Corel Ventura 8

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Still not for the faint-hearted, but major improvements to usability  mean that Ventura's huge breadth of power can now be realistically tapped by  the serious publisher. Doubts remain, however, about its  reliability.

Corel Ventura 8

Ventura was the first PC-based DTP package and in the pre-Windows era it was the automatic choice for the power publisher. After a difficult move to the new environment the program eventually fell into the hands of Corel. In many ways it looked like the dream match allowing Corel to use its Draw-based knowledge to graft on some design-intensive power to Ventura's existing long document strengths. In practice the dream proved more of a nightmare. Corel simply didn't seem to understand what made Ventura the program it was. As a result, while on paper the program looked more powerful than ever, in the real world it became near unusable and the previously loyal user base reluctantly looked elsewhere. With this version, Corel at last looks as if it understands what has gone wrong and is concentrating on bringing Ventura back under control.

The first problem to tackle is the interface. Powerful programs are inevitably challenging, but the Windows-based Ventura has always seemed to revel in its complexity. While PageMaker still doesn't offer even one toolbar, Ventura has gone to the opposite extreme bombarding the user with hundreds of command icons on its numerous toolbars and the constantly changing context-sensitive property bar. The latest version is still too busy - and even adds a workspace toolbar with commands for toggling on and off the other toolbars! - but at least there has been some important rationalization. If you put your cursor in a table cell, for example, the major text commands for emboldening and italicizing no longer disappear. Even better, rare choices, such as chapter number and footnote insertions, are now offered from drop-down lists rather than intimidating the user with their indecipherable icons.

It's clear that more thought has also been put into the organisation of Ventura's menus. A new Publication menu has been added to take on board document-wide features, such as the commands for controlling automatic numbering and table of content creation, that were previously jumbled up under the Format menu. The right-click context menus have also been radically reworked and now offer an alternative and far more consistent way of tapping Ventura's power. Again the new menus aren't perfect - do you really need a right-click option to delete - and personally I would still have arranged things differently. However, at least the arrangement now does make some sort of sense and, if you really feel strongly, you can always customise the environment with the new tree-based Options dialog. In the latest version it's even possible to create named workspaces that can be set to coincide with user profiles.

There is one change to the Ventura environment that is incredibly simple, but incredibly effective. In the past Corel ended up tying itself and its users in knots in its attempt to handle global and local formatting. Much of Ventura's power has always been built on the importance of tags, named groups of attributes that can be automatically and consistently applied to features like paragraphs and frames throughout a document. In fact, this used to be the only way that formatting could be applied so that to create a paragraph with right alignment, for example, it was necessary to first create a new tag and then apply that. Clearly this cut down on interactive design flexibility so the ability to apply overrides was introduced. Unfortunately Corel's solution was a horrible botch dependent on first setting the mode you wanted to operate in. If you got it wrong, which was only too easy, you ended up changing formats globally when you wanted to change them locally and vice versa.

The solution to this is incredibly simple. Now when you call up any of the relevant formatting dialogs there are two unmistakably distinct command options - Apply or Update Tag. Even better the dialogs are modeless and persistent so you can not only preview the effect on a single instance before applying changes globally to the tag, but also navigate through a document making multiple changes. For those users who liked the ability to reformat tags directly from the property bar, it's still possible but not by mistake. When you create a local override the tag name is marked with a plus symbol. Click on the drop-down list of tag names and there are two commands to either apply the current formatting to all similarly tagged instances or to use it as the basis for a new tag. The difference these simple changes make is immense - tempered only by an annoyance that Corel could have got it so wrong in the first place.

The other major innovation in the Ventura environment is also concerned with the process of tagging. The new Tag Window is a replacement for the former Manage Tag List dialog. As such it allows tags to be added, deleted, edited and imported from other publications, but it also allows tags to be applied by simply dragging and dropping them onto the document. More than this the window offers a customisable spreadsheet-style view of tag properties so that the list of paragraph tags, for instance, can also show the tag's font and point-size and these can be edited directly. What really makes the window different, however, is the fact that it is based on Corel's docker technology. This means that when the window is opened the current document view automatically shrinks to accommodate. More importantly the window is live, so that as you select different objects in your document, the window updates accordingly. In combination, these factors really put a huge amount of power immediately to hand.

