Deneba Canvas 6

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Seamless integration of vector, text and bitmap handling together with unique compositing technology mean that Canvas is an impressive all-round graphics solution for both technical and creative users.

Deneba Canvas 6

When you think of professional drawing packages three names come instantly to mind: Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand. There is another alternative, however, Deneba Canvas. Canvas's great strength is its combined vector and bitmap handling designed to offer the best of both approaches and to provide all the graphics power you'll ever need in a single application. Unfortunately the integrated approach has also been Canvas's greatest weakness as trying to compete on both fronts has left it open to the criticism that it is the jack of all trades and master of none. Canvas 6 is a major upgrade with over 300 new features designed to answer that criticism once and for all.

Despite the extravagant claims made for version 6, when you first open the program you wonder where all the power can be hidden. The interface is clean consisting of just a central drawing area, small toolbox, menu bar and sparsely populated toolbar. But exploring soon reveals the range of Canvas's functionality. Each of the ten tool icons, for example, has up a flyout menu of up to 20 further options and some of these, such as the dimensioning tools and smart lines, open up further flyouts. All told there are actually over sixty tools to choose from all of which can be torn off the toolbar for instant access when necessary.

For many of the tools, double-clicking on its icon calls up a controlling palette. For options like the text tool and inks and strokes these are serious affairs with multiple tabbed pages and often a drop-down arrow that extends the palette to reveal more advanced control. Many of the transformation and effect commands also open up similar palettes so that you can soon lose your drawing under a deluge of over twenty palettes. Deneba has come up with a brilliant solution, however, in its docking bar. You can drag any palette onto this bar and it will shrink down to just its title tab. Click on the tab and the palette appears for you to make your choices, click on the tab again and it disappears. It might not sound like much, but keeping your palettes under tight control is a huge advance. Hopefully Adobe and Macromedia are taking note.

One of the major advantages of the docking bar is that it's child's-play to arrange your palettes exactly how you want them. With the new Customise command, Canvas lets you do the same with its toolbar. Moreover you can add not just menu commands and tool icons, but fills, strokes and font attributes. As you can also specify shortcuts this represents a huge gain in efficiency as you can now apply common formatting effects with the keyboard. Such innovations, at last combined with context-sensitive menu support, mean that the Canvas interface is very efficient, revealing its advanced power transparently when needed but without sacrificing its simplicity or clean-screen approach.

In terms of the drawing power on offer, Canvas provides all the usual rectangle, oval and line tools together with more advanced grids, spirals and multigons. The only notable omission is the lack of any natural-media brushes which is not too surprising considering Canvas's strong technical background. With its existing dimensioning and smart line tools and 0.5 micron accuracy and new features, such as 3-point ellipse and arcs, a new all-embracing Transform palette and the ability to enter mathematical expressions and unit conversions in palette fields, Canvas is the most CAD-like of the major drawing packages.

This strong technical feel is also apparent in the handling of objects. While creative formatting options include Pantone colours, preset bitmap and vector fills and a new interactive gradient tool there is still a lingering bias towards precision apparent in the absolute control offered over dashed lines, arrowheads and hatching. Effects also tend toward the technical with enveloping, shadowing, blending, fractalizing, colorizing and new offset options. The Extrude command is particularly impressive with its ability to rotate 3D objects in 3D space and light them accordingly although it inevitably looks under-powered when compared to Corel Draw 8's full 3D rendering.

Canvas recognises that the most important object in a drawing is usually the text. Using the Text tool you can add short headings and captions either as single lines or blocks, or you can automatically flow them within existing objects. Further design effects are made simple with the Path Text tool. Move this over any line or object and the cursor arrow changes to a text cursor, begin typing and the text is added from that point on. In both cases calling up the Type palette allows the text's character, paragraph, indent, spacing, hyphenation and style settings to be formatted. The control is comprehensive with some features, such as the ability to determine last line justification and multiple letter drop caps, rare even in dedicated DTP packages.

