Corel Draw 8

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Without the headline-grabbing new functionality of previous years, Draw  8 has instead listened to criticism and focused on boosting professional  productivity.

Corel Draw 8

Corel Draw made its first appearance back in 1989 under the then state of the art environment Windows 2.11. Since then the annual release has become a much-anticipated event with each new version setting the standard for the rest of the PC-based graphic industry to follow. However, the pressures of a twelve-month development cycle are clearly intense and this year, with its commitments to products like the WordPerfect suite and its ongoing Java development, there were considerable doubts as to whether Corel would be able to deliver. In the end they did manage it - just - with the shrink-wrapped version squeezing into 1997 with a December launch.

The marketing push behind the new release emphasizes the suite's high-end features with the slogan "the choice of professionals." This is hardly the image Corel has cultivated in the past with a reputation that tended more toward the pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap. The new designer credentials are immediately apparent when the program first loads. The interface is very reminiscent of Office-97 with flat-look toolbars featuring hot-tracking so that icons become prominent when the mouse moves over them. There's been some reorganization of the tools and menus too, to produce a more streamlined and understated interface - two words I never thought I'd use about Corel.

Of course while it makes sense for a design program to look well-designed, there's a lot more to an interface than its appearance. A much more fundamental attempt at streamlining is the introduction of the docker window. This is an optional full-height palette that appears to the right of the screen next to the colour selector. In many ways it works like one of Draw's traditional onscreen roll-up palettes, but the beauty is that as the docker window opens and closes the document window resizes accordingly, so that the drawing is never obscured. Even better, if multiple windows are docked they are automatically grouped as tabbed pages. If you find yourself missing the former onscreen clutter, you can always tear off the windows to create traditional floating roll-ups.

There are ten docker-enabled windows ranging from the symbols and colour styles palettes through to the script and view manager. The browsable Corel Tutor window will help beginners get up to speed, but most users will probably prefer to have the scrapbook open. With its thumbnail previews of graphic format files this is an excellent way to search and manage existing files and also to choose between custom fills and outlines. For the expert user, however, it is the combination of object manager and object properties windows which will deliver the most power. Working together these enable complete control of all aspects of the drawing from the docker window.

Such indirect control has its place, but Corel is determined that as much power as possible should be put where users really want it - directly and immediately on the drawing. A number of apparently minor moves in this direction immediately give far more flexibility. For example when you add an object with any of the shape tools it is possible to immediately resize or rotate it, or even to edit its nodes, without having to change to the pick or shape tools. The formatting of objects has also been made far more interactive. Holding down the Ctrl key and clicking on any of the onscreen swatches adds 10% of that colour to the current object. This interactive colour mixing is ideal for quickly adding variety or when you are trying to hone in on an exact hue.

The emphasis on interactivity is even clearer with Draw's tools. With the existing effect tools, for example, new customisable mid-points have been added to the blend, fill and transparency arrows to enable easy on-screen fine tuning. Two new tool-based versions of existing roll-up controlled effects have also been added with the interactive envelope and extrude tools. Each of these offers a huge range of power, but in both cases it is possible to make all the necessary settings using just the tool and the property bar. Having said this, I actually still feel a lot more comfortable controlling extrusions with the tabbed roll-up.

Another new tool offering an interactive version of existing power is the free transform tool. This can be used for the staple tasks of rotating, reflecting, scaling and skewing, but is designed to offer more flexibility than Draw's traditional bounding box control. When resizing, for example, both horizontal and vertical axes can be scaled simultaneously and independently. In addition the transformation occurs relative to an anchor point so that if you click outside the object you both scale and position the object according to the distance and direction you drag. If the effect sounds complicated and difficult to control that's because it is - this is not a tool I will be using much.

In fact the main function of the free transformation tool is almost certainly to try and attract existing Illustrator and Freehand users where such tool-based management is the norm. Another enticement is the availability of two dedicated alternative working environments complete with look-alike toolboxes and menus to make these users feel at home. As Draw's interface is leagues ahead of its rivals' these aren't likely to see much use, but it's always good to be given the option. More to the point, it shows the customisability on offer. Draw gives complete control over its toolbars, hot keys, menus and even status bar and, once you've customised your working environment, you can now save it as a named workspace.

