Abiword is Awesome

April 21, 2009

Abiword has just become my new favorite word processor.  It’s always been nice for being so quick and low on resources (installing Abiword requires 26.3 MB in Ubuntu 9.04 compared to 186 MB for OpenOffice.org Writer), but the 2.6 release of Abiword has added two new features which have pushed it over the top for me.

First, Abiword now has .odt (OpenDocument Text) support, so making the switch from OpenOffice.org is a lot less painful.  This is a feature I’ve also been waiting for in KOffice 2 which has finally released it’s first Release Candidate.

My favorite new feature is the Abiword Collaboration Plugin, which adds Google Docs like collaboration functionality to Abiword.  So now I can collaborate on a document without the requirement of using an online service like Google to host our work.  Abiword supports direct connections over TCP, or you can connect over Jabber.  It’s very easy to set up.  After establishing the connection, one person checks the “Share” checkbox in their Abiword, publishing the document to the “Shared Documents” of the other collaborators, enabling them to open and edit the same document.  Everyone gets their own color coded cursor, just like in Google Docs.  The Abiword developers are also working on an online service called AbiCollab.net, which is currently in beta.  This will be an additional ttransport layer for Abiword collaboration, which adds the ability to view the changes a colleague has made to a document before it has been saved to disk.

While it’s true that Abiword doesn’t have all the features of MS Word or OpenOffice.org Writer, it does have all the features I have ever wanted in a word processor, and the small footprint works out really well for my new Dell Mini 9.  For an interesting interview with the developers of Abiword, including more on the Collaboration Plugin and ODT support, and more on AbiCollab.net, check out this article from Red Hat Magazine.  And if you didn’t know, Abiword is Free Software and it can be downloaded at no cost here.

usb-creator-menuUSB-Creator is a new tool that comes pre-installed in Ubuntu 8.10, the Intrepid Ibex.  It allows you to install any Ubuntu installation CD to your USB Disk (or SD card in a USB Card Reader), and makes it bootable. In Ubuntu 8.10, USB-Creator can be found by going to System > Administration > Create a USB Startup Disk.

Using this tool instead of burning CDs each time you need to make a new install disk is a great idea.  USB disks are faster than CDs, so the live image boots faster, installs faster, and has generally better performance.

If you are having problems getting an older computer to boot from USB, you will need to create a GRUB Boot Disk.  Instructions for making a GRUB Boot CD can be found here.  After creating the iso, you’ll need to edit the menu.lst file to add the option to boot from your USB drive.  In Intrepid, you can simply right click an iso, and go to Open With > Archive Mounter.  You will see the drive pop up in the Nautilus sidebar.  Open it up, and edit the file boot/grub/menu.lst file with a text editor.  Add this section to the end of the file:

title    Boot USB drive (1 Internal Hard Disk)
root     (hd1,0)
chainloader +1

If the computer has two internal hard drives, you will need to change “(hd1,0)” to “(hd2,0)”.  When you are finished, just save the file, unmount the iso, and burn it to a CD!  Easy, huh?

USB-Creator can also make your Live USB Stick persistent, which means that after you boot into the live image, you can make changes to the system (such as getting your wireless working or installing Flash), and the changes will stick around after a reboot.  Having a Persistent LiveUSB in your pocket is like carrying around your own tiny, private computer.  It’s a great option for doing online banking while you are at work, or on any computer you don’t own.

Last but not least, USB-Creator is REALLY easy to use.  It will take an Ubuntu image from an installation disk you already have, or from an iso image you downloaded.  Also, it’s designed to coexist happily with existing files on your USB Stick, formatting only when absolutely necessary and after warning you first, so you can still use the rest of the space on your USB drive for storing files.

In the next release of Ubuntu, the Jaunty Jackalope, expect new versions of USB-Creator for KDE and for Windows.  Also planned is support for installing directly to SD cards, without the need for a USB Card Reader, for those of us with internal SD Card slots.  The developers also plan to integrate Ubuntu’s Add/Remove Software GUI into USB-Creator, so people can customize what software gets pre-loaded onto their Live USB.  Also, USB-Creator will gain the ability to overwrite the Master Boot Record (MBR), which is sometimes required to get the USB Stick to boot properly.

I had some problems getting my USB Drive to boot after running USB-Creator, and I was given a great workaround in #ubuntu-installer on IRC.  Before you use this command, understand that the program you will be using can be dangerous if used improperly, so be sure you understand exactly what you are doing before you proceed.  Executing this command will likely erase any data you have on your USB Stick, so back it up! To replace the MBR on your USB Disk, in a terminal run the following command, all on one line, replacing the x with the appropriate letter for your USB drive:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/sdx bs=512 count=1; sudo blockdev –rereadpt /dev/sdx; usb-creator

So, give USB-Creator a try.  I’m sure you’ll find it quite useful.  If  you have any problems getting my instructions to work, or if this helped you out, leave me a comment to let me know!  Thanks for reading!