QuarkXPress 6

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Multiple undo, layout spaces, synchronized text, improved Web and PDF output - but another underwhelming release.

At one time QuarkXPress was synonymous with high-end design. While version 4.1 was expensive, users were willing to pay a premium to know that they were using the best print publisher available. The long overdue version 5 was a disaster however, largely ignoring print to graft on underpowered and misconceived web functionality. At the same time, seriously attractive competition appeared for the first time in the form of Adobe InDesign. However, changing such a mission-critical application isn't a decision to made lightly, and most users decided to give Quark one last chance. So does Quark 6 take it?

On first loading the program, there's little obvious that's new. At one level this is reassuringly familiar, but on another it's seriously disappointing - the all-new QuarkXPress 6 still looks old and outdated. Thankfully the one interface enhancement users have been crying out for has been implemented: QuarkXPress 6 finally supports multiple undo. Using the icons at the bottom of the document window you can undo and redo up to 30 actions. You can also open a pop-up list of recent actions so that you can immediately return to a previous stage in your editing process. Disappointingly however, not all commands are undoable and some, such as making changes to a master page, clear the undo history so that, just when you've come to rely on it, the new safety net sometimes fails to appear.

While the Quark interface and look-and-feel is relatively unchanged, that's not true of version 6's working approach or how it handles files. In version 5 you either created QXD documents for print or QWD documents for the Web, now there's a new all-encompassing QXP format for creating "projects" of either type. More importantly, each project can now contain up to 25 documents or, as Quark now refers to them, "layouts". This is all handled through the new Layout menu which provides commands for adding new layouts from scratch or duplicating the current layout. You then switch between your project's layouts using the named tabs at the bottom of the project window.

The biggest introduction is multiple layouts within a single project.

This is ideal for experimenting with versions of the same duplicated project but also for managing separate but connected publications. This is especially true as as each layout within the project shares the same H&J, Lists, Application Preferences and, most importantly, Colours and Style Sheets. If you change the font of an existing style, for example, or the Pantone number of your house colours this will be updated through all the layouts in the project. The advantages in terms of consistency and productivity when producing themed publications such as stationery sets are obvious.

QuarkXPress 6 takes the idea of sharing between layouts much further and into totally new territory with its Synchronized Text palette. By selecting a text box in one layout and then clicking on the Synchronize icon, it is added to the palette list and can then be dragged and dropped onto any other text box in your project replacing the previous contents. If you then edit the text in any layout it is updated automatically in all layouts. Again the benefits are clear: change address for example and you can update your entire stationery in seconds. You can also use synchronized text within a single layout, say to produce multiple business cards.

Text can be synchronized within and between layouts.

The potential productivity gains offered by the use of layout spaces and synchronized text are undeniable - but it's not quite as simple as you might think. You can't synchronize pictures for example or just a section of text, or spell-check or find/replace across an entire project, or share master pages or guides or even view more than one layout at a time. Most bizarre of all, you can't create book files based on multiple layouts as each chapter must be a separate project! More fundamentally, the new multi-layout file format raises disk housekeeping issues and concerns about file corruption. And the whole principle of changing one layout and others updating automatically unseen, raises the spectre of unwary users inadvertently wreaking havoc.

Where Quark is pushing the benefits of connected layouts most heavily is when it comes to republishing print work for the Web. This is an area that QuarkXPress 5 pioneered, but the implementation was fatally flawed as there was no connection between the print and web layout apart from through awkward cutting and pasting. And, if you effectively had to begin your web layout from scratch, why on earth would you want to do it QuarkXPress rather than in a dedicated web authoring package?

Now in version 6 it's possible to see what Quark was trying to achieve. By synchronizing text between layouts, for example, you can ensure that both print and web versions of a publication remain in synch with each other. And QuarkXPress 6 now offers the crucial ability to automatically convert between print and web formats with the Layout > Properties command, recreating the page design with a mixture of HTML tables and CSS positioning and converting print-friendly TIFF images to web-friendly JPEGs.

QuarkXPress 6 also sees a general boost to the web power on offer. You can now easily create page-to-page hyperlinks without having to create anchors and can specify how these are displayed. You can also create remote rollovers where the user moving a mouse over one part of the screen changes the content elsewhere. And you can create pop-up cascading menus of links and these can automatically be shared between layouts in the same project. You can also specify CSS font families.

