In-built tracing and improved drawing, formatting and colour correcting power make X3 the best upgrade in years.
At one stage the CorelDRAW suite dominated the field of PC graphics, but then Corel took its eye off the ball and allowed Adobe Illustrator to seize the professional market. With the re-branded X3 Corel claims that DRAW is back to reclaim its crown - but is this latest launch the real deal or just another marketing exercise?
It’s certainly been a miserable few years for CorelDRAW’s loyal users as recent releases have seen little core power added to the main DRAW application while other suite members have been quietly dropped. And at first sight it looks like X3 (read “13”) is more bad news. During installation it becomes clear that the X3 Suite has now shrunk to just three main applications: DRAW, PHOTO-PAINT (see boxout) and CAPTURE, an uninspired screen capture utility. Most strikingly, this means that the Corel RAVE application for creating vector Flash animations has been axed after just two releases.
There are now just three Corel standalones in the X3 suite.
However, while Corel RAVE was much-trumpeted it was underpowered and little-used so I don’t think it will be badly missed (though clearly folding its capabilities into DRAW itself would have been preferable to just dropping them). More worrying is the disappearance of CorelTRACE, the suite’s longstanding bitmap-to-vector conversion application. In fact this turns out to be mainly good news as Corel, in a direct copy of Illustrator CS3’s Live Trace feature, has instead built tracing capabilities directly into CorelDRAW X3 itself.
The resulting PowerTRACE feature is simplicity itself to use. Select an imported bitmap and the properties bar now provides various dropdown tracing presets based on the type of image – line art, logo, clipart and so on. Select one of these and the new PowerTRACE dialog appears complete with before and after previews and control over the level of smoothing, detail and the number of generated colours. Make your choices and click OK and the original bitmap is overlaid with a vector replica.
There’s nowhere near the same power or control that Adobe’s Live Paint offers or that CorelTRACE used to provide - there are no centerline options for example and the link to the bitmap doesn’t remain live. However Corel does add some useful productivity features such as the ability to see and specify exactly which colours are used during conversion and to automatically remove a bitmap’s background colour. Most importantly, having the tracing power built in directly to DRAW ensures that it will be used far more regularly than the standalone application it replaces.
Tracing capabilities have been built in to the main CorelDRAW X3 module.
Tracing imported bitmaps is a great shortcut to producing drawings quickly, but tidying up the results can take longer than recreating them from scratch if you don’t have the necessary path editing power. This is an area where DRAW has always been strong and X3 adds some important new features with newly designed control handles, freehand marquee selection and the ability to move straight line segments more easily. Most importantly, there is the ability to automatically reduce the number of nodes, an option that works hand-in-glove with the existing curve smoothness slider.
Further drawing power is apparent in X3’s expanded toolset. The new Star and Complex Star tools extend the level of control previously offered by the Star Shape tool while the handy new Crop tool works with both bitmaps and vector objects and groups (though for non-destructive and non-rectangular clipping you’re better off sticking with PowerClips). There are also new dockers that let you precisely fillet, chamfer and scallop the corners of objects, manage the exact positioning of step and repeat effects and apply two kinds of basic bevel. And there’s a new Create Boundary command which automatically creates an outline of any selected object or group.
It’s not just DRAW’s core drawing power that has been tackled. Longterm users will be pleased to hear that Corel has finally got around to overhauling DRAW’s text handling with new dockers for managing character and paragraph formatting and menu commands for adding bullets, tabs and non-printing characters including em and en spaces and optional hyphens. In practice though the changes prove disappointing as almost all of this power was already there in the conveniently centralized Format Text dialog which has now been dropped. At least the new real-time dynamic preview for text-on-a-path effects is completely new and really does make it much easier to quickly produce attractive end results.
Also new, for DRAW users at least, is the Smart Fill tool. This is a copy of Illustrator CS2’s Live Paint capability designed to let you quickly fill any area enclosed by overlapping lines with a single click. The sketch-and-fill approach that this opens up is far more intuitive than having to build up your drawings as enclosed shapes and proves particularly useful when working with traced drawings. Again Corel doesn’t offer the same power and control as Adobe as the region must be completely enclosed and the effect isn’t live so that if you move the surrounding lines the fill doesn’t update automatically. However there’s no need to set up Live Paint groups first so for most jobs the Smart Fill tool does all that you need and more efficiently. The biggest disappointment is the mysterious restriction to applying flat colour fills only, though you can always change this afterwards.