This level of control shouldn't be too surprising as Deneba actually claims full DTP-style functionality for Canvas. When you hit the File>New command you are given the option to create an illustration or a publication and, if you select the latter, the environment is automatically optimised for some serious text handling. The major difference is that each page now has margins set up into which you can flow text. Using the Column Guides command, you can then customise the page layout and the text will reflow accordingly. In fact Canvas offers more control than this with the new ability to set up multiple master pages, to have separate layers on individual pages or to share layers between pages. With the new Text Section tool you can also set up multiple multi-column grids for newsletter-style layouts.

Further dedicated text control is available from the revamped Text toolbar which offers easy access to the most common style and formatting features of the Type palette. With Office-style drag-and-drop editing, background spell-checking that underlines unrecognised words onscreen and even AutoCorrect capabilities, it's sometimes difficult to believe that you are working within a drawing environment. Throw in features like text runarounds, headers and footers, control of text flow and even simple vertical justification and it's clear that Canvas is very serious about its text handling.

It's important not to get carried away, however. There are a number of irritating idiosyncracies such as the fact that you have to set up all AutoCorrections yourself and that the drag-and-drop editing always drops the trailing space so that you have to manually correct changes. More fundamental failings include the lack of a separate story editor and especially the handling of styles which don't include important parameters, such as bulleting and paragraph borders, and can't be edited directly. The biggest failings of all are in the import features. There is no Word *.DOC support and as styles aren't imported these must be laboriously recreated. These are major drawbacks for serious DTP work, and rule Canvas out for long documents.

What really sets Canvas apart from the competition is its bitmap handling. You can import a whole range of bitmap formats, scan directly into the program, set up a bitmap area using the Paint Object Creator tool or render any existing object or group of objects. Crucially, when rendering, it's now possible not just to set image mode, resolution and anti-alias quality but to give the resulting bitmap a transparent background or even to set up an automatic transparency mask. This means that you can seamlessly swap between vector and bitmap handling depending on what you want to do with your object.

Once you've imported or created your bitmap, a whole range of power is available from the Image menu. Basic colour correction is possible with the simple Brightness/Contrast command while finer control and more feedback is given with the Curves, Levels and Colour Balance options. In addition there are a range of thirty noise, sharpen and distortion filters with a number of new options in this release including motion and zoom blurs. The one major disappointment is that there aren't any art or stylizing filters, but you can always add such functionality through the support for Photoshop plug-ins.

Such global bitmap effects are now pretty common in drawing programs but where Canvas leaves the competition standing is in its ability to locally edit bitmaps. Double-click on a bitmap object and you enter edit mode. In this mode you can still use the various shape and text tools but they automatically produce anti-aliased bitmap equivalents. More importantly you can now use a whole range of dedicated pressure-sensitive creative brushes, including pencil, brush and airbrush, and a range of retouching brushes including dodge, burn, saturation, rubber stamp and smudge tools. With the ability to create masks with the marquee and wand tools and to save selections in the dedicated Channels palette this is serious power deliberately modelled on Photoshop even down to the new Select>Grow and Select>Similar commands.

Of course closer inspection reveals features that are missing, such as Photoshop's various history options, recordable actions and especially the use of adjustment layers and layer effects. Professional users aren't going to give up such power for serious photo-editing tasks so there's no question of Canvas replacing Photoshop outright. In fact Deneba recognises that it will never be able to outperform the dedicated package and optimises the more likely collaborative workflow with its new support for PSD files where multiple layers are brought in as separate grouped objects.

In fact replacing Photoshop was never really the intention. What Canvas offers is as much bitmap power as possible within a compositional framework. This means that the number of times that applications have to be swapped for basic tasks like colour correction and retouching is cut down. More than this though it makes advanced effects simple that would otherwise be virtually impossible. By rendering a headline, for example, you can create a photo-realistic drop shadow effect or even paint on highlights and shadows to make the text seem an organic part of the page.

This compositional power of Canvas is taken to new heights by the major new feature in version 6, the introduction of new transparency and layering effects which - for reasons best known to itself - Deneba is calling "SpriteLayer" technology. At its simplest this means that any object or group of objects whether vector, text or bitmap can be made semi-transparent with the opacity slider on the toolbox. By calling up the Transparency palette more power is accessed with the ability to set a transfer mode which determines how the current object's colour values interact with those below. With options such as multiply, screen, difference and hard and soft light you can create anything from realistic glass and shadow effects to psychedelic pop art.

