Deneba Canvas 8

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Not a revolutionary leap forward like recent releases but a good consolidation of existing power.

When you think about professional drawing, the programs that immediately spring to mind are Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand. But there's a fourth option that shows the big boys how it should be done. Two things make Deneba Canvas different: its all-round breadth with its ability to create illustrations, multi-page publications, animations and business presentations; and its complete fusion of vector and bitmap-based creativity. Version 7 with its amazing Sprite technology propelled Canvas onto the A-List, so does version 8 live up to expectations?

In terms of the interface, little change is immediately apparent other than the introduction of an Undo palette that lets you instantly jump back to an earlier stage of editing. Behind the scenes though there have been plenty of tweaks all designed to boost productivity. To access the most commonly used tools you can now use single letter keyboard shortcuts and these can now be customized along with all menu icons. The use of floating palettes has also been improved so that palettes opened on the workspace stick to each other, while their new Automatic Docking buttons are great for keeping everything organised on the docking bar. Context-sensitive menus have also been rethought to provide more power immediately to hand.

Canvas 8 offers an Undo palette and greater customizability.

Productivity is also the priority when it comes to new drawing power. In the past to edit the shape of an object you first had to double-click on it to put it into curve-editing mode, now there are new Direct Edit Selection and Direct Edit Lasso tools for selecting any object's nodes along with a whole range of context-sensitive options for deleting, smoothing, and cusping them. New path-based operations include commands for converting objects to paths, for automatically repeating and distributing any object along a path, and a better thought-through Combine tool which also works on groups. All told Canvas 8's shape-editing changes aren't revolutionary but they certainly make life easier.

The same is true of the changes to formatting in Canvas 8. This is still primarily handled through the Inks palette which lets you apply colours, gradients, hatching, vector symbols and bitmap textures to fills and outlines, and is now fully resizeable and offers two new tabs. The first of these, Patterns, lets you apply a range of customizable 1-bit bitmap patterns, particularly useful for technical drawings. The second, Favourites, lets you drag and drop any ink that you have previously applied to store it for later re-use. There's also a new separate Ink Manager palette for controlling all inks which, amongst other enhancements, offers easier access to the RGB, CMYK, HSL and Pantone colour models.

There are no major new drawing tools - the lack of natural media brushes is especially disappointing - but the DTP-style Text tool has been given a makeover. In particular this now offers the ability to insert 22 special text characters such as non-breaking spaces and soft returns along with more advanced options such as time and date stamps. The default Font menu has also been improved with a new multi-column layout, and a list of the most recently used fonts at the top. Bizarrely this hasn't been implemented on the dedicated Font Viewer palette, but this does now makes it possible to set style and size as well as font. Finally there's a new Text Format brush for copying formatting and a new Form Text tool - though I can't see many users wanting to fill in forms within Canvas.

Again it's usability rather than raw power that sees the big improvements and this is also true of Canvas 8's new bitmap editing capabilities. The ability to mix the best of vector and bitmap has always been the program's unique selling point, but in the past the process of shifting between the two modes involved much double-clicking and wasn't completely intuitive. Now if you click on an image with any of the paint tools, Canvas automatically enters paint mode, while one click on the Select tool exits it. You can also now edit multiple separate paint objects without changing modes, while the more efficient auto-create mode means you can select a paint tool and begin painting anywhere and Canvas will create multiple objects wherever this makes sense.

Bitmap painting is more powerful and more intuitive.

These small changes make a big practical difference, but the rationalization in Canvas 8 also sees some real new power. In particular all the paint tools now support all Ink types so that you're no longer limited to painting with flat colours but can paint with textures, gradients and so on. The creative options are enormous - if you feel your image needs a lift why not airbrush on a rainbow or paint on some pressure-sensitive hatching? Less eye-catching but just as important are the ability to anti-alias rotated bitmaps and new bilinear and bicubic interpolation options for scaling images.

Further creative options come from Canvas 8's new bitmap filters. These include four filters in the Artistic category for applying oil painting, crystallize, stained glass and lens flare effects and a new Stylizing filter for applying bevels. These can be applied directly to bitmapped paint objects, but their real strength comes from Canvas' ability to apply them as non-destructive SpriteEffects to either paint or vector objects. In particular the ability to set up bevel effects with re-editable control over width, smoothness and lighting is ideal for creating attractive Web buttons.

New filters can be applied as non-destructive SpriteEffects.

