1998 Application Roundup - Simply The Best?

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1998 Application roundup

Naturally you want to use the best program for your needs. Tom Arah takes a no-holds-barred tour through the major design contenders.

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Inevitably the most common question I receive from readers is "which program would you recommend for DTP/drawing/photo-editing/web design?" This is a subject I could happily discuss for hours, but sadly most correspondents are normally looking for a one- or two-word answer. For some this does make sense and the A-List is an excellent way of picking out those programs that for one reason or another stand out from the rest. The trouble is that this "best" program isn't necessarily the best for any given user. This fact was crystallized for me recently during a sleepless night trying to decide whether the latest Ventura deserved to be put on the A-List. In terms of sheer power there was no doubt, and I knew that many readers who took the recommendation would bless me until their last contented breath. EquallyI knew that other readers with simpler requirements and different expectations would curse me until their - almost certainly premature - end.

It's obvious that two words in isolation simply aren't enough to help make a sensible decision. I've therefore decided to distil the wisdom I've gained reviewing and using the major design programs to try and put them into an intelligible comparative framework. Space is going to be tight so I've had to ignore all those worthy programs, such as Metacreations Painter and Wright Design, which are primarily designed to fill a niche. For the remaining mainstream contenders, I've concentrated on picking out the major pros and cons that might influence your decision and also tried to give an idea of the major target market that the program is aiming for. Finally, because value for money is such a crucial factor - and one that reviewers are thankfully immune to - I've organised them in terms of the best street price (excluding VAT) that I could find looking through the PC Pro ads. Right, here goes:

To read the full review simply click on the program name.

DTP

Serif PagePlus 5

Price: 40. Pros: PagePlus offers an amazing amount of power for the price with good HTML output and advanced colour separation and imposition control. Cons: However, its mix of high and low-end features is uncomfortable (though the Space Invaders game has now gone). Overall: The program has some keen fans who ask why you should pay more for a DTP program when PagePlus does it all. On the other hand, other readers have definitely hit its ceiling. When a page's worth of botched film costs more than the program itself, it doesn't make sense to skimp. Target: In-house publishers who might want to get more serious.

Microsoft Publisher 98

Price: 45. Pros: Publisher's Microsoft connection leads to good hand-holding templates and wizards, and Office 97 integration. Cons: On the other hand the company seems to have little or no understanding of commercial print. Overall: Microsoft might have grabbed the most obvious name for a DTP program, but appearances can be deceptive. With poor Postscript support and no colour separation there's actually very little commercial print published with Publisher. Instead the program concentrates on in-house print and now offers reasonable SOHO web site creation. Target: In-house publishers who don't want to get more serious.

Corel Ventura 8

Price: 290. Pros: Ventura's feature list is unmatched with conditional text, vertical justification, fractal fills, database publishing, equation editing, spreadsheet formulae, footnotes, cross-references, text-on-paths, multiple page tables, Photo-Paint, you name it. And an attractive price to woo back disgruntled former users. Cons: Ventura's past record has frightened off many users and its current - much improved - interface will still have the same effect on the faint-hearted. Lingering doubts also remain over reliability. Overall: Ventura's strength has always come from its tag-based approach to formatting which allows global changes to be made easily and consistently. When you have mastered Ventura, it's the one program that makes you feel absolutely in control of your publications. Target: Power fiends and ex-users with forgiving natures and/or memory loss.

Adobe PageMaker 6.5

Price: 355. Pros: PageMaker is built on an easy-to-understand paste-up metaphor built on freeform text blocks. Cons: Unfortunately, this freeform approach makes it difficult to get a grip on longer documents while the clumsy plug-ins for basic tasks such as managing tables, bulleting and numbering and the lack of a font preview or multiple undo are frankly embarrassing. Overall: PageMaker is the most popular high-end DTP program mainly because it's cheaper than XPress and simpler than Ventura. I still use it for most work going to output because my service bureau is happy with it (though they were even happier with versions 6 and 5). Nowadays it's looking in dire need of an overhaul especially as the half-hearted introduction of frames in 6.5 was half-baked. Target: Professional rather than power publishers.

Adobe FrameMaker 5.5

Price: 420. Pros: FrameMaker has two main strengths - its advanced long document features such as vertical justification, conditional text, anchored frames and multiple page tables and its good electronic output especially to PDF. Cons: The program's commercial print control, though, is surprisingly poor and the interface looks antiquated. Overall: Adobe's frame-based long-document solution is intended for users managing large text and graphic-intensive projects such as the production of technical documentation. Only really a contender for corporate users where features such as the cross-platform and optional SMGL support (1000 extra) come into play. Target: Rigidly structured corporate publishers.

Quark XPress 4

Price: 695. Pros: XPress has a long pedigree as the professional DTP standard on the Mac platform where its support for third-party XTensions helps to make up for its limitations. Cons: Major failings include the lack of in-built table handling and Acrobat and HTML support while the glacial pace of development means it could be a long wait before these are rectified. Overall: Generally, XPress falls midway between PageMaker and Ventura in terms of ease of use and power. If it gave the impression that it was more committed to the realities of the modern world - Windows, the Net, Office integration, usability, value for money - it could yet come through the middle. If it doesn't, it is likely to remain an expensive niche solution for magazine production. Target: Money-no-object, paper-only publishers.

