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Making up for lost time and the non-appearance of version 6.0,
the latest release of Ventura offers unrivalled features for the production
of both text-heavy and design-intensive documents. Ventura is definitely
back with a bang, but very serious doubts remain about its ease-of-use
Ventura can make the claim to be the longest-serving DTP program on the PC platform and at one time it was the clear market leader. A less than happy move from the GEM to Windows environment, however, and competition from the likes of PageMaker led to a near terminal decline. Corel snapped up the ailing giant, but soon found they had bitten off more than they could chew. The much delayed version 5.0 lost sight of the program's document automation strengths and the user base continued to haemorrhage.
When Corel Draw 6.0 came out, the fact that there was no Ventura 6.0 either bundled or available separately went almost unremarked. To all and intents and purposes it seemed that Ventura had been allowed to quietly pass away. It now turns out that nothing could have been further from the truth. Over the last two years the program has been given a complete overhaul and rewritten from the ground up. The result is an absolute monster - 260Mb for a complete installation, 150Mb for a typical set-up - that is intended not just to make up for lost time but to re-seize the initiative and market.
The complete revamp is immediately clear from the entirely new interface. The most obvious and welcome changes are the support for multiple open documents and the capability to work with text and frames spanning multiple pages. The basic tools have also been changed. In the distant past, Ventura had separate tools for working with text, tags, frames and graphics, but Corel have tried to move towards a single modeless cursor, the Pick Tool, designed to work intelligently with any of these elements.
This works fine for most cases, but it can lead to complications when selecting obscured elements or especially when making formatting changes. In version 5.0, it was easy to think you were modifying a single paragraph, while in fact you were reformatting the tag and therefore the whole document! This is far less likely in version 7.0 thanks to the introduction of the new Property Bar. This is a context-sensitive toolbar offering appropriate options depending on the current selection. It also gives the opportunity to clearly specify whether changes are to be made on a local paragraph or global tag basis.
The Property Bar offers tremendous power, but the sheer number of options can be intimidating. One excellent way of feeling more in charge of the program is to use the context-sensitive menus called up with the right mouse button. Choosing the Properties command at the bottom of each menu calls up the appropriate dialog box to give you precise control over the currently selected element. Each dialog is tabbed so that with a tag selected, for example, options are given for precisely controlling nine sets of attributes ranging from font and spacing through to effects and typography.
Other new interface features include the ability to customise the toolbars and menus and the introduction of up to 99 levels of undo. Unfortunately the undo command is especially necessary as Ventura's less than clear working environment inevitably leads to mistakes. Corel remain unable to find a way of giving users access to the huge power available without making the process needlessly intimidating and dangerous. Until they sort this out, many users will run screaming to a simpler solution.
While the new interface is an improvement over that in version 5.0, it would almost be impossible for it not to. Exactly the same can be said of the new file format. In the past, Ventura took a multiple file approach to creating publications with independent text and graphics files brought together by the chapter file and formatted according to the separate style sheet. This meant that even the simplest publication would be built up out of at least four component files. If one of these was inadvertently deleted, or simply moved, the publication would begin to unravel.
Corel have finally seen sense and simplified things considerably. As soon as you load a former *.CHP chapter or *.PUB publication you are now prompted to save to the new *.VP format. This is a single file that contains all text, graphics and formatting information. The new format is not only much simpler to deal with, but much safer, quicker to load and easier to manage in a multi-user environment.
Well that's the theory. Unfortunately the move from the old system is not necessarily going to be as painless as Corel would have you believe. On loading various publications that I had created under previous versions, I repeatedly found that the text formatting had shifted slightly, but enough to require some major reworking. More worrying, loading a chapter with multiple PCX graphics simply led to the program locking up. Hopefully these problems will be sorted out in the final release as backward compatibility with its own files should be an absolute requirement of any upgrade.
So what new functionality does the new Ventura offer? Again Corel seem to have learned from their mistakes in version 5.0 and have concentrated much of their efforts on extending Ventura's existing long document strengths. The introduction of multiple Master Pages, for example, allows repeating page formats to be applied at will throughout a publication. This allows the page orientation, size or margins to be altered, but also allows for the use of different but consistent graphical elements, backgrounds and also headers and footers. Previously, changes like this would have required the creation of separate chapters.
The use of floating frames for holding text and graphics over the base page has also been improved. Now if there is more text than can fit in a frame a small arrow will appear at its bottom. Clicking on this loads the overset text into the frame cursor and allows the necessary new frames to be added automatically. The control of anchored frames that flow with the text they are connected to has also been improved. Using the new frame anchor tool, Ventura automatically associates the selected frame with the selected text. The number of frame anchoring positioning options has also been doubled.
Perhaps Ventura's biggest strength has always been its use of tags. These are named groups of formatting attributes that can be applied to text and frames to automate the formatting process. The initial extra work in setting up the tag is more than made up for by the improved efficiency and consistency that follow. Ventura 7.0 extends the tagging process by adding character tags that can be applied to selections of text within paragraphs and by removing the previous limit of 128 tags per publication.
