First Impressions and Feedback

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digimarkus
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Joined: Wed Sep 06, 2006 6:34 am

First Impressions and Feedback

Post by digimarkus » Thu Sep 07, 2006 3:42 pm

I have been evaluating Mellel for a couple of weeks (I just bought it) and thought I would share a few of my initial impressions. I recently made the move to an Intel Mac and the lack of a universal version of Word and Endnote got me to explore alternatives. In the end it came down to Nisus Writer Express and Mellel. In fact, I took a really serious look at Nisus Writer Express and it's quite nice. It uses a similar paradigm to Word and this made it easy to pickup quickly. I like it's simple interface, the thesaurus integration is nice, styles work quite well, it has very useful macros, a powerful search and replace, and the open file format (rtf) is quite convenient. However, without good bibliography software integration it's didn't suit my primary need - academic writing.

In considering both NWE and Mellel I spent a lot of time reading forum discussions. I discovered that a many people seem to be users of both programs. It also seems like the old Nisus Writer Classic was quite popular by academic writers, however, NWE hasn't quiet lived up to the same expectations. Consequently, Mellel seems to be establishing itself as the scholar and professional writing tool for Mac OS X. Also worth noting is that I feel the Mellel forum is more active and constructive. This is largely due to the fact that the Redlers ( i.e. Ori) seem to actively engage with the dialogue (a significant selling point for me). I feel that both NWE and Mellel need more work to be the perfect tool for technical and academic writers. Given the quality of input from Mellel users and the responsiveness of the developers, I more hope at this point that Mellel will be that product. So with the goal of continual improvement in mind, here are some initial thoughts as a prospective (and ultimate) buyer:

1. I first encountered Mellel on the old redlers website and it didn't make me very confident in trying the software. The old site didn't communicate the sense that Mellel was a refined, quality product, with an "insanely great" writing experience. Nor did the old site help me understand Mellel's specific brand promises ( i.e. it's suitability to scholarly writing). That said, the new website is now quite effective in this way. And the change is what sold me on downloading the product and giving it a try. However, I might suggest that the site design continue moving in a direction like: http://www.zengobi.com/, http://www.luxology.com/, or http://www.solavant.com/. I would also suggest blending this sort of "innovative, easy to use" feel with a bit more of the scholarly/typographic sophistication of sites like http://www.cornell.edu/, or http://www.alistapart.com/. Why is this important? Because the website's look and feel created my first impression of Mellel. With the old website I didn't give the product a try and it wasn't until I got Sente (and it's promotion of Mellel) that got me to at least try the download.

2. My first, impression of Mellel was that I don't like writing in iTunes (actually I don't even like the brushed metal look in iTunes). However, the new website had screenshots of an Aqua version of Mellel so I figured there must be a preference setting somewhere. Sure enough, this was easy to change, but IMHO Aqua (or unified metal look) should be the default setting. Anyways, the Aqua version of the Mellel interface quickly grew on me - I really like that fact that it's not distracting. I also really like the way palettes work - they are very innovative (the website should note that they are not like those terrible Word palettes that disappear off the screen). Now, there is still room for adding more polish to the interface, but it's simplicity is nice and very effective for someone who wants to focus on the task of writing.

3. Writing in Mellel is straight forward although the blinking cursor was a bit annoying at first, because it varies in thickness as it move across a line. It doesn't bother me now (I got used to it), but as a new user it was a bit distracting.

4. Writing in Mellel always seems very quick and responsive, even with long documents. This is a great feature.

5. Ad hoc styling was easy enough to figure out and 2.1 is a good step forward in making the styles and font palettes more intuitive. their is style some work to do here. Personally I would put all the font and character appearance stuff onto one palette, as they are all related controls.

6. The addition of ALL CAPS and Small Caps would be nice to see. And by this I mean something more than just All Small Caps using Open Type fonts. It would be nice to see both fake Small Caps and a working implementation of Small Caps will Adobe Open Type fonts (presently only forced All Small Caps works in Mellel).

7. Lists (which I use a lot) seemed awkward at first, until I learned the keyboard commands. Now, I like them a lot and it's quite easy to fine tune how they are formated.

8. Spell checking as you write is implemented in a very nice way. I find the soft red background color, less distracting that the squiggly underline in Word. The right click a word and look up in dictionary is a real nice feature that I use all the time. However, I do wish there was an integrated thesaurus. At some point you could use the WordNet database ( wordnet.princeton.edu/). It's easy enough to use the Nisus Thesaurus within Mellel as a service, but tight integration of Mellel's own thesaurus would be really nice, at some point.

9. Automatic save and document backup is easy to set-up and a really handy feature.

10. The bibliography software integration is a very helpful (and unique) feature. I hope it will continue to improve over time. For example, it would be nice to have the citations and bibliography work in a WYSIWYG way, so you know how the final scanned document will look (particularly in terms of paragraph spacing).