The increasing moves toward interactivity and customisability are both part of Draw's drive to put power where it's most needed - in the user's hands. Just as important in version 8 are numerous miscellaneous improvements such as the capability to dig down to hidden objects simply by Alt-clicking, to import multiple files ready for sequential placing and to create regular patterns through smart duplication. The new feature that that will make the most difference to me is the simplest. To align selected objects it's no longer necessary to call-up the roll-up - you simply have to type single letter shortcut keys.

The programming effort required to make these changes is clearly minimal but to the user even the smallest tweak can be invaluable. From major structural changes, such as its docker windows, through to minor refinements, such as its accelerator keys, the new Draw interface is focused on streamlining, interactivity and usability. The end result is a much cleaner and more productive environment with the user at the heart of things and very much in control. Corel has clearly not just been inspired by the appearance of Office 97, it looks like there has finally been some serious usability testing.

That's the good news. The bad news is that there's still a long way to go. Every user will have their own niggles, but here's one that regularly drives me mad. Backup files are still automatically stored in the same directory as the original and given the filename prefix "backup_of_". This means that to get to the real file you always have to scroll through the copies and, if you are using the scrapbook, time-consuming preview thumbnails will have to be extracted. Saving copies to a dedicated directory or even just changing the prefix to "z_backup_of_" would immediately solve the problem. Usability testing has clearly only gone so far.

A more fundamental criticism is that while the changes are welcome they don't go far enough. Why for example is there an interactive blend tool, but not an interactive contour tool? More importantly why haven't all roll-ups been implemented as docker windows? Working with docker windows is so much more efficient that you soon come to resent having to use old-style roll-ups at all - particularly as there seems to be no logic behind which palettes have been selected and which haven't. In the future it's clear that all roll-up options such as fill and outline selection and text handling will be moved over to the docker window so why haven't they now? As things stand the interface is clearly moving in the right direction, but it is still a work in progress.

New Functionality

Corel is undoubtedly right to focus on usability, but it will always be difficult to sell an upgrade on the basis of new keyboard shortcuts. As Corel knows, what catches the eye is new power and new functionality. So what does the new Draw offer? To start off there are a number of new set-up options. Custom page sizes can be saved to the list of pre-sets and it is also possible to create pages as small as 16 x 16 pixels for the creation of icons. The underlying grid on the page can also now be shown as grid lines rather than just dots, but it is the changes to guidelines that will be most regularly useful. Guidelines are now treated just like any other objects so it is possible to select multiple lines and to rotate or nudge them into position.

There are no new shape tools, but there are extensive new controls over existing objects. The new interactive distortion tool offers three very different ways of manhandling shapes. Push and pull mode gravitates nodes towards or away from the object centre, twister mode swirls points around the object's centre, and zipper mode works by applying frequency changes to lines and curves. This latter option is particularly useful when used with the random and smoothing options as it allows the overly clean lines of normal vector drawings to be given a rougher, more human feel.

Draw 8's final new tool is the drop shadow tool. From other program's implementations of drop shadows, you might think that this was a very simple process effectively just duplicating an object giving it a gray fill and offsetting it. Draw's feature is very different as it not only allows the user to interactively set the direction of the shadow but also to change its colour, feathering and transparency. In other words the shadow is actually a photo-realistic bitmap. Although the effect is created as a bitmap it remains linked to its vector object so that if you edit the object, retyping text for example, the shadow will automatically update. It's an excellent feature that really helps to give designs a lift, but it has some idiosyncracies. For example the drop shadow of distorted text acts as if the twist and zippering effects haven't been applied.

The area that has seen most change in Draw 8 is the text handling with features such as the new fit to frame command. With one click this automatically changes the point size of paragraph text to ensure that it entirely fills the current text frame or frames. There is some intelligence to the process so that if the frame is formatted with different point sizes Draw maintains the variation, but it would be more useful if there was some way of controlling paragraph spacing and leading at the same time. It is also now possible to flow text from one frame to another object or path and then back into another text frame which can be used to create some striking occasional effects. More mundane but more regularly useful is the new ability to embed any graphic copied to the clipboard into the text flow - ideal for logos or designer bullets.

