A Week With WordPerfect 5.1

Editor’s Note: For this assignment, one of the writers for the oldversion.com blog was given a daunting assignment – to use WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS for some of his writing assignments for a week.

Below are his thoughts of the experience. Do you still use WordPerfect 5.1? Feel free to discuss this in the comments below.

The first problem was installation.

Frustrated woman

Initially I attempted to run the application downloaded from this very site in a virtual machine installation of Windows Advanced Server 2000. The DOS window here seemed to run the application without any problems until the actual point of tapping Enter to install the software post-setup. Creating a large-size disk image for the application didn’t work either.

While dropping down to Windows 95/98 was an option, it was one that would require a trip into the attic. With this in mind, I opted for a sidestep – I would try installing WordPerfect in DOSbox!

Running through the installation, I was presented with a lot of screens that in a modern day application would be dealt with via a single check-box or radio button. At the end of the installation with mention of printers and restarts, the application gave the impression of needing to be reinstalled; indeed, I attempted this at the first run, realizing when I reached the end the second time that this was either the beginning of a trip into the box room or I would have to try something else.

Typing WP at the prompt got the software running, however. So, how would I use it for the rest of the week?


The first thing was to track down the help function (F1) and try and work out what keys did what. As a keyboard-driven application, the most important thing to appreciate is that all of the functions were on the keyboard – the mouse is almost completely useless.

WordPerfect 5.1

Pleasingly, the array of keys to the right of Enter and Backspace come in very useful – as an “old school” user these have always been a part of my keyboard use, and it is good to be able to rely on these 30 year old legacy options.

The various options and functions available in WordPerfect can be found via the Function keys, presented via Shift, Ctrl, Alt or with no modification.

So with everything ready, I was set to go. My first task would be to introduce this challenge, the results of which you can see above. But would I be able to use the application daily?

I certainly wouldn’t be able to get away with outputting all of my work using WordPerfect – the majority of material that I am involved with requires a pretty quick turnaround, which usually means writing directly into the browser window and submitting.

However there are enough suitable features in WordPerfect to be able to use this application daily…

Day 1

I left WordPerfect running in the DOSBox window overnight, and found that I was unable to restore the document! The whole scenario of saving and closing is a confusing one at best, and discovering that my most recent save file wasn’t being displayed in the “Retrieve” screen was jarring. Fortunately closing the app and restarting “rediscovered” the file.

I have also noticed that the lack of an auto-spellcheck (used in Microsoft Word to resolve common typos) is slightly annoying. Indeed, I’m noticing a lot of errors that I really shouldn’t be making!

Day 2

Something else I have noticed with the application is the difficulty in applying formatting to text.

Via Help (Shift+F1) I discovered that this done by selecting text using the block command, placing the cursor at the start of a word, activating Block (Alt+F4) and then taking the cursor to the end of the word. Once the word or passage is selected, the appropriate formatting can be applied, using the corresponding keyboard shortcut. For instance these bolded words were originally achieved using F6 after selecting the text as a block.

Day 3

Remarkably I found myself up and running with WordPerfect without mistyping DOS commands today. As someone with experience of DOS going back to 1990, installation and running of the application had been somewhat frustrating until now, but it all seems to be coming back to me!

If you’re planning on using WordPerfect – and if you are limited by hardware and budget it is worth considering – then printing out the keymappings for the Function keys is a good idea. In the absence of an on-screen menu system, having a reference for what key does what is going to prove useful. As it is, remember that F7 is for saving documents and F5 for opening!

Day 4

As I approach the end of the week, I’ve found myself wondering just how to transfer this journal into something I can publish at OldVersion.com.

The obvious option is to open it in Microsoft Word and then paste it into the site – but if I already have Word, why am I using WordPerfect?

Saving options are limited in WordPerfect, so what is the best way of converting the document into a format I can use online?

The WPS format can be opened in apps such as WordPad and Notepad, but sadly there are odd artifacts within the text which need to be edited out. As WordPad and Notepad are built into Windows, you shouldn’t have any problem running them.

Day 5

So what have I learned about using WordPerfect as a word processor?

Well, it certainly wasn’t as easy as I expected. For some reason, even though my writing career has taken place almost exclusively on GUI word processors (with the small exception of an old Amstrad PCW device in the late 1980s) I had expected to find WordPerfect more usable than I did.

However, as the days progressed I found more and more features and I believe that if you need a good, no-frills word processor that doesn’t blind you with formatting options, this is a good way to go.

Running in DOSBox allows you to ALT+Enter to view full screen, presenting you with a pure page of text. Sometimes Microsoft Word and OpenOffice give you too much to look at, which is why the full screen options on those applications are so good to use.

In fact, if you’re the type of writer who prefers more page and less icons, using WordPerfect in full screen mode might be exactly what you’re looking for. It’s an ideal way to get your thoughts onto the screen quickly without worrying about formatting, something which could, for the zen writer, enable and inspire better writing.

