Micrografx Windows Draw 6

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Windows Draw was already an amazing program, but with even better ease of use, new bitmap-based power and a new role as Web page designer, the latest version sets new standards.

Micrografx Windows Draw

For the past few years Micrografx has been seriously underselling its entry-level graphics suite. Calling it just "Windows Draw" has been misleading as vector-based drawing is only one element of an all-round package that includes bitmap-based photo-editing, media management and even 3D imaging. Clearly Micrografx now feel the same and is pushing the latest release as the "Windows Draw 6 Print Studio Premier Edition." It's a bit of a mouthful, but does give a more accurate idea of the range of power on offer.

Having said this, it's still the Draw module that lies at the core of the suite. Loading the program presents you with a start-up dialog where you can choose to start a design from scratch or with the help of a Project Wizard. There are hundreds of these wizards grouped into 18 broad categories. Many of these are purely for fun such as the dinosaur and castle scenes for kids, but others have a business orientation such as the forms and diagrams templates. A new feature in the designs the wizards produce is the use of placeholders. For a card announcing a new baby, for example, double-clicking on the placeholder will enable you to automatically load your own photo.

The hand-holding approach has also been extended within the program through the introduction of a new visual toolbar down the left-hand side of the screen. Initially I was worried about this as a potential sign of a general dumbing-down of the program. In fact, as the panel doesn't just give feedback but allows commands to be chosen, it acts as an alternative and friendlier interface. Decide to add a starburst, for example, and not only is the tool selected but a panel appears with details on how to control the size, radius and number of points - there's even an embedded animation to show you the process in action. When learning the program the visual toolbar is a definite boon, but I was still pleased to find that it's simple to switch off when no longer needed.

The redesigned Draw interface also sports another optional panel, this time down the right-hand of the screen. This is the "gallery", a tabbed palette that offers access to styles, fonts, fills, lines, shadows, effects and clip art. If you are looking for an eye-catching but appropriate heading for example, you could use the gallery to visually search through all the fonts on your system. Then you could switch to the fill tab to select a colour and then the shadows tab to help give your text a lift. Being able to see visual representations of the options on offer really does make choosing both simple and fun.

With its existing wizards, online help, right-click menus, object properties and Office compatibility, Windows Draw was already a very easy to use program, but with the new visual toolbar and gallery it's becoming hard to see how it could be improved. All the help in the world is of no use whatsoever, however, if the program doesn't offer enough functionality. This is where Windows Draw has always left the other budget design programs standing. With over 30 different tools for adding shapes, the necessary core drawing power is certainly there. This is complemented by features such as multiple pages and layers, blends, text on curves and advanced diagramming control that you would normally only expect to find in expensive high-end applications.

With so much existing power it's perhaps inevitable that the new drawing functionality is hardly exciting. There are only three new tools, for example, the weekly, monthly and yearly calendar tools. Drag onscreen with one of these and a palette appears on which you can set the exact period to be covered. There's not a great deal of control over appearance, but the defaults are good and you can always break the calendar into separate shapes if you need more control. When dealing with multiple objects in this way, the new connect, join and slice commands also help to give more flexibility and to allow the easy creation of complex shapes.

More disappointing is the fact that Windows Draw's few major weaknesses haven't been tackled. The fill options, for example, are still limited with bitmap fills restricted to hatching-style patterns rather than natural textures like brick or wood. The mail-merge facility introduced in version 5 is also in need of an overhaul, but has been left unchanged. Much the weakest area though is text handling. There are now some paragraph-based controls, such as leading and spacing, but there are none of the features like a separate editor or automatic bulleting that are needed for serious text work. While Windows Draw can't even justify paragraphs, the claim to produce projects like brochures and newsletters is still only wishful thinking.

Even without any major new functionality Windows Draw remains surprisingly powerful, but it's hardly a match for the likes of Corel Draw. There is one area though in which it really shines: the integration of vector and bitmap images. It's possible, for example, to apply over fifty bitmap-based artistic, distortion and photographic effects from within Draw. Normally these will be applied to imported scans, but if they are applied to vector objects these are automatically and transparently converted to bitmaps. Even better, thanks to Draw's infinite undo if the user later regrets the decision, the bitmap can be turned back into vectors.

The bitmap control offered within Draw module is good, but it can't compete with a dedicated package. This is where the separate PhotoMagic module comes into its own. PhotoMagic is actually a cut-down version of Micrografx's advanced Picture Publisher application, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to see what has been left out. On top of the full colour correction capabilities and filter effects, the program offers advanced features like magic wand selection and masking. The latest version has even introduced art-based features with tool equivalents of chalk, watercolours, markers, crayons and pencils.

In the past the one area of control missing from PhotoMagic was the ability to create photomontages. Now, however, it's simple to turn a masked area into an object. Multiple objects can then be arranged over the underlying image and their exact position, size, transparency, stacking order and merge mode fine-tuned to produce the desired composition. Using the Object Manager palette it's also possible to temporarily hide or lock elements. The control on offer isn't quite up to Photoshop's layers, but the system is workable and easy to get to grips with.