Again though XPress's web functionality and repurposing is not as simple as it could, or should, be. The fact that you can't synchronize pictures or sections of text or map between styles from one layout to another means that the dream of regular, fully-automatic repurposing is still a long way off. And simply converting from print to web formats isn't the cure-all it might seem either. When I tried to convert one layout from print to web modes and back again I was told that I couldn't as an element would be off the pasteboard. Leaving conversion to Quark isn't a good idea anyway as page layouts for print with their multiple columns and overlapping text boxes just don't translate well to HTML and will certainly lead to inefficient code or even to text being turned into unselectable, download-heavy bitmaps.

With a bit of work, you can usefully produce synchronized print and web versions of a simple brochure, say, but the bottom line is that Quark doesn't give you any control over the HTML and CSS code with which it produces its layouts. That's just about acceptable for a program intended for occasional users like Microsoft Publisher, but for the professional designers who use Quark it's simply not good enough. In particular for the Quark-based publishing houses needing to shift their regular print content onto the Web, Quark's HTML-based republishing is so underpowered it's an embarrassing irrelevance.

For these core institutional users however, QuarkXPress 6 does provide a possible alternative by bundling updated versions of the XML Import and avenue.quark XTensions for handling XML. And without the need for a DTD, better display of tagged content and a new parser with better error handling the system is easier than it was. It's still challenging however, to say the least, and way over the top for most users. And those few users who are in the position to make use of XML processing are already better served by third-party XTensions which aren't tied to the Quark product cycle for new and essential functionality.

Ultimately QuarkXPress 6's web authoring capabilities still fall between the two stools of its underpowered HTML-based repurposing and its niche XML-based processing. In a way though that shouldn't matter as the Web has never been the main concern of Quark's users; where they make their money is print. That's why version 5 was such a disappointment with just two new print-oriented introductions, table and layer handling, neither of which were a patch on the competition. So what new print-based design power does 6 provide?

Well, to begin with, it beefs up those unininspired version 5 features. For layer handling, you can now more easily change the stacking order and there's a command to select all objects on a layer. And now when you lock a layer the program actually does stop you from modifying objects on it! When it comes to tables the biggest advance is the ability to set both lines and background to None so that the grid disappears and the table can become a more seamless part of its page. And you can also set up text linking between cells and even between tables.

It's difficult to get too excited as all of these features should have been there in the first implementation. And there are still plenty of idiosycyncracies and limitations. In particular it's important to realize that Quark tables are essentially just grouped text and picture boxes (there's a new command to ungroup them). This means that there's no option for cells and rows that automatically increase in size to accommodate their contents or for tables that can flow across multiple pages. What's unforgivable though is that these minor tweaks are virtually the only new design capabilities. The comparison with InDesign 2 with its support for transparency, blend modes, feathering, optical kerning and multi-line compositing, is particularly embarrassing. The bottom line is that you can produce better work in InDesign.

But producing work on the computer is only one part of the equation; reliably outputting it as four-colour commercial print is another and, because of its long dominance in the field, Quark's biggest strength. Version 6's print capabilities are largely unchanged apart from a new Layers tab in the print dialog that lets you over-ride layer display settings. These days though commercial print is increasingly moving to a PDF-based workflow so the most important new output capability is QuarkXPress 6's new ability to export directly to PDF without the need to buy Acrobat Distiller.

Quark can now save directly to PDF.

Again though it's impossible to be too impressed. To begin with, Quark has simply bought in the Jaws RIP from Global Graphics Software (this is also used to generate high-resolution previews of imported files including EPS once you've activated your copy of the program). And very little has been done to integrate the functionality and make it central to your workflow - unbelievably there are no presets and you have to fine-tune job options each time you export! Most importantly, the technology is already looking pretty old hat - in particular there's no support for the publishing PDF/X standards or for anything beyond PDF 1.3 (the current format is 1.5).

For a high-end publishing solution, PDF support is too important to leave to a third-party provider and should be right at the heart of what Quark is doing. It all seems symptomatic of a program that has seriously lost focus on its core print function. So is it time to jump ship? For designers who use QuarkXPress every day of course that's no easy decision. And if you're producing good work with Quark today there's no doubt that you can still