The new capability that will attract most attention though is the new 3D TextArt feature. This is accessed through the Extrude Text command, but it is completely different from the existing extrude effect. Instead it opens up a dedicated 3D view-port in which any artistic text can be manipulated. The normal toolbar is replaced by tools for controlling the camera position allowing the text to be rotated and scaled in any direction within 3D space. The property bar meanwhile offers precise control over size, position, depth of extrusion, bevel, texture and lighting. As soon as you click outside the view-port, the 3D text is rendered as a bitmap to the resolution and quality that you specify. To change the effect you simply double-click on the bitmap and fine-tune any of the settings. Without ray tracing, surface mapping and so on the final quality can't compare to that produced with a program like Dream 3D (see box out), but for most basic 3D work this is easily outweighed by the convenience of having the power immediately to hand.

Such 3D text effects are great for catching the eye, but in the long run it's the improvements to everyday text handling that are most important. Sadly there have been very few changes in terms of core functionality. Draw still beats its vector-based rivals in this area, but there's a long way to go before the program can compete with the DTP packages. At least there have been a number of text-based usability improvements. If you pause while typing, for example, handles appear allowing you to reposition and resize your text before continuing. Another small innovation - but probably the one I would least willingly give up - is the fact that when you return to the font list it now opens at the current text object's font rather than right at the beginning of the list. When you have hundreds of fonts on your system this really makes a huge difference.

The new power is welcome, but it has to be said that in comparison to previous versions - or even to the new Photo-Paint (see box out) - the changes to Draw's core functionality are limited. That's inevitably disappointing, but it also comes as something of a relief. The sheer pace of change with previous versions meant that many users were left suffering from feature fatigue. A period of consolidation is no bad thing and, with its current strong lead over the competition, one that Draw can probably afford. It also allows Corel to focus on an absolutely crucial area that it has tended to forget in the past - output. To attract the professional market, Corel needs to ensure that the quality and reliability of its output is second to none.

In terms of web page creation Draw offers a number of new features. The new bookmark docker window helps manage URLs within a project, while the ability to add animated GIFs and Internet objects such as Java applets, radio buttons and option lists should help to make pages more advanced and more interesting. More importantly, the output process has been completely revamped with the Publish to Internet command now leading to a wizard rather than a dialog. The wizard offers three main options for outputting as a Barista format file, as HTML or as an image. Barista is Corel's own Java-based web format and it is severely limited by the inability of browsers to even open the file until certain java classes have been installed. In any case, Barista offers little to make it preferable to well-coded HTML.

Corel 8 now fully supports HTML tables which enables it to exactly recreate the layout of the page. It can also produce HTML layers and styles though these are only compatible with the latest version 4 browsers. Options are given regarding GIF and JPEG settings and which pages you want to output and Draw can warn of potential conflicts. A nice touch is that all the potential problems, such as objects overhanging the page or non-HTML compatible text formatting, are listed in an HTML-Conflict docker window. Double-clicking on an entry automatically selects the relevant object for editing. Inevitably, because of its graphic-based nature, Draw is not the right program to design a complex web site, but Corel has done everything that could be expected of it.

For the serious web publisher, Draw is still best used as a graphical tool to complement a dedicated text-oriented HTML authoring package. As such the third option of producing web-oriented graphics and image maps is probably the most important. Layouts can be converted to either JPEG or GIF, but while the control over JPEGs is good, with a preview to show the effect of different compression settings, the control over the much more common GIFs is disappointing. In particular there is no preview to see the effect of different palette settings, or the ability to choose a transparent colour, let alone to save multiple pages as a GIF animation. Such options are available through Photo-Paint of course, but there is no reason why they shouldn't be available within Draw.

In terms of output to the user's desktop printer, Draw's controls have always been excellent and the latest version takes things further. The Print dialog has been completely redesigned and its new tabbed interface is even more comprehensive, for example, offering control over advanced features such as signature-layout and N-up format to create complex impositions automatically. The print preview has also been improved to allow layout options to be set interactively. Being able to see features like crop marks and individual colour-separated plates onscreen before committing to paper is invaluable and puts programs like PageMaker to shame.