Drawing

Micrografx Windows Draw 6

Price: 10 (!). Pros: This user-friendly and surprisingly powerful Office-based drawing package even offers Web output and GIF animation. The fact that it also comes bundled with reasonable bitmap and 3D modules means it offers incredible value. Cons: At the price it's difficult to complain, but the lack of an obvious upgrade path when the program's ceiling is reached is disappointing. Overall: With good ease of use and surprising power in all its components, Windows Draw 6 has to be the deal of the century. If you don't already have a drawing or photo-editing package - or much cash - here's your salvation. Target: New users and bargain hunters.

Micrografx Graphics Suite 2

Price: 225. Pros: Windows Draw's big brother includes four main standalone applications: Designer, Picture Publisher, FlowCharter and Simply 3D. Cons: Compared to Draw, however, the programs are disjointed, complex and overly technical. Overall: Sadly, Micrografx' solution for advanced users is much less attractive than its budget option. Target: Technically-minded Office users.

Adobe Illustrator 7

Price: 230. Pros: Illustrator offers the best EPS/Acrobat support and integration with other Adobe programs. Cons: However, the program's strict Postscript support has the downside of cutting out all advanced formatting and effects. Worse, Adobe has limited the program to producing single page layouts. Overall: Illustrator is designed to provide reliable vector illustrations for inclusion in PageMaker in the same way as Photoshop provides bitmaps. As all the other major drawing applications also enable the creation of design-intensive, multiple-page publications, Illustrator is in dire need of a re-think. Target: Adobe users who have never looked at FreeHand or Corel Draw.

Corel Draw 8

Price: 250. Pros: The most powerful drawing package with the most efficient interface and you get Photo-Paint for free. Cons: However, serious doubts remain over Draw's reliability in a production environment. Overall: Corel Draw has always been the most powerful option on the PC and, after losing its way in a frenzy of bundled bloating around version 5, it has regained its focus. The latest service release has addressed the most pressing of the bug problems, but this is still the area Draw has to tighten up. Target: Draw 8's slogan "the choice of professionals" is still an aim rather than a statement of fact.

MacroMedia FreeHand 8

Price: 280. Pros: Freehand offers good text handling, reliable vector transparency and integration with Flash. Cons: However its bitmap handling is poor. Overall: The program is reasonably strong in most areas, but generally it comes in second best to Draw with Illustrator a trailing third. The Design in Motion suite (379) stakes out new ground by moving Freehand into the world of Web site animation through integration with the bundled Flash (199). Bundling Macromedia's bitmap editor, xRes, wouldn't hurt either. Target: Illustrator users.

Photo-Editing

Paint Shop Pro 5

Price: 60. Pros: Paint Shop's thumbnail-based browsing, screen capture, simple batch conversion, and shareware background have given it a huge and loyal user base. Cons: Now that the program is no longer shareware, however, its poor colour correction and creative filters are less forgivable. Overall: Thanks to its try-before-you-buy (or not) approach, Paint Shop Pro can claim to be the world's most popular bitmap program. It still has its basic strengths from the days when it was primarily used for converting between file formats, but the attempt to move into advanced areas like CMYK print and web imaging are less convincing. Target: Honest downloaders with a technical rather than creative interest in graphics.

Micrografx Picture Publisher 8

Price: 65. Pros: As well as offering excellent value with top of the range features like CMYK editing, Picture Publisher also offers some unique features such as its action-based multiple undo that can be saved with the image. Cons: In spite of this - and sometimes because of it - the program seems slow and old-fashioned and is difficult to warm to. Overall: Picture Publisher definitely offers value for money, but strains too much to be taken seriously as a professional photo editor. In many ways the program's long history now works against it when compared to modern competitors. Target: Users amazed to get a name product at a price like this.

Ulead PhotoImpact 4

Price: 110. Pros: PhotoImpact's pick-and-apply approach encourages experimentation and is complemented by some amazing creative filters and good Web support. The bundled Album program offers advanced image cataloguing. Cons: The lack of high-end CMYK control is more forgivable than the decision to drop the excellent Explorer thumbnail browser and Capture screen grabber. Overall: PhotoImpact broke the mould of stuffy and intimidating bitmap editing by realising that many users didn't want to get to grips with gamma curves and histograms - they just wanted their images to look better. Target: Creative office-based users.

Corel Photo-Paint 8

Price: 230. Pros: PhotoPaint's advantages centre on its modern interface and modern features such as its frame-based video editing, GIF animation and scripting. Cons: It's still not Photoshop, however, and is prone to bugs. Overall: If there was an award for most-improved software Photo-Paint would walk off with it. In the past the program was near unworkable, but now it offers a good mixture of professional power and Office-style usability. I was planning a point-by-point comparison with Photoshop where Photo-Paint's features such as multiple undo, text editability and scripting were going to embarrass the old stager. Then along came Photoshop 5. Target: Draw and Ventura users (who get it for free).