Once you’ve got the words down, you can then use other applications to deal with the formatting and redrafting…

Editor Note: Do you still use WordPerfect 5.1? If so, why? Let us know in the comments!

Hi! I'm a freelance writer specializing in computing and mobile technology, with interests in gaming, music and a few geeky pastimes. I've been online since 1995 and owned a computer since 1982, so I've become pretty familiar with a lot of devices, apps and games over the years - unhealthily so, in some cases...

9 Comments on "A Week With WordPerfect 5.1"

  1. Will says:

    Wordperfect 5.1 was revolutionary for it’s time, considering it was still a DOS version. There was no other wordprocessor even close when it came to the robustness of functions and options available to it. But you had to keep a large cheat sheet with all the key command combinations next to you, and it was best to memorize as many of your most commonly used functions. It took years for Microsoft Word to catch up with,and even then, I don’t Microsoft got it right until Word 2003. Even WP Corporation/Borland/Corel’s version of Quattro pro with its DOS GUI inteface and then is Windows version throughly embarrased Microsoft Excel in terms of functionality. But loosing the battle to the giant of Microsoft, Wordperfect never had a consistent corporate muscle to develop it’s software fully, or develop its suite (or an operation system for that matter), which is where Microsoft took advantage. As a result, WP became a bit buggy, and tended to crash a little more, and looked more inferior that it truly was.

    Today I use Word 2007 now as all business use it. But the fact is, all Windows versions of WP have always been more user friendly, and more intiutive than Word ever was, . But Microsoft, owing the OS, browser and email market, has outgrown and far surpassed everything else Corel Corporation (who makes WP now) has ever produced. Too bad such a good products (WP and older versions of Quattro Pro) are fading away.

  2. Al Avalon says:

    Take a look at http://www.wpdos.org for ways to make it easier to use WP5.1 these days.

  3. Roger Flint says:

    I remember Word Perfect since I used it daily for about 8 years. It was much better than WordStar! As one’s fingers learned the commands, it was very fast; faster than mousing around Word today. Formatting required you to go to a WISIWIG view to look, then go back and edit the text with formatting commands. Tedious. But today I write using a wonderful Word Processor called OMMwriter. They have a free version and a paid version. It is a clean screen with several soft music backgrounds as an option. Everything goes away and I write. No spell-check, no formatting issues, no sudden pop-ups of dialogue boxes in the middle of thoughts. No auto-anything. Yes, one needs to export the file as an RTF and then pull it into another tool for formatting, but formatting is not writing. OMMwriter is perfect for folks who visit Oldversion.

  4. Bill Scott says:

    Ah, the days of DOS, when function keys were on the left and Ctrl was next to A. I made the command prompt sing. My autoexec.bat ran batch file utilities that ran daily reminders, displayed prize-winning dos prompts, played tunes and presented a bat menu of all my programs. I had ANSI macros that ran CED macros that ran BAT subroutines that ran Smartkey macros and all my programs, or stopped for me to type options for XCOPY and the like, with common options already typed in. Wish new Windows was more DOS friendly.

    People who still use wpdos 5.1 typically customized the heck out of it via macros, add-ons, supplemental dictionaries and vast merge setups. Their fingers know what to do without being reminded. 5.1ers have not found new programs capable or worth the trouble.

    Odd you were given 5.1 and not 5.1+, which comes with add-ons to cope with proportionally spaced fonts. Or the more mouseified 6.2, which has a WYSIWYG option, user-defined buttons, a spell check as you type and other such options. I think there was even a wp-lite, based in part on the marketers’ discovery that most users did not know or care what a macro was. Also, there are web sites for wpdosers that show ways to do things like copy and paste to a browser.

    I blame the demise of WP not on the company’s failure to promptly adopt to Windows but on their refusal to cater to the mass of 5.1 users. 5.1 was THE standard. Legend has it that programmers were near ready with an upgrade that coped with the New Technology and was compatible with whatever customizing users had done. But CEOs chose to force 5.1ers to abandon their ways and build anew. Some 5.1ers made the transition to 6, but more stayed with their setup or converted to the ways of Word.

    However. wpdosers are mostly an older lot who left their typewriters for PCs, and they are passing away. Those left were long ago abandoned. Keyboards changed, running wpdos in Windows became increasingly difficult, and now Word won’t even convert a wpdos file without a special setup. Soon the wpdosers will be gone. New generations will type in the clouds as the IBMers tried to get those old early adapters to do, renting programs and storage space, and then the Personal in PC will become another thing of the past.

    • F Hubbard says:

      what a lovely piece!

