Adobe PageMaker 6.5 Plus

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In Adobe's attempt to refocus PageMaker on the corporate market the  program retains its existing commercial print-based strengths but the  grafted-on usability features are embarrassing.

Adobe PageMaker 6.5 Plus

PageMaker has had a long and distinguished history on both the Mac and PC. In fact in many ways it can claim to have given birth to the entire computer-based design industry by inventing the very concept of DTP. For the last few years, however, the program has been showing its age and its limitations. Adobe saw the writing on the wall and has developed an entirely new program, InDesign (see preview on page ) to take its place at the professional end of the market competing with the likes of XPress and Ventura. PageMaker isn't being allowed to die, however, and is instead being repositioned in the corporate arena where it must now take on market leader Microsoft Publisher in its new guise as PageMaker 6.5 Plus.

Of course the first thing that you think of when you think of Microsoft Publisher is usability and all the new features in PageMaker Plus are designed to boost ease of use. When the program first loads you are now presented with the new Templates palette. Templates and wizards can certainly help non-expert users to produce well-designed work quickly, but even with Publisher's 2,000 core designs you'll often find that you can't find exactly what you are looking for. PageMaker Plus has only 300 templates to choose from so the chance of finding anything useful is minimal.

The lack of choice is bad enough but the implementation is far worse. The templates have at least been divided into major categories, such as adverts and newsletters, but as each template only has a numerical name there's no indication of what sets it apart from any other. Thankfully there is a preview but this is too small to give a clear idea of the design so you are largely choosing blind. In fact, having explored the choices on offer, there's very little that does distinguish one design from another.

When you do choose an option you might expect a wizard to start up to ask about preferred orientation, colour scheme, whether to include address details and so on, but in PageMaker Plus all that happens is that a copy of the file is opened. Or rather - that's what happens if you're lucky. You're actually more likely to be told that the desired fonts in the design are missing and to find that your professionally-designed template has been rendered in Courier! To be fair all the necessary fonts are included on the CD, but to make use of them you have to jot down their names and install them with the bundled Adobe Type Manager - hardly seamless ease of use.

Things don't get much better when you begin working on the project. Again in Microsoft Publisher you are given the capability to automatically change design, orientation, colour scheme and so on at any time together with plenty of other wizard-based help. In PageMaker Plus all you get is a Tips layer partially obscuring your document and telling you basic information like the number of colours used and the size of bleeds. Otherwise you are largely left to your own devices. One thing's for sure though, you'll soon learn how to master the Layers palette or those tips are going to print all over your masterpiece.

At least PageMaker Plus does offer one new usability feature that users have been crying out for - a toolbar. For some reason Adobe seems to have prided itself on never offering a toolbar despite the fact that virtually every other developer under the sun has recognised their benefit. Now at last PageMaker offers single-click access to the various open, save and print commands along with the most important zoom options. I thought another prayer had been answered with the Word-style icons for controlling indents and especially bullets but sadly these still work by calling up clumsy dialogs. The toolbar is a step forward, but it can't hide the fact that the PageMaker interface is long past its sell-by date.

The one other innovation in PageMaker Plus is the floating Picture palette which allows multiple images to be previewed as thumbnails and then dragged and dropped onto the current page. You can add your own images to the palette but the more likely use is to replace the template placeholders with images from the selection of 4700 stock illustrations and 300 CMYK photos that Adobe has included with PageMaker Plus. If you do though you are again likely to be disappointed. All the illustrations are stored as vector-based Illustrator files which means that when you import the image a preview bitmap has to be generated. In other words both on screen and on your average non-Postscript inkjet the imported picture will be dithered and ugly!

For many users this will be the last straw, especially when compared to the thousands of high-quality scalable WMF clipart provided by Microsoft Publisher. In fact though there is a very good reason why PageMaker has chosen the route it has. PageMaker is concerned above all else with professional commercial print and, as this is almost universally Postscript-based, the Illustrator files are virtually guaranteed to print successfully in a way that WMF files are not. That's also why PageMaker Plus provides its fonts in the reliable but ATM-dependent Type 1 format rather than the easier to handle TrueType.

It's with commercial print then, that PageMaker shows its true strength. With advanced features like the ability to pick up colours from imported EPS files and to handle hi-fi six colour output there's no publication that PageMaker can't produce if pushed. With its support for Acrobat output and the bundling of Distiller 4 (see Acrobat 4 review page ), PageMaker also straddles the world of electronic publishing and is well placed for the demands of today's digital print. With the inclusion of Photoshop 5 LE you even have a cut-down version of the professional designer's favourite tool for preparing photos for CMYK print.

Ultimately then PageMaker Plus and Publisher might be fighting for the same users but they are actually very different programs. Publisher is focused on producing in-house publications whereas PageMaker is always thinking about the very different and far more exacting demands made by commercial print. For in-house work, Publisher's automated and high impact approach leaves PageMaker for dead, but when it comes to reliable and successful commercial print the opposite is true. If you are ever likely to want to produce significant print runs then the choice becomes clear. After all many thousands of professional design studios have built their business on PageMaker and I can guarantee that none relies on Publisher.

There's still life left in PageMaker then and good work can still be produced with it. In the final analysis though that's thanks to the program's existing strengths built up over time rather than to any of the new features in PageMaker Plus. Frankly the attempt to graft on a Microsoft-style template and clipart approach was never likely to succeed and this half-hearted attempt just looks amateurish and embarrassing.

After its long history and valuable service, PageMaker deserves more than this. Hopefully InDesign will provide it.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

4

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

PageMaker
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System Requirements: 486 or higher, 8Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 4.0.

Tom Arah

May 1999


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