Macromedia xRes 3

Price: 400. Pros: xRes boasts a Photoshop-style interface with additional features such as artistic brushes and a special xRes mode which allows resolution-independent real-time editing of 100Mb + files. Cons: The interface might look like Photoshop, but a number of important features such as adjustment layers and editable text are missing. Overall: Essentially xRes is a Photoshop clone - the problem is it's a clone of version 3. Target: Users with a grudge against Photoshop or very large files.

Adobe Photoshop 5

Price: 420. Cons: Photoshop's complex interface leads to a mountainous learning curve and with rudimentary brushes and poor Web support the program is expensive. Pros: That's assuming it wasn't bundled with your scanner. Even if it wasn't, the price is justified by unrivalled power once you've mastered it. Overall: Despite its market dominance, Photoshop isn't necessarily the right choice for the office user. For the user producing images for professional print, however, the combination of advanced colour correction, layer-based photo-compositing and reliable RGB-to-CMYK conversion is unmatched. The text editability, layer effects, spot colour channels and multiple undo of the latest version 5 mean that Photoshop genuinely deserves its pre-eminence. Target: Pre-press professionals.

Web Design

Adobe PageMill 3

Price: 70. Pros: PageMill's strength is its simple browser-style interface. Cons: Its weakness is its basic site management and the lack of JavaScript, DHTML and style sheet support. Overall: The simple browser-cum-editor interface makes basic editing of simple sites easy. Unfortunately the best Web design isn't necessarily easy and PageMill is chronically under-powered when it comes to support for the latest HTML and scripting features. Target: Occasional or conservative web site creators.

Microsoft FrontPage 98

Price: 85. Pros: FrontPage has always offered well-integrated site management while its proprietary components are an easy way to advanced functionality. Cons: However, Microsoft's willingness to ignore compatibility issues with any programs other than its own is a huge drawback. Overall: If you do things the Microsoft way you are virtually guaranteed good results without ever having to get your hands dirty with direct HTML editing. There is a price though. In particular the tight tie-ins to Internet Explorer, ActiveX and the FrontPage extensions offer easy power but might cause problems if your viewers and ISP don't support them. On balance, the program is still probably the best choice for producing your first site. Target: Professional DIY site-builders.

Corel Xara 2

Price: US$149. Pros: Corel Xara is fast and efficient and offers advanced drawing features such as graduated vector transparency and colour styles. Cons: With no obvious programming input or retail distribution policy, Corel's commitment to the program is questionable. Overall: Corel Xara is a powerful vector-based illustration program capable of producing photo-realistic results. The latest version has seen the program take a sensible sideways shift into web imaging with preview-based image optimisation, HTML features and animated GIF support. Target: Creative designers with an emphasis on the Web.

Macromedia Fireworks 1

Price: 220. Pros: Fireworks' combination of vector and bitmap editing, live effects, unmatched image optimization and HTML support is truly revolutionary. Cons: Even so, the occasional weak spot and rough edge is inevitable in a first release. Overall: Fireworks creates a new category of its own by combining object-based flexibility and ease-of-use with pixel-based creativity and up-to-the-minute HTML-based web integration. Target: Dedicated and forward-looking web artists.

Macromedia DreamWeaver 1.2

Price: 230. Pros: DreamWeaver is unashamedly state-of-the-art with advanced DHTML, CSS, JavaScript and Shockwave support. Cons: Ditto. Overall: Where PageMill tries to restrict its users to the basics and FrontPage tries to cocoon them within its Microsoft-only vision of the Web, DreamWeaver is much more demanding but potentially far more rewarding. Working as a flexible cross between a wysiwyg page designer and text-based HTML editor, DreamWeaver enables the creation of all-singing all-dancing interactive sites though these can only be truly appreciated with version 4 browsers. Target: Bleeding-edge Web designers.

And the winner is.

Well that's the point really, there isn't one. It all depends on you the user and your particular requirements, capabilities and resources. Design needs are so diverse and change so rapidly that there can't be a single one-size-fits-all solution. As such, design software development shouldn't be seen as a race where only the winners matter. It's more like an ecosystem where each program finds the necessary mix of general functionality, special features, usability and price level to attract enough users to enable it to survive.

Life would certainly be a lot simpler if there was a single outstanding design option of the sort that Microsoft has provided in the Office arena. On the other hand, the range and diversity of the choice available does offer huge advantages. To begin with it leaves room for the possibility of adaptation to new circumstances, as the latest Xara shows, or even the birth of completely new breeds of software, as Fireworks demonstrates. In fact the situation is so fluid that it's even possible for programs that seemed on the brink of extinction to once again challenge for supremacy as Ventura is doing now. More importantly, the constant competition ensures that computer-based design doesn't stagnate and keeps changing and evolving.

The bad news is that this constantly evolving landscape calls for constant vigilance to ensure that you are always using the tools that are best suited to your needs.

20/07/98

Tom Arah


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