Monday 18 March 2024

JASWORD (Commodore 64)

When I purchased my first C64 back in 2006, I had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead. I fell in love with the machine almost immediately and the daily release of new homebrew games and demoscene releases kept me thoroughly entertained. However, as the Commodore 64 is a computer (in contrast to a games console), I also wanted to find some way of putting it to productive use, as perhaps it may have been during the machine’s heyday.

At the time I was still actively writing game reviews for the RGCD blog, so the obvious choice was to use the computer as a distraction-free word processor. Without the immediately accessible temptations of the internet and social media, I have always found it easier to maintain my focus when typing on vintage hardware, and the C64 certainly has a much nicer keyboard than the mushy one on the Atari ST. Seriously, the keyboard on the ST is so terrible that Atari's GEM operating system actually includes a short chirp sound that is played upon every key press to provide some sort of tactile feedback to the user!

On the downside however, unlike the Atari ST, the C64 provided me with a couple of hurdles to overcome with regard to typing text; namely the PETSCII format and the 40 character wide display.

After trying a few recommendations, I initially settled for a while on GEOS and it's integrated WYSIWYG Word Processor GeoWrite. I even typed a blog post about it, using GeoWrite itself. However, loading up the OS and application took a fair bit of time, and actually getting the text out of GEOS and onto my PC for publishing was a nightmare involving multiple steps and additional conversion software. Although an admittedly impressive piece of software, the novelty of GeoWrite soon wore off and I sought a simpler solution.

Standard text, when printed, tends to be around 80 characters to a line, so quite obviously typing on a 40 character screen means that text is either truncated or scrolls horizontally as you type. This is far from ideal, so I knew that I wanted an editor with 80 character support. I immediately found that my options on this front were extremely limited, and the few that I did find used some really archaic interfaces and non standard key functions. To add to the problem, very few could save or load modern PC readable text files. Others, like Interword, hogged so much memory that there was barely anything left for typing text! So, for years, I relied on the Final Cartridge III's Notepad and the 'print to file' function of the Ultimate1541-II, which although totally usable, felt like a bit of a cheat. Oh, and although Notepad is arguably impressive with its non-fixed width characters and mouse support, the fact that you couldn't overwrite a file when you saved your work drove me absolutely nuts. My longer documents ended up with many revisions saved to disk as separate yet similarly named files, causing a great deal of confusion upon trying to continue my work at a later date.

Jumping forward to 2021, by complete chance I came across Dr. Franz Kottira's JASWORD - and following extensive use I can happily say that it is far from being 'Just Another Stupid Word-processor' for the C64. In fact, JASWORD is a modern, lightweight and impressively FAST 80 character text editor with some amazing functionality. It ticked every box, but one; there was no English version.

After struggling with Google translate and manually typing in the German text from the many menus and help screens, I managed to teach myself how to use JASWORD and knew that it was the word processor that I'd been searching for. To save others from having to take the same steps, I figured that I'd try my luck in contacting Dr. Kottira and enquire if there was any chance of an English version - I even offered my limited help in translating the menu screens now that I had taken the time to work out what everything did. To my surprise, Dr. Kottira replied and explained that I wasn't the first to ask about an English version, and that a C64 user by the name of d3bug was already assisting him with a translation.

So here I am, in 2024, typing this review in an English version of what I consider to be the perfect text editor for the C64. Well, to be more accurate, today I'm actually using the C64 core on my MEGA65, with its beautiful mechanical keyboard and crystal clear HDMI output, but I digress; of course JASWORD works just as well on my everyday, workhorse C64.

Before the budding retro wordsmiths out there get too excited, there is a hardware limitation that needs to be addressed; unless you have a decent display and video cable, JASWORD will be almost impossible to use. An old TV and RF cable is just not going to do; you really need a decent monitor to read 80 character mode text. I luckily sourced a 15mhz compatible LCD panel with S-Video when I first got my machine, but I appreciate that many C64 users out there still struggle with bleeding colours and wobbly pixels.

That out of the way, people with decent monitors will find a lot to love about JASWORD, starting with its small memory footprint. Unlike many other editors out there, JASWORD leaves you with a relatively massive 32KB of memory to hold your work as you type - with a super helpful 'percentage-free' reading that is displayed on the status bar. At the time of typing this, I'm currently at 85% free - meaning that each document can be somewhere in the region of 10 pages of text. In fact, the English manual that came on the disk worked out at 8 pages long when copied over to my PC and formatted for printing - and that file still had memory to spare. Quite the achievement for a 64KB 8-Bit computer from 1982!

Obviously, with this sort of limitation, JASWORD won't be suitable for writing a novel, but for bashing out a few thousand words for a article or blog entry it proves itself to be totally usable.

So, if you're not sold on it already, let's take a deeper look at some of the functionality and menus (accessible via the F-keys). First up, F1 pulls up the help screen, listing all the useful keyboard shortcuts (navigation, formatting, special characters - that sort of thing). Then F2 pulls up the colour options - although I'd argue that the default settings are already very easy on the eye. F3 is the layout settings, where you can set margins and header/footer sizes, and F4 pulls up the extras menu, with its find/replace function.

Loading and saving (F5 and F6 respectively) presents you with the option to use conversion tables (so you can save and load PC readable text, for example) and you can even load a file into the body of your existing document. Additionally, JASWORD has a directory browser for loading, so you haven't got to remember the file names - and most importantly - saving allows you to overwrite files and verify the save! The F7 print menu is again comprehensive with more options than the majority of users will require, but for me it was the final option, F8, that really got me excited - this is where you can set the text format to ISO8859-1!

JASWORD comes with a number of conversion tables and presents the user with the option to create their own. By selecting the relevant conversion table, you can then flag the load and save menus to use this table when loading and saving, the only slight workaround being that for saving this way you must highlight/select all the text in your document first (SHIFT-RUN STOP) and select 'Save marked selection'. Apart from that, it really is simple and surprisingly fast to use.

So what's left? Well, there's the ability to access Basic from within the editor and actually send up to 80 characters of text to the interpreter by ending a line with CTRL-RETURN (although only 1KB of memory is reserved for this). I'm not sure why this might be useful other than for inserting directory lists into your document, but I'm sure that someone will find that it serves a purpose. And talking of directory listing, it's also worth noting that you can not only view the disk contents from within the load menu, but you can also perform some useful functions such as renaming, copying and deleting files.

Finally, did I mention the price of this marvel of editing software? JASWORD is completely free, so you have absolutely NO reason not to download the disk image and give it a go yourself - perhaps even use it to type an email or letter to Dr. Kottira on your C64 and express your thoughts!

Download JASWORD here (from Dr. Kottira's website).
Run it using VICE (free software).

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