October 8, 2006


Posted in Editing, Reading, Tools at 2:47 am by India

As you may know, I was holding my breath for the release of the Chicago Manual of Style CD-ROM for something like two years. I had even written UChi Press a letter saying that I would gladly pay twice the price of the dead-tree edition for a searchable version that could live on my hard drive. So of course, I was very excited when I saw that the CD-ROM was finally shipping from Amazon.com—excited enough to bring fame, if not fortune, upon my ditzy little head—and zip! I ordered it. I was taking advantage of a free trial of Amazon.com’s “Prime” delivery service at the time, so the disk was in my hands almost immediately. And over the last several weeks, as I tried to get various freelance millstones off my neck, I’ve used it for nearly all my Chicago-look-upping needs (which, since I’m such an infrequent editorial freelancer nowadays, are vast).

So, you ask, was it worth the anticipation, and the sixty extra bucks? (They clearly took me at my word about the price.)

Weeeeeelllllll . . . if I were travelling, it would be better than nothing. But it’s slow in loading any item longer than a paragraph. I see a great deal of this:

CMS loading (detail)

In fact, I clocked it at one minute seventeen seconds to load the first few pages of chapter 5’s Glossary of Troublesome Expressions. It is therefore just as well, I suppose, that the rest of the pages in that section—everything after the word “or” in the entry for “censer; censor, n.; sensor”—is missing. Because it would take the better part of an hour for it to appear on the screen.

CMS bug (detail)

I e-mailed tech support on Monday, 9/25, and received a prompt but irrelevant reply the following morning:

Dear CMoS User:

I believe that the problem you are having may be related to a screen resolution glitch. Here’s is a link to a page on the CMoS web site where you can download a patch for the screen resolution problem.


Please follow the instructions on the screen. Let me know if you have any problems installing the patch, or if you have questions regarding the installation process.

If you have any further problems or questions regarding the CMOS CD-ROM please let me know.



This patch (now at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/update.html) is for Windows only. Having stated in the first line of my e-mail that I was referring to the Mac OS X version of the software, I was therefore less than impressed with this advice. (For the record, I’m on a 1.33 GHz PowerPC G4 with 1.25 gigs of RAM, running OS 10.4.8.) I immediately wrote back pointing out the incompatibility, and to that message I received no reply. I alluded to this in my comment on the UChi Press blog on 9/29. On 10/4, more than a week after the initial inquiry, I sent a nudge asking if the problem had been addressed. Still no reply.

I have warm feelings for the CMS, and I was quite determined to like this product, but I can’t recommend software that not only is busted but also has inadequate tech support. So while it’s down on the ground, let me kick it some more.

The interface is not very good. It’s better looking than the repellent Merriam-Webster dictionary software but not much more functional. It does not seem to be navigable via keyboard (though I think some attempts were made—otherwise, why the box telling you which window has focus, next to the “Loading/Done” status box?), and the buttons are kind of random and ugly.

On the TOC, there’s a mismatch between the main background and the background immediately behind the text:

CMS table of contents

It’s a nitpick, I know, but why is that yellow tint there at all? It just looks nasty. And on the toolbar, what’s with the orange highlight on “Advanced Search” and the hideous “Go” button?

CMS toolbar

And the jagged white rim around the “?” button? It looks like a typical nasty Windows interface slapped onto an Aqua background. Oh, wait—that’s probably what it is. Trivial, sure, but this lack of attention to the appearance of the interface underscores the lack of attention to its usability. This is not a pleasant piece of software to use. It’s functional in a basic way, as long as you’re not in a hurry and don’t need to look up anything between pages 196 and 233, but it’s desirable only as a desperate alternative to lugging the book around in your carry-on bag.

As a consolation, let me point out the handy “Tools” pages that have been posted to support the online version of the book:

These are all yummy treats and far better than a kick in the head. But they’re accessible only if you’re online, or if you’ve had the foresight to download them to your hard drive. So go download them now.

In sum, I’m disappointed. But I would have been willing to downplay the bugginess of the software if it had been backed up by reasonably attentive tech support. They don’t have to solve the problem in two weeks, but they do have to acknowledge that it exists and express some nontrivial amount of concern. Such tech support does not appear to be available, so at present I can not advise early adoption of this product.

If developments develop, I will let you know. Watch this space!


  1. Alexis Leon said,

    I have been using the online version of CMS for more than a month and it is ideal if you have a high speed internet connection. The searches really work, you can get to the place you want quickly and the interface is almost similar to the book. The additional advantage is that you can search the Q&A sections also. So for $25 /year, I feel it is good. I also have the printed editions also with me so that whenever I feel like reading the manual, I can do that. May be I will order the CD-ROM when the next version/edition is out and when the bugs are fixed and interface is improved.

  2. India Amos said,

    Hello, Alexis! Nice to hear from you! And I’m glad to know that the online version is working well, at least.

    Unfortunately, that’s not a format that suits my needs. I know that it seems as if I’m online all the time (with most of that time spent obsessively checking my traffic stats), but in fact, because of my curious American inability to take a proper vacation, perhaps 50 percent of the freelance work I’ve done in the last three years has happened on planes and trains, or in Internet-free châteaux. Also, because the Internet is so very distracting, even when I am working in my messy little office at home (where the poached WiFi, though fast, is unreliable, especially on overcast days [I have no idea why this would be true, but it’s consistent—perhaps when the weather is bad, my neighbors move away from their windows, scooting the wireless routers away with them?]), I prefer to stay offline while I’m trying to get something done.

    Being able to search the Q&As at the same time as the printed text would be great, but since I’d have to be online to do it anyway, it’s not worth paying extra for. I’ll just keep using Google, with “Q&A site:chicagomanualofstyle.org” tacked onto every query.

  3. […] though their CD-ROM and its tech support suck, I still love the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A: Q. I’m editing a textbook that references a […]

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