11. Inserting images is fairly simple, although I would like to see things like text wrapping and scaling of the image size within the floating frame. Also, I use OmniGraffle extensively for diagrams and I would love to see LinkBack support added.

12. Table creation was easy enough, although I had to read the manual to figure out how to make selecting the whole table in the document and selecting borders within the border selector more efficient. Also, it would be nice to have a dynamic widget like in word, pages, or NWE to select the number of columns and rows that you would like in your table. And as I advance in my understanding of the Mellel paradigm I will soon want table styles.

13. Adding content to the header and footer could be a bit simpler, like in Pages or NWE. I quite like the way this works in Pages, because you don't see any frame header/footer frame until you do a mouse roll over the area. Something like this would be a nice touch to add to Mellel.

14. The most confusing part of learning Mellel was trying to understand how paragraph styles, character styles, and character style variations work. Styles are very powerful and actually pretty easy to use, although the interface for style set editing could be made a lot easier to use ( i.e more visual). I think that NWE does a very nice job here and I would like to see this sort of visual interface for editing styles and managing style sets in Mellel.

15. As for, character style variations, I still find them a bit confusing. In fact, I didn't understand them at all until I saw long names like "bold" "italic" "bold italic" and the like in the manual. I think that more meaningful labels would be helpful for beginners to understand what a style variation means. Most people will stick to these defaults and advance users can change them to whatever they like. And now that Variation is selected on the Character Style palette, using these labels would note be confused with the Font Face selector ( i.e. these two options are next to each other anymore).

16. In terms of paragraph styles I would like to have the ability to add a background color and borders. This would allow me to add a nice hairline border under a Title or Header, or alternatively use a solid background with reversed (white) lettering.

17. Once, I figured out how styles worked, auto-titles (which I love) were pretty easy to use; however, I still find auto-title set-up a bit confusing. Also, it would be nice if I could enter and manipulate auto-titles with keyboard commands. This would be less disruptive to my writing flow, especially in full-screen mode. I image that this might work similar to the way list keyboard commands work. In fact, something like: CMD + option + [ , CMD + option + ] , and CMD + option + \ would be a very flexible (and mentally consistent) way of adding and manipulating auto-titles.

18. Table of Contents work well enough, although it would be nice if you could update the page numbers without having to insert a new TOC. However, I understand that you need a good cross-referencing system to make this work. It would also be nice if the right lead tab was set at something like 5.5", or 6". Currently, it's set at 6.5" which is the default margin of a letter size page, making it appear as if the insert TOC doesn't work. Also, the default auto-title set-up for level 1 TOC had a tab missing between the Title and Page #. Again, to a beginner this appears to create a broken TOC. These are easy things to fix, but a beginner shouldn't have to have this knowledge yet.

19. Like many others, I would like to see cross-referencing, index, and TOC update of page numbers. I see this as being all the same technology.

20. Better scripting support would also be nice to see. Applescript is the most obvious option, but perl, ruby or python might also be nice options.

21. While it would be really nice if Mellel used a standard file format like rtf, or in the near future docx, at least the move to XML make the file open. And I do understand the developer's need to innovative and so long as their is real innovation I can live with a none standard (but open) file format.

22. I think that XML is the killer feature for Mellel and that we haven't begun to see the cool things that it will allow. Import/export transformations using XSLT and package scripting is the obvious opportunity. A another cool idea that comes to mind is the ability to add alternate wrapper tags to Mellel style definitions. This would be a very easy way to allow a user (who doesn't want to write XSLT) to create simple export filters ( i.e. export a text file based their user tags). The basic concept here is to be able to add open and close tags to a style. The export would just be plain text except that each style block would have the user defined open and close tags added. This would be easy for anyone who can do a little HTML to do and particularly useful for exporting custom HTML or InDesign XML.

23. When you Cut-n-Paste into Mellel it would be nice if the text stayed selected so that you could quickly set the style you want. This is a really simple thing that would make my workflow so much smoother. The new new paste special in 2.1.1 is helpful, but I would still like the pasted text to stay selected so that I can easily apply the style formating that I want to add.

24. I really like the fact that Mellel seems to take the separation of semantic structure and presentation paradigm seriously. It takes some learning to use, but it really does help you write better and faster, as your mind changes to this way of thinking.

25. The final two things that got me to buy Mellel were the low cost and evidence that this product is under active development, making it likely to improve faster than any other option in the Mac OS X Market.

I have tried to give an honest account of my first experiences learning, using and evaluating Mellel. I have pointed out things that made me hesitant to even try the product and the features that eventually won me over to buying the product. I also have tried to be honest about what makes Mellel hard to learn and to note areas of potential, where I think the product can grow or mature.

- Mark

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