It's in the area of commercial print, however, that Corel has received most criticism in the past and which its move up-market is designed to answer. A clear signal of this new focus is the inclusion of an excellent commercial printing guide. Another sign was the eagerness of the suite's production manager to talk me through those underlying changes that won't be immediately apparent to the user. These include features such as the licensing of the latest ColorSync colour management system from Kodak which should ensure as accurate colour as possible throughout the production process.

More importantly, a lot of work has been done to ensure that the professional designer's job is as easy as possible when it comes to taking work for external output. The new Prepare for Service Bureau wizard walks the user through the process from selecting a profile through to creating Postscript print files. Interestingly Draw not only copies the PRN file and job description to the specified directory but also a copy of the CDR itself. This belt-and-braces approach isn't exactly reassuring, but it does make a lot of sense as bureaux generally prefer to make their own settings and output directly from the original. The new cross-platform file format and the ability to embed all necessary fonts within the CDR should make outputting from Mac-based bureaux a lot simpler.

Getting the files to the bureau is one thing, whether the files output as intended is another matter entirely. Largely it comes down to reliable Postscript support. The Draw product manager was keen to stress Corel's commitment in this area emphasizing the new Postscript 3 support in both Draw and Photo-Paint - apparently the improved smoothing of blends and gradients in Level 3 is actually built on Corel technology. He also pointed out the enhanced EPS import which means that imported EPS files are now fully editable. This is a huge step forward as EPS files are the common unit of exchange for designers. Now if a customer gives me an EPS of their logo, for example, I can break it up to pick out individual elements or change its colouring to use as a background wash.

In the past it was this level of Postscript support that distinguished Adobe Illustrator from Draw and made it the safest choice for professional design. Corel has clearly realised that it now has to tackle the issue of dependability head on if it is going to seize the high-end design market on both the PC and Mac. If it succeeds there is no question that in terms of functionality and ease of use, it is more than a match for its competitors. Sadly simply offering a feature doesn't necessarily mean it is reliable. It was very disappointing to find that it was precisely in the area of high-level work that Draw proved most unreliable with two unexplained crashes when I tried to import an EPS and when I tried to output an image map. Rebooting solved both problems, but they simply shouldn't happen with a high-end program.

Users who have despaired of Draw's reliability and inconsistency in the past will see this as absolutely typical of Corel - come up with features and throw them at the user whether they are 100% reliable or not. After all, if they don't work exactly as intended, they can always be fixed for next year's release. There's a lot of truth in this and by far the most disappointing aspect of the latest Draw was the number of crashes and glitches. If Corel really wants to satisfy the commercial design market it will have to radically improve its quality control. Presumably a service release will solve many of the problems, but it would be far better to extend the development cycle by a few months to ensure bomb-proof code. Professional designers want power and productivity but they need rock-solid reliability.

On the other hand, it's important to recognise the advances that the Draw suite has made. Draw 8 is a completely different animal to Draw 5 or 6. The old cheap-but-cheerful take-it-or-leave-it approach has gone for good. Compared to the innovations made in version 7, the changes in version 8 may seem comparatively minor but they are part of a major repositioning. With its streamlined interface, improved interactivity and usability, consolidated functionality and a new focus on both high-end vector and bitmap-based graphic design, Draw 8 is altogether a more professional and more productive suite than its predecessors.

Most importantly the program now seems to know where it's going. Occasional users would probably be better advised to wait for version 9 - or 9.1 - to see if it really does get there, but Draw 8 is definitely a move in the right direction.

Corel Photo-Paint 8

Separate Review but bundled with Draw

Corel Dream 3D

The third of the major modules in the Draw suite is the 3D editor Dream 3D - or rather it used to be back in version 7. In version 8 it's still there on the CD-ROM, but it's pretty clear that it's been demoted. Little things give the game away like the fact that it's not installed by default and that, while Draw and PhotoPaint both come with extensive manuals, Dream 3D doesn't even get a booklet. More to the point, if you do go to the trouble of installing it, you'll find that apart from the flat-look interface very little has changed.

