to the beginning of the block of text, press control/KB, move the cursor to the end of the block, and press control/KK. To delete it, you type control/KY. To move the text, place the cursor at its destination and stroke control/KV.

Because WordStar has few mnemonics (built-in memory aids), its dozens of commands are difficult to learn despite its several onscreen menus, which prompt the user and provide a tutoring program for new owners. Some computer manufacturers offer a ''tamed'' version that has been integrated with the keyboard, but in most cases the program is offered in its basic form.

One vexing characteristic of the program is the way it reformats text on the screen after changes have been made. If a word or sentence has been deleted or moved, the text on the screen is not automatically rearranged. A reformat command must be used. This involves a several-second delay and, in certain conditions, the screen turns into a meaningless garble while the program rearranges things.

Still, this was one of the first ''what you see is what you get'' word-processing programs. That is, the way the text appears on the screen is close to how it will appear when printed out. But not entirely. It has a number of print commands that appear on the computer screen. For instance, words which are to be printed in bold, underlined, superscript, or subscript are surrounded by special codes. Also, the program is famous for its numerous ''dot commands,'' printer commands that begin with a period in the first column of the screen.

The basic WordStar program does not have the ability to merge from lists or to automatically print multiple copies of a file. For this capability, one must purchase an additional program called MailMerge, which retails for $250. In order to check spelling, you must purchase a separate spelling checker, either CorrectStar for $195 from MicroPro or a similar program from a number of other companies.

* WordPerfect ($495):

This contender has a number of appealing features. For the same price as the basic WordStar program, it includes a 30,000-word dictionary and powerful merge capabilities.

One of first thing a user notices is a very clean display screen. While WordStar's ''housekeeping'' information is bannered across the top of the screen , WordPerfect places this at the bottom. The program also keeps all its control codes hidden, so what you see on the screen is exactly what will be printed. Words to be printed bold appear brighter on the screen while those to be underlined are displayed with underlining.

The program is also tailored to the newer computers' more populated keyboards. Many multiple keystroke commands in WordStar are replaced by single keystrokes of the soft or programmable keys.

Like its older competitor, WordPerfect's biggest drawback is screen reformatting. Here, when text is added or deleted, rearrangement is automatic. Frequently, however, the program rearranges only part of the screen at a time. As a result, moving the cursor to a specific word can cause reformatting which moves the word to another spot on the screen. If things get too confusing, there is a key which redraws the entire screen.

A recent trend in software is to include a built-in ''help'' function. WordPerfect is no exception. Pushing the ''help'' key plus any other key on the keyboard will display a brief description of what that key does. Unfortunately, in the version reviewed here several of these descriptions were incorrect. Even so this feature greatly helps the learning process.

WordPerfect's integration of printing functions and spelling checks is more efficient than WordStar's approach. Take printing. You have written a document on WordStar and wish to print it. First you must save this copy on a diskette and exit the editing module of the program. When you invoke the printing module, you must type in the name of the document you want to print. Each time you print you must retype the name of the new document. In WordPerfect, you can print the current document without these steps.

Satellite Software has also integrated its program with a large number of printers, something MicroPro has made little apparent effort to do. This is important since a mismatch can drastically reduce the efficiency of your printer.

Similarly, WordPerfect's built-in spelling checker is very efficient. Rather than closing a document, using the spelling checker, correcting words in the document, and returning to editing or printing, this allows you to check the spelling of a single word, a full page, or the entire document. The disadvantage is that you are stuck with the program's 30,000-word dictionary, which excludes many common words. More complete dictionaries are available for WordStar, and CorrectStar actually suggests proper spellings.

There are many cases when you would like to transfer information from one document to another without retyping. Both programs allow this, but once again the newer program is more efficient. It allows you to switch rapidly back and forth between two documents and to pick information from one and insert it into the other with a few keystrokes.

For experienced users, WordPerfect's greatest advantage may be its use of ''macros,'' files that allow a user to automate a wide range of operations. Take a business letter. First, you instruct the computer to record your operations in a macro file named ''LETTER.'' You set the correct format, margins, and heading. Then, every time you sit down to write such a letter, the computer will repeat all these steps faithfully when you invoke the macro LETTER.

This is a simple example of the power of macros. To be fair, you can duplicate some of this in WordStar by setting up boilerplate files. But the macro capability is much more powerful and flexible.

In summary, people's evaluations of word-processing programs seem more subjective and emotional than they are of other types of software. While older programs like WordStar are a radical improvement on the typewriter and are more than adequate for most writing tasks, it is also clear that the best second-generation software offers greater utility at a comparable cost.