More importantly, many new features can be set on a paragraph tag basis. For example, it is possible to set up tags that rotate their paragraphs to any angle, or apply a colour background, or flow the text across a set number of columns. More esoteric options include the ability to have punctuation overhang the margins of the paragraph, while the new ability to set multiple letter drop capitals rubs in Ventura's superiority over PageMaker where this basic process must still be done individually via a clumsy add-in.
The most advanced new feature that can be set as a tag attribute or directly applied to other page elements is the new conditions option. This is used to allow the creation of multiple different versions of a document from within the one publication. When you enable a condition for an element such as a paragraph, table or frame, the element is only visible when the publication's overall properties are set to match. If a paragraph tag was given a confidential condition, for example, it would be easy to hide the relevant text throughout the publication.
A more advanced example that shows the power of conditions would be the creation of a software manual for a program with both a standard and a professional version. All text and graphics that were only relevant to the advanced version would be marked with a "professional" condition. Changing the overall publication's conditions settings would allow the hiding or showing of all the professional elements with text and anchored graphics automatically flowing according to the new settings.
About the only limitation on conditions seems to be that while whole tables can be treated as conditional elements, individual rows and columns cannot. Apart from this the control over tables is unrivalled. Major practical improvements include the new abilities to add graphics or multiple paragraphs within each cell. Most striking is the ability to set up spreadsheet-like formulas. Ventura isn't trying to compete with the likes of Excel - though I wouldn't put it past Corel to give it a go - but the ability to perform simple sum and averaging functions is invaluable in the creation of publications like invoices and end of year reports.
The final new feature for the advanced user working on longer documents is the Navigator. This is an on-screen palette which shows a number of outline views representing either the files, table of contents, indices or master pages of all open publications. By selecting one of the items and right clicking it is possible to create, control and edit the components of your publications without getting lost in the detail. Most commonly, the palette will be used as a simple way of jumping to the desired page.
In many ways the long document power Ventura offers is awesome. It is the only all-purpose DTP program capable of creating a single publication that simultaneously features multiple page tables, conditional text, typographically-correct mathematical equations, spreadsheet functions and automatic vertical justification. Moreover the comprehensive use of tags and anchored frames allows the whole process to be automated to an amazing degree while still offering amazing flexibility and control.
In spite of this, I am still worried that all this power is simply thrown at the user to make of it what they can. To take just one example, in the past if you selected a frame containing an image and then selected a text file from the file list, the text would replace the graphic. Now it is possible to add both to the same frame. The question is why? As frames can be grouped, surely it would be far simpler to keep text and graphics separate. Just because Corel can implement a feature does not mean that they should.
While long documents have always been a Ventura strength, its control of shorter more layout-intensive publications like posters and adverts has always been comparatively weak. Not any more. Corel have clearly brought in a lot of the technological know-how from their experience with drawing products. Outlines and fills, for example, can be set to any of the options available in Corel Draw. While PageMaker's fills are limited to solid colours and percentage tints, Ventura can offer gradients, bitmap and vector patterns and even an infinite range of user-definable textures such as clouds or marble.
Other simple new features make a huge practical difference. The ability to drag guide lines onto the page makes the alignment of elements far easier as does the feedback from the property bar and the ability to nudge an object into place using the cursor keys. Using the Alignment toolbar, objects can be lined up accurately or distributed evenly, very useful for the creation of repeat designs such as tickets or business cards. Finally, once in place, objects can be grouped - though if there is an option to lock them I was unable to find it.
There are a number of new graphical tools on offer. Rather than being limited to the normal straight lines, rectangles and ovals, Ventura offers a full complement of drawing tools. Stars and pentagons can be added, for example, though mysteriously there seems to be no direct way to add triangles. A special graphical element is the callout, essentially a text box with a line attached, which is extremely useful for annotating diagrams.
The feeling that you are working within a dedicated drawing program rather than a DTP program is most apparent with the freehand tool for drawing lines of any shape, and especially with the artistic text tool. This allows short sections of text to be added and then manipulated as if they were a graphic. A heading, for example, can be stretched to fit the column width, skewed to make it look more dynamic, and then given a special effect fill. It is even be possible to make the text fit a path or to convert it to curves and use the Node tool to change its individual letter shapes.
Another extremely strong feature is the ability to add frames of various pre-set shapes such as ovals, diamonds and hearts. Having text flow within a circle, for example, is extremely eye-catching and the precise control Ventura offers over internal and external margins, ruling lines and even vertical justification makes this a relatively practical effect to bring off successfully. By adding a graphic rather than text to the frame it is possible to create equally striking mask effects. The pre-sets offered are already comprehensive - again with the mysterious exception of triangles - but by using the node tool it is always possible to edit a frame to create any shape you are after.
The support for external graphics has also been extended. Popular formats like the Corel Draw *.CDR and Adobe Photoshop *.PSD are now supported directly, although surprisingly the increasingly common Portable Network Graphics *.PNG is not. Once imported, vector formats like the Windows Metafile *.WMF can now be converted to curves which allows individual elements to be edited - a feature many drawing programs could not handle.