Canvas 7 already let you save combinations of SpriteEffects as styles and fully formatted objects as "macros", but with Canvas 8 this automation of the design process is taken further. Using the new Sequences palette you can record the majority of actions that you take on an image and then play them back at any time in future (this includes most bitmap commands but not individual brush strokes). This is ideal for storing your preferred settings for producing common effects, such as drop shadows, or alternatively you can set each dialog to be displayed on playback so that you can quickly create a number of variations on a given theme.

Sequences can be used to record and play back common effects.

Sequence sets can be saved to disk and shared between workgroups, but there's no way to directly edit the sequences that you create. For advanced users though there is a solution thanks to Canvas 8's new scripting engine. Using VB Script, JScript, Visual Basic, or any other automation-compatible system, you can now write a script to access and control the majority of Canvas 8's features and to integrate this with other scriptable applications. Corel Draw's longer scripting history and its ability to build on recorded actions give it the edge, but Canvas' combination of Sequences and Scriptability certainly puts plenty of power into the hands of average users at the low-end and advanced programmers at the top.

As well as adding programmability to boost productivity, the developers at Deneba have come up with a system for enabling collaboration called DenebaShare. I was expecting this to work like Office's workgroup system of comments and review but in fact it's a peer-to-peer system of file exchange more reminiscent of Napster! The whole process is amazingly simple to set up as all you have to do is register to gain access to the tabbed DenebaShare palette. In the Shared tab you can then drag and drop images in a whole range of formats to make them available to others while in the Search tab you can search for all currently available images - including a range of clipart provided by Deneba to get the ball rolling.

DenebaShare offers peer-to-peer image file sharing.

The system can be made more workgroup-friendly using the Friends tab to find and add colleagues which makes their shared directories directly browseable and there's also some security provided through the ability to password protect directories. Overall, though I'm not sure that Deneba has thought through all the implications of Napster-style image swapping and the jury is certainly out on whether this will boost productivity or cut it - especially as DenebaShare offers its own inbuilt instant messaging system!

Assuming that you do manage to get your work done, the final step is likely to involve some form of output. If you've produced a presentation Canvas 8 now offers the ability to export your slideshow as a standalone EXE file or as an Acrobat PDF complete with your slide transitions. In fact PDF export has been radically improved all round with support for the embedding of both TrueType and PostScript fonts, halftone and colour mode settings and JPEG and ZIP compression. For commercial print you're probably still better off using Distiller - but otherwise Canvas is now a very capable Acrobat authoring package.

Canvas 8 has also fallen into line with all the other major drawing packages by offering export to Macromedia's vector-based Flash SWF format. This includes two relatively advanced features with the ability to save multi-page documents as frame-based animations and to produce SWF files that are optimized for future editing within Flash itself. If SWF creation is important to you, however, Macromedia FreeHand with its inbuilt preview and action support is a much better bet.

Where Canvas really scores is in its ability to save pages to the Web as a combination of JPEGs, GIFs and HTML code. Canvas 8 now offers a new Pixel View setting to show how your drawings will ultimately be rendered while the HTML export has been enhanced to offer advanced features such as support for external CSS files, the ability to save multiple-page publications as framed sites and even an option to save to XHTML format. Most beneficial of all are the new Image Slice and Image Slice Select tools that let you divide images into sections each with their own optimized settings - a level of manual control that is crucial for professional results.

Manual slicing tools give tighter control over Web page creation.

Even so it's still true to say that a graphical environment isn't the best choice for creating Web pages and Canvas certainly can't compete with the likes of Dreamweaver for Web authoring. In fact that's true of Canvas generally - if you want the absolute best for your Web design, presentations, animations, photo-editing and DTP you'd be better off with dedicated applications. Having said this though, Canvas' broad functionality isn't just there to make the feature list look good - it really is designed to be put to use. More importantly by offering all this power in an integrated package, Canvas is more than the sum of its parts. In particular its fusion of vector and bitmap processing provides the user with unparalleled creative options immediately to hand.

Canvas 8 isn't an exciting release like version 7 and some doubts remain about reliability but, assuming that they are addressed - and a maintenance release should be available by the time you read this - then Canvas 8 deserves to keep its crown. Ultimately Canvas' success is that it manages to be both an impressive jack-of-all-trades and an unmatched master of one - creative graphic design.


Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

August 2001

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

June 2000

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