Even greater power is made available if the Transparency palette is extended as this enables the transparency effect to be given a mask. There are five options available with the first four - directional, radial, rectangular and eliptical - all based on vector mapping. Using the directional option, for example, you can create a graduated fade complete with control over start and end transparency levels. Even more amazing, and so far unique amongst drawing programs, is the ability to set up a bitmap-based channel mask. This allows transparency to be painted directly onto an object or group using any of the bitmap tools without affecting future editability.

The various SpriteLayer effects really put Canvas into a league of its own when it comes to creative compositing enabling a whole host of features from engineering cutaways and old-fashioned vignettes to organic page layouts. The beauty is that subtle effects that look like they must have been decided upon on the drawing-board and then taken days to achieve can all be applied retrospectively and in a couple of minutes! The Canvas approach blows features like FreeHand's much-trumpeted lens-based transparency out of the water and, once you've seen it in action, really becomes must-have power.

Of course being able to produce eye-catching designs on the computer is all very well but you need to be able to output them. I was worried that Canvas's commercial control would let it down, but this isn't the case with a print preview that can show individual colour separations and even highlight areas that are set to overprint, choke and spread. Sadly there's no support for direct PDF output, but there is a new Collect for Output command which copies the Canvas document together with linked images and fonts and even warns about potential problems regarding image resolution or ink coverage. Whether your bureau will support Canvas is another matter and one you should check up on if commercial print is important to you.

Canvas has also rather belatedly recognised the importance of the Web as an output medium with the ability to add URLs to any object and to save to web formats. Deneba strongly pushes its own Java-based Colada format which offers a number of advantages including smaller file-sizes, the ability to zoom and pan and to include simple animations and rollover buttons. Colada is viewable in any Java-enabled browser and, unlike Corel's similar Barista format, seems to work reliably and easily. Even so I was relieved to see that you can also automatically create JPEG and GIF-based versions of pages complete with image maps for older browsers. You can also save directly to both JPG and GIF formats and for the latter you can now choose a web-safe palette and preview transparency on export.

By now the obvious question is becoming "so what can't Canvas do?" Of course there are areas in which the other packages offer more, with Illustrator's natural-media brushes, FreeHand's integration with its web-based apps and Draw's formatting and special effects springing to mind. Even so you are more likely to be surprised by what Canvas can do than by what it can't. There's an integrated tracing capability, for example, and the ability to set up slide-shows complete with transition effects and even progressive slide builds. You even get 30,000 clipart images and no less than 2,450 URW fonts.

The criticism that Canvas spreads its net too wide then just doesn't hold water. In all three crucial areas of vector, text and bitmap handling it more than holds its own. Moreover, thanks to a whole host of speed-based improvements ranging from MMX support to better file compression and object-based background caching, it manages to offer this functionality while still feeling generally fast and responsive. The end result is a program that offers around three quarters of the features of Corel Draw and Photo-Paint combined while somehow still seeming more streamlined and efficient than either.

Canvas would be worth consideration on these grounds alone, but what really sets the program apart is the way that it not only offers the most important features of both vector and bitmap handling but blends them together. It's the seamless integration of vector and bitmap reinforced by the new SpriteLayer compositing control that gives Canvas its unique edge. As such Canvas is not only an impressive jack-of-all-trades, but an outstanding master of one - creative compositing.

Canvas 6's integration of bitmap and vector handling is more than the sum of its parts and is a real bargain at the competitive upgrade price. Ultimately, however, I can't completely recommend the program for one simple reason - crashes. Admittedly I was deliberately pushing the program to test its limits but it fell over far too often to be acceptable in a production environment. As such, while a rock-solid 6.1 version would finally knock Corel off its long-held number-one spot, I'm currently in a very unexpected position - I'm sticking with Corel Draw for its reliability!

Ease of Use

5

Features

5

Value for Money

6

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Deneba Canvas
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System Requirements: Pentium, 32/64MB of RAM, 80MB of disk space, Windows 95 or above, SVGA, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

April 1999


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