This doesn't mean that Dream 3D is suddenly a waste of space. When Corel bought the technology from the developers of Ray Dream Designer it was just about state-of-the-art. This means that the program still boasts some pretty advanced features like spline-based 3D object modelling, texture mapping, deformation tools, lighting controls and high resolution ray-traced rendering. Using the power on offer it's still possible to create some high-quality and complex scenes.

The main limitation comes with what you can do with the scenes. Creating 3D work is a time-consuming and complicated business so when you've finished your scene you want to be able to take full advantage of it. The latest Dream 3D has been upgraded to allow export to VRML 2.0 the virtual reality format for web viewing, and to 3DMF format for inclusion and editing in Draw. However there are no animation features at all of either objects or camera. This is an absolute ceiling on functionality and simply isn't acceptable in a supposedly professional package.

It's clear that Corel's heart isn't really in Dream 3D and, with features such as the viewport-based editing and rendering of 3D text now available within Draw itself, it would probably be kinder to put the program out of its misery.

The Rest of the Suite

One of the strengths of Draw 8 is that it has found a clear sense of purpose by focusing strongly on professional graphic design. As such the old days when Corel seemed happy to bundle any software it could lay its hands on have long gone. Since version 5 we've lost Ventura, Chart, Move, Show, Presents and now in version 8 we've lost Multimedia Manager and Depth. By version 9 it looks like we'll also have mislaid Dream 3D (see box out), so what exactly are we left with?

Well, quite a lot actually. To begin with there's OCR-Trace. This is a bitmap-to-vector conversion utility that is useful, for example, when you need to turn a scanned bitmap of a logo into an editable and scaleable vector equivalent. It offers both outline and centreline tracing and a number of advanced features such as basic bitmap editing and Pantone support. However don't be fooled by the name. The "OCR" on offer is extremely basic and not a replacement for the likes of OmniPage or TextBridge.

Other useful graphical utilities are Capture and Texture. Capture is a screen grab utility with a wide range of source and destination options while Texture allows the creation of unique naturalistic bitmap fills. Texture is no longer installed by default which is not too surprising as Draw and Photo-Paint both offer an infinite range of customisable fractal fills. Moreover, if none of these should fit the bill, there are hundreds of ready-made sample textures supplied on CD. All told there are now over 40,000 clip art images provided with Draw though the fonts and photos have stabilised at a slightly more manageable 1,000 each.

One program that definitely won't be axed is Script Editor as one of the Draw suite's great strengths is the way it can be automated. Actions can be recorded and replayed within both the Draw and Photo-Paint modules, but Script Editor takes the power on offer to a new level by offering features such as integrated debugging and the ability to produce customised dialogs. As Corel Script is OLE 2.0 enabled it's even possible to create cross-application add-ons that combine vector-processing within Draw and bitmap-processing within Photo-Paint.

This tight integration that Script Editor is able to offer comes as a direct result of Corel's new focus and the chopping away of dead wood. However, although Corel has undoubtedly been right to streamline the suite, it does come at a cost. For those users who have put time into learning software it is infuriating when its development is arbitrarily stopped. During installation users should at least be given the option to keep those programs that Corel has decided to ditch. More importantly, the cost of upgrading should be lowered to reflect the fact that functionality has been cut. After all Corel is now charging roughly the same price for a suite that offers vector and bitmap editing as it did for a version that also offered DTP, animation, charting, 3D and business presentation.

Features

5

Ease Of Use

5

Value For Money

5

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Corel Draw
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System Requirements : Pentium 200 or higher, 64/128Mb of RAM, 300Mb of disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 or NT 4.0, SVGA, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

Dec 1998


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All the work on the site (over 250 reviews, over 100 articles and tutorials) has been written by me, Tom Arah It's also me who maintains the site, answers your emails etc. The site is very popular and from your feedback I know it's a useful resource - but it takes a lot to keep it up.

You can help keep the site running, independent and free by Bookmarking the site (if you don't you might never find it again), telling others about it and by coming back (new content is added every month). Even better you can make a donation eg $5 the typical cost of just one issue of a print magazine or buy anything via Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (now or next time you feel like shopping) using these links or the designer-info.com shop - it's a great way of quickly finding the best buys, it costs you nothing and I gain a small but much-appreciated commission.

Thanks very much, Tom Arah


 
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