The new methods of working with tags certainly help to unleash their power, but the changes go even deeper. Corel has rethought Ventura's whole approach to tags to ensure that their use is more consistent and more logical. A simple but important example is the fact that master pages are now called page tags and can be dealt with in a similar way to other tags. Using the Page Properties dialog, for example, it's possible to change from a single to a double column design and then, if you like the result, to apply the layout to all pages based on the same page tag. The use of Frame tags has also been rationalized so that clicking will automatically add a frame to the default tag's default size, while dragging allows interactive sizing. The handling of Rule tags has also been brought into line so that it's possible to access and edit rule tags from a dedicated tab within both the Frame and Paragraph Property dialogs.

Ventura's tag-based formatting engine is undoubtedly its greatest strength, but its text and bitmap handling have also always been strong and have been further improved in this latest version. Corel has imported some of its Office-based technology from its WordPerfect suite including the Grammatik grammar checker, thesaurus and the background spell-checker which underlines suspect words in red and offers suggestions via the context menu. The Find and Replace has also been improved with its own toolbar - hmm - and the option to allow searching for one object while changing another. This means that it's now possible, for example, to search for given text and to then change the tag.

The biggest change to bitmap handling is the new use of display resolution images saved within the publication. By default these are limited to 96dpi and a 100k maximum which means that the opening and general handling of publications containing images is vastly quicker. Where high quality is necessary, however, it's possible to set individual picture overrides or an overall publication default. This is particularly important where the image is modified directly within Ventura with the new range of bitmap formatting options. These have been greatly expanded to offer all of Photo-Paint's global controls from tone map adjustment through to third-party special effects from within Ventura. Being able to make such changes in-place with a live preview really is a huge advance, especially as Ventura now allows the modified image to be exported to be re-used in any other program. It's even now possible to convert Ventura's own drawing objects into a picture to be exported.

Another major advance in bitmap support is the introduction of the same Kodak based colour management software used in Corel Draw and PhotoPaint 8 which will help ensure consistent and accurate colours - it even offers the capability of highlighting those colours out of the CMYK gamut. Also imported wholesale from Draw is the underlying print engine. This offers advanced features like Postscript 3 and Hexachrome support together with the unmatched print preview that can show individual colour separations while allowing interactive control over impositions and crop mark placement. The level of control puts other professional DTP packages to shame - if you've always wanted to change the percentages that appear in the densitometer scales, here's your chance.

As much effort has been but into Ventura's output to the web as to paper. Ventura's HTML output has always been designed not to mimic existing layouts by recreating pages as HTML tables, but rather to use the publication's underlying tags and anchored graphics to re-purpose the document for the web. The new support for CSS and absolute positioning, however, now also gives the option of creating WYSIWYG layouts. Other enhancements include an improved insert hyperlink command with support for FTP, news and mailto protocols as well as URL and internal links to markers. It's also possible to set a target frame for each link. New image map support for frames containing imported pictures and animated GIF support should help make files more interactive. Finally, for those users creating technical and scientific documentation, equations are now automatically converted to graphics and index entries are automatically linked to every mention throughout the document.

With state-of-the-art paper and web output combined to its design-intensive and long document strengths it's difficult to think of areas in which Ventura is weak. Of course there are areas - such as PageMaker's colour handling, Quark's automatic text runarounds and FrameMaker's PDF production - where competing program's have an advantage, but as an all-round performer nothing comes close to Ventura. If you want to be able to create a rotated anchored frame that will automatically appear at the top of column of the page it is on together with an automatic caption complete with automatic figure numbering and automatic text runaround - but only if certain conditions are met! - Ventura can do it and will even offer vertical justification to ensure that the text at the bottom of the columns still aligns. If you also want to increase the level of design to give the frame a background fractal fill and a customised outline, to apply a brush-style filter to the image and to import an image map before outputting the file both to the Web and as Hexachrome separations, Ventura is the only program in the running.

For sheer functionality the program is unmatched and with the major rationalization seen in version 8 this functionality can now be fully tapped by the seriously dedicated publisher. The only fly in the ointment is the question of reliability in a production environment. Various problems with the formatting of imported text, a number of crashes and the fact that it was sometimes necessary to reboot just to get the program to load suggest that this crucial issue has not yet been tackled. Until it has - presumably in a near inevitable service patch - it's impossible to whole-heartedly recommend Ventura. If Corel does manage to sort out the program's reliability, it will finally have undone the damage it caused five years ago and will finally have made good on the promises made for version 5. If so, a lot of those users who were forced to turn to other solutions will happily - if suspiciously - return to the fold and Ventura will again take its place as the program of choice for the power-hungry professional publisher.



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System Requirements: Pentium 90 or higher, 32Mb of RAM, 80-240Mb of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 4.0, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

January 1999

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