Comparing XML Authoring Tools: Xopus versus Arbortext (Part 2)

Aug 26, 2014

In our last post, we started comparing SDL Xopus and PTC Arbortext, two XML authoring tools that some of our writers are using for a client project. Today, we pick up where we left off, with the final round and our ‘post-fight’ analysis.

The Final Round: User Interface and Usability

Looks matter – and in software, looks are often equivalent to usability.

Xopus presents a clean, WYSIWYG depiction of your files. You can ensure that things display correctly, and review content with ease.

The Xopus Interface

Xopus runs from your browser and shows a WYSIWYG view of the document

Arbortext can also be WYSIWYG, but the default setting is to show everything: all tags in a document are depicted visually. At first, this is overwhelming, and it’s more difficult to read a document in its entirety. However, with a bit of practice, it becomes much easier to see exactly what’s happening in your document.

The Arbortext Interface

Arbortext runs from a local installation. It shows all tags and the document structure.

One of the most important features of an XML editor is how it simplifies tagging content. In Xopus, tagging is handled by a mouse-controlled breadcrumb trail across the bottom of the browser window. These breadcrumbs indicate the position in the structure of the cursor (for example, Learning Content > Concept > Paragraph). To add a tag to existing text, you highlight the relevant text, click the ‘parent’ breadcrumb, and select a tag from a pop-up list.

It’s straightforward in theory, but can be tricky in practice. When you can only see the breadcrumbs for the current element (as indicated by the cursor position), it’s difficult to comprehend where you are in the wider structure. This can sometimes cause you to insert new tags in the wrong places. Yes, Xopus can stop you adding tags in invalid places (for example, you can’t insert a table into a Title tag), and this useful feature prevents you from publishing invalid XML. It doesn’t, however, stop you placing the table inside a list instead of after it (as intended).

Arbortext is more keyboard-driven. The simplest way to add a tag is to hit ENTER on your keyboard and see what options are available at that particular cursor position. It’s jarring to Word-conditioned writers, but becomes more natural with practice. Like Xopus, Arbortext is also context-sensitive, preventing you from adding tags in invalid locations. But because Arbotext shows all tags in the body of the document, it’s much easier to comprehend the overall structure and identify exactly where you need to place a given tag.

Comparing tagging methods

Adding tags: Xopus breadcrumbs (left) and Arbortext’s tag menu (right)

Since we’ve touched on how the programs prevent you from creating invalid XML, let’s look at how they react to finding it. The lack of transparency in Xopus also arises here. If you try to open a file that contains invalid XML, Xopus refuses to render the document. Instead, it spits out an error message that contains a line number indicating the source of the problem. To fix it, you need to open the file in an alternate text editor, locate the offending line, and correct the error. It’s an awkward way to highlight problems, especially when it offers no help in fixing them. Luckily, Arbortext is eager to help. Not only will it open files that contain XML errors, it also contains a built-in tool that allows you to diagnose, locate, and correct the issues.

We also noticed one more big difference. The copy and paste function in Xopus is unforgivably fickle and slow. It’s difficult to copy almost anything other than plain text. To copy from a Word document or PDF, you must first paste into a text editor to clear any formatting, then copy it to Xopus. Even copying within Xopus (from one part of a document to another) is slow and buggy. It’s a strange flaw that seriously impacts the usability of the program.

Arbortext, on the other hand, copies and pastes like a dream. Even if you try to copy text with invalid formatting (for example, some bold or italic text from a Word document), it warns you and holds the pasted content in a popup window. From there, you can delete the invalid tags before pasting the content into the main document.

As we can see, Arbortext far outstrips Xopus in usability. The UI of Xopus might be prettier, but it hides the structure. And once you get used to the initially-confusing Arbortext interface, you discover a range of features that are better than, or simply not present in, Xopus.

Our winner: Arbortext

Judges’ Decision

In case it’s not clear, we think Arbortext is the better XML authoring tool. Of course, there’s a raft of other considerations, and these blog posts don’t claim to be a comprehensive review. It’s possible that the demands of this project were better suited to a heavier program like Arbortext, while Xopus might be preferable for smaller jobs (and smaller file sizes). We’ve also ignored some important criteria, like pricing for example. In our case, the tools were provided by our client and cost was not a factor. That won’t be the case for many potential users.

In our team of over 20 technical writers, the majority preference is for Arbortext. That said, Xopus has many good ideas… but the execution of those ideas falls short. Some of our writers still prefer Xopus. Others said that if Xopus solved its speed and stability issues and fixed things like copy and paste, it has the potential to be a much more user-friendly product.

For now, Arbortext functions much better than Xopus. And when you’re writing documentation, usability beats all.

Overall winner: PTC Arbortext

Have you experience with these or any other XML authoring tools? What’s your favourite to work with? We look forward to reading your comments.

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