In fact this is true of the program as a whole. Without a visual toolbar, PhotoMagic isn't quite as friendly as Draw, but there is still plenty of help on hand. In particular a number of task-based wizards have been added to walk the user through processes like enhancing scanned photos and removing red-eye. These tasks, and others like the ability to turn images into jigsaw puzzles, show PhotoMagic's new focus on the rapidly increasing digital camera market. In many ways it's a perfect match as the program's central limitation is its lack of speed. While this is a serious drawback when working with high-resolution scanned images, it has far less impact when dealing screen-sized snaps.

One of the distinguishing features of PC photography is that it involves working with groups of pictures rather than with a single image. The third module in the Draw suite, Media Manager, can be adapted for use in this regards. The program is primarily intended for accessing the 20,000 items of clip art that come with the suite, but with 55 import filters and the ability to create your own categories it's relatively straightforward to create and control your own photograph albums. Unfortunately in practice, although the thumbnails are fine for distinguishing between items of clip art, they are too small to be really useful for cataloguing photographs.

The fourth and final module of the Windows Draw suite is Instant 3D. This was introduced in version 5 and has hardly been touched at all in this latest release. As the program's name suggests the emphasis is on producing results quickly. Bearing the intended entry-level audience in mind this is definitely a good idea as the complexities of trying to work in a 3D space on a 2D screen can soon become bewildering. Just trying to get two objects to touch, for example, is no simple task. Instant 3D neatly side-steps this problem - and many others - by only allowing a front-on view of a single object!

Instant 3D certainly makes life easy, but the limitations of its single object approach are obvious. Worse the selection of objects, materials and backgrounds is very limited and the final rendering quality pretty poor. Instant 3D is definitely not the program you need to recreate your favourite scene from Jurassic Park. On the other hand it does gives a flavour of what 3D can offer and it can also be seriously useful for the occasional effect thanks to the text wizard. This allows text to be entered in any typeface and its extrusion, path and bevel controlled - basically all you need for an eye-catching logo or headline effect.

Of course one of the most common uses of 3D text is for jazzing up a web page. In the past this would have to have been done by creating a GIF bitmap and importing it into another program like FrontPage, but that's no longer necessary. Everything can now be done internally within the Windows Draw 6 suite. All you have to do is to create your Draw design as normal and to add some navigational features - a simple procedure as each object can be linked to a given page or a particular object. When the design is ready, rather than selecting the Print command, you simply select the Output as Web Page command.

As you would expect this launches yet another wizard to walk you through all the necessary decisions concerning where the HTML files and GIF and JPEG graphics should be stored, whether you want automatic inclusion of next and previous links and so on. The end result is an HTML table with text and graphics perfectly positioned ready for previewing in your browser or uploading onto your site. The beauty of the system is that simply accepting the defaults is guaranteed to produce a working site without any need to delve into the finer points of HTML programming

The overall process is very similar to that taken by PagePlus (see review on page ), but the philosophy is very different. As a graphics-based program, Draw is far less rigorous about keeping image sizes and downloading times down. In particular it makes no attempt to warn the user when text will have to be converted into a bitmap. In fact a number of the pre-supplied web templates include text at angles or with coloured fills that will inevitably end up as graphics. Moreover, when converting text the default is to anti-alias the image which produces much smoother onscreen results but again at the cost of larger file sizes.

For the serious web designer expecting - or hoping - to attract a large audience such largesse is unthinkable, but Windows Draw is aimed at a very different market. While PagePlus is aimed at those producing serious small to medium-sized information-based sites, Draw is aimed at those just wanting to put up a couple of pages for fun or as an online business card. As such, initial impression is everything and it has to be said that the results with Draw are very impressive.

One feature in particular stands out. Windows Draw is the best tool I've yet come across for producing GIF animations. All you have to do is choose an appropriate design size, add some pages and then position your objects. You can then preview your effect before outputting it and incorporating it into your web design. To have a plane fly across your site, for example, simply drag and drop one of the many cartoon-like images from the Media Manager onto your pages. If you wanted to be more up-to-date and more realistic you could even create the plane in Instant 3D.

When working like this, moving easily and seamlessly between 3D, bitmap, clip art and drawing modules to produce an advanced animated web page it's hard to believe that the power that makes it all possible is available for under 50. Of course as we've seen there are limitations and it's worth repeating that dedicated professional packages like Corel Draw, PageMaker, LightWave, Photoshop and FrontPage are not going to be quaking in their boots. While each of these packages excels in their own field, however, none can claim the same blend of ease of use, functionality, integration, focus and above all value for money that Windows Draw offers.

Ease of Use

6

Features

5

Value for Money

6

Overall

6

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

February 1999


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