For imported bitmaps, such as scanned photographs, there are new options to change the brightness and contrast, essential in the creation of effects such as washed-out images behind text. It is even possible to convert between image formats so that a 24-bit image can be automatically converted to the CMYK necessary for colour-separated output, though most users will probably prefer to leave this to their dedicated photo-editing programs. One of Ventura's few limitations is the lack of support for external plug-in effects, though the bundling of the separate PhotoPaint again allows these to be applied separately.
Of course all the features in the world are useless if they cannot be eventually output. This was what finally drove me to give up on Ventura 5.0 as I was unable to get it to print reliably to my HP4MV in Postscript mode. I'm glad to say that this problem appears to have been fixed in version 7.0 though this time I seem to have the opposite problem when trying to print out in HP's direct mode!
Assuming that the program does work with your printer - and this simply shouldn't be an issue - the controls offered are excellent as they are based on the same output engine found in Corel Draw. This offers a print preview where it is possible to see the effect of options on-screen before committing to paper or film. The options are comprehensive ranging from the automatic creation of layouts like booklets through to full colour separation with control over trapping and the ability to output Hexachrome six colour work as well as the normal CMYK.
Taken together, Ventura's new controls over shorter, design-intensive documents are again excellent. Ventura is the first program to offer the main design features of a drawing package within a powerful, text-based DTP environment. However there are two potential flies in the ointment. The first is again the problem of ease-of-use. Asking anyone without considerable hands-on experience to quickly produce a graphical advert in Ventura is only likely to result in a nervous breakdown. For the design professional the problem is more practical: after previous bad experience with Ventura, it might be difficult to find typesetters willing to output your files.
One field entirely new to the world of DTP since the last release of Ventura is electronic publishing and Corel are clearly determined that this too should be a strength. The new Publish As command gives options to create files in HTML, Barista, Envoy or Acrobat format. For the creation of Web pages, choosing to publish as HTML automatically converts Ventura's tags into the most appropriate HTML equivalents and also converts vector and bitmap images into the necessary GIFs or JPGs. Impressively, any text in a floating frame is automatically turned into a new page connected to the master page by a hyperlink. Ventura even opens up your own browser to see the results when it has finished.
While Ventura makes an excellent stab at creating Web pages from its fully designed layouts, HTML is inevitably a very basic design medium. A potential solution is Corel's own Barista format. This is intended to turn each page into a mini-applet to enable a WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) view of your publication complete with columns, complex fills, and so on. Unfortunately, with the late beta under review, although some Java code was produced the end result was a completely blank browser screen. Whether this was due to Ventura or the browsers is unclear, but I would guess that there are still things to sort out at Corel's end. If the technology was working painlessly they would certainly be making a lot more fuss about it.
In the meantime, if you are looking to distribute fully-formatted documents in an electronic form, Ventura still offers you two options, Envoy or Acrobat. These are two competing WYSIWYG formats that can be viewed on-screen with their own freely distributable reader programs. There's no question which file type Ventura would prefer you to use as it comes with everything you need to create working Envoy files. To create an Acrobat PDF file, on the other hand, the only help you are given is in the creation of the Postscript file. After that you must run it through Adobe's separately available Distiller program. Even so, Acrobat is much the more widely supported format and the latest version promises extensive Net support, so for serious publishers it is probably the best option. Significantly, Acrobat is the format Corel have chosen for their own beta documentation.
Even in the new arena of electronic publishing then, Ventura can now claim to offer the most comprehensive existing solution. Taken together with the program's unrivalled long document automation and its drawing-style design control it's difficult to see what greater functionality the program could offer. When you remember that Ventura does indeed offer more, through its bundled photo-editor, word-processor, database publisher, archiver, web page designer, 3D-effects program and CD creator, it's difficult not to be impressed. Bearing all this in mind, has Ventura achieved the impossible and come back from nowhere to steal the DTP crown?
On paper, and in terms of features and sheer power, the answer has to be a definite yes. For real world use, however, there remain two very important caveats. The first concerns usability - Ventura is not just demanding of computer resources. Corel seem to throw in any new function they can devise with little or no attempt to protect the user from overloading. If you are willing to put the time in to really get to grips with it, the power is certainly there to reward you. Occasional designers, however, should beware - Ventura has been known to reduce grown men to tears (I'm told).
The second doubt is even more fundamental and concerns reliability. With such all-round functionality, Ventura should be an almost automatic choice for design professionals. However, based on the numerous problems I encountered - ranging from errors when opening existing files through to the occasional inability to print and including numerous freezes, glitches and even disastrous corruptions of text along the way - I simply can't imagine entrusting a mission-critical job to it. Even the latest beta under review remained completely unusable for serious work. Hopefully, the shrink-wrapped version and time will put these doubts to rest. Until then, I'm afraid it's a case of once-bitten twice-shy.
ratings out of 6
System Requirements: Pentium 90 or higher, 32Mb of RAM, 80-240Mb of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 4.0, CD-ROM
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