Another major introduction is X3’s Image Adjustment Lab. This is a new dialog that provides instant access to all of the most common colour correction commands for managing temperature, tint, saturation, brightness, contrast and so on. It also offers the ability to explore options by saving snapshots of the current state of an image in a strip at the bottom of the dialog – click on one and its settings are instantly restored. Centralized control is certainly a step forward but, unlike Illustrator, all adjustments are applied destructively so you can’t call up the Lab and return to an earlier snapshot and you can’t apply effects to vector objects as well as bitmaps.
CorelDRAW X3 offers core new drawing and formatting power.
In terms of final output X3 sees a number of advances. When it comes to commercial print there’s a new onscreen preview that attempts to simulate overprint settings. Spot colour handling is also more viable than previously as vector effects such as transparencies, mesh fills and blends can now contain both process and spot colours. Export to PDF has also been enhanced, most noticeably with greater support for security and permissions. More generally, file compatibility and workflow integration with Adobe’s PostScript (EPS, PS) and Illustrator (AI) standards and Corel’s own DESIGNER ( DES) and Paint Shop Pro (PSP) formats has been improved.
So what’s the final verdict? There’s no doubt that Corel is still up to some of its old tricks: quietly dropping applications, dressing up existing functionality as if it is new and, in some cases, overselling. And there’s no avoiding the fact that where it used to lead, DRAW now follows. After all, the two most exciting and welcome introductions in X3, PowerTRACE and Smart Fill, aren’t actually innovations but rather direct copies from the latest Illustrator. Moreover, despite the advantage of going second, neither feature is as powerful as the original.
On the other hand for non-professional users maximum power and control isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all. PowerTRACE and Smart Fill are both much simpler than their Adobe equivalents and so easier to take advantage of and more efficient in practice. Most office-based and occasional users will happily settle for 80% of the power if they can produce acceptable results in half the time. Throw in the fact that the X3 suite includes PHOTO-PAINT, 1000 OpenType fonts and plenty of clipart and that, unlike Illustrator, the main CorelDRAW module can handle multi-page publications and it’s clear that CorelDRAW still has a lot to offer. Illustrator might take the professional crown, but there’s no shame in coming second. And a fast second at that.
The problem for Corel is that you have to do a lot more to persuade non-professional users who aren’t pushing the envelope to upgrade. That’s why X3 is indeed the real thing. This is the first release in years that provides CorelDRAW users with new core power that will make a real difference to their everyday working experience and enable them to produce better work more quickly.
ratings out of 6
Corel PHOTO-PAINT X3 Boxout
During its long history the CorelDRAW Graphics suite has included various applications for handling business presentations, basic 3D, animation, charting, desktop publishing and more. Nowadays it effectively boils down to the vector-based DRAW module and the bitmap-based PHOTO-PAINT. This makes PHOTO-PAINT more important than ever to the success of the suite as a whole - so does it live up to X3’s promised new dawn?
As you’d expect, some of Photo- PAINT’s new features are shared with the main CorelDRAW module. To begin with there’s the new Hints docker that provides information about the current active tool and a Help menu option to highlight what’s changed over the last few releases (answer: not much). More useful is the new Image Adjustment Lab which doesn’t add new power but brings together the most common existing correction commands in one dialog. More fundamental is the new support for spot colours which can be created with the Channels docker and saved to both PHOTO-PAINT CPT and Photoshop PSD formats.
The X3 suite’s Image Adjustment Lab provides centralized global colour correction.
So what else is new? The Cutout Lab for extracting objects from their backgrounds now offers tools to restore and remove detail, an undo capability and the ability to export results as a new layer or as a clipping mask. And, er, that’s about it. In fact to cover over the ever-widening cracks Corel has had to resort to bundling in a cut-down copy of Pixmantec’s RawShooter for handling RAW format files – a core capability if ever there was one in the age of the digital camera.
This is seriously disappointing. At one time PHOTO-PAINT was a serious alternative to Photoshop itself, but now it lags behind Photoshop Elements. The inclusion of and integration with PHOTO-PAINT could and should be the CorelDRAW suite’s greatest strength - but only if PHOTO-PAINT stays up to date. If it doesn’t, and you don’t actually use it, it becomes a liability.
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