      S/ one of those old guys who saw the quantum leap from typewriting to pc, but from dos to windows, not so much …:)

  5. Boni B. says:

    I downloaded WP 5.1+ from OLDVERSION.com onto 10 new floppies (which hadn’t seen the light of day for 10 years at least!). I decided to use Virtual PC 2007 and installed Windows 98….another dinosaur…so that I could use MS-DOS. Virtual PC 2007 was fine but it I needed to get some floppy disk image, a file with a .vfd extension for the Floppy Drive to operate. Anyways, WP 5.1 installed ok but not without alot of frustration from the OldVersion. com website. It asked for me to have 10 formatted HD disks ready to label and download to, which I did. However, after the confusion of downloaded the files to the named diskettes, after awhile I realized I forgot to remove one diskette to install another one. And installation was a slight nightmare.

    I got it all running fine though. I never used WP before nor did I use DOS so this has been a very challenging week. I am formerly a Court Reporter who is now transcribing depositions and WP5.1DOS is all we can use to create an ASCII disk., another daunting task for me.

    I use WP Office X6 to create the depo from a set format, save it as a WP5.1/5.2 document on to a floppy. I then open 5.1DOS, retrieve it from the A drive into the C, and then the fun begins of formatting it so it still is in the deposition format of 25 lines per page. It has to look like the hard copy. And lo and behold, after working on this with the Reveal Codes, for the past 9 days, I am still at Square 1. I had installed the wrong printer. Had to be the DosText Printer only.

    I had no clue, as per the instructions and the 10 confusing mislabeled disks, how to redo the installation to find the correct printer. However, I did find an old file online, which I downloaded and installed. Now, the my depositions look worse than before. So, I want to uninstall the entire installation and redo it and pray this is all worth it before I’m 100 yrs old! I just don’t know how to uninstall in DOS. I have mixed feelings about the program as it took me a few days to get a grip on the Reveal Codes, the DOS commands, and the formatting. I’m determined to make it work though.

  6. Vince Turner says:

    What everyone seems to be forgetting is that at the time Wordperfect 5.1 was released, PCs did not have hard drives (except in a very few cases) that the OS (normally but not necessarily MSDOS had to be loaded from a 5.25 in floppy each time the PC was booted up, that short file names only could be used and that there was no mouse and no WISYWIG, if only because the memory and speed of the PC at that time could not cope with that type of overhead.

    Into this world, Wordperfect came crashing in (an inappropriate word to use as to my memory, it never actually crashed). The program came on 2 x 5.35 in floppies. If you had a dual disk machine, you would have both floppies in use. If you only had one drive, WP5.1 supplied a slightly cut down version which still contained all the WP features, but not all of them.

    Help was provided by the best system I have ever come across. It was accessed from F3 (and not F1 as stated elsewhere above). Press F3 and then the first letter of what you want to do – lets say EXIT – and WP5.1 tells you the keystrokes necessary to do this and in most cases has a brief explanation of the functions available.

    WP5.1 does not need to be installed on a PC – it never was – and can simply be run from the .EXE file, SO LONG AS the whole of WP5.1 has been placed as a folder in the root of the disc – I would suggest the C: Drive. The reason for this is that good old fashioned DOS did not recognise long file or directory names..

    The original came with a very very thorough and hefty manual, which amongst other things took you through a WP5.1 programming language – not dissimilar to BASIC

    In my opinion, given the hardware and OS limitations of its time, WP5.1 was the best program of any kind ever made – bar none. The package was a fully functioning WP (except WYSIWYG which could be achieved by looking at the document on a special page, before returning to editing), it had it own sophisticated macro language, it could be used for database and mail merge functions and it could even be used as a cut down spreadsheet..

    Th ‘reveal codes’ function (which showed in readable format where all the Bold, Italic, indentation, cross referencing and other formatting codes had actually been place in the document one which Word wanted desperately to copy, but the way Word worked did not and still does not permit this.

    Line and paragraph formatting in Word still seem bodged and have never been able to emulate WP5.1 (one of the reasons why Word included a section translating certain WP5.1 functions.

    All in all, a brilliant program which as is so often the case, was killed by its own success. MSoft kept the new Windows coding extremely close to its chest making it impossible for WPerfect to bring forward a reliable Windows version. Businesses clung on to WP5.1 to avoid the cost of upgrades to Windows, a new Office suite and complete retraining. By the time a Windows version of WP5 could be brought forward, its time had gone. The hastily rushed out V6 either for DOD or for Windows, were appalling, slow and kept crashing and falling over. WordPerect Corporation was a dead duck from that point on.

    PS. To get WP to run from the root directory, use the .EXE file and on the 2 occasions that error messages come up , IGNORE the message and then you will find the WP5.1 button on the task bar. Before clicking on this, set its properties so that WP5.1 runs in a full screen and not a window click on the WP5.1 button and away you go. The program will run extremely quickly – testament to the tight coding that was used. These instructions are good for XP but may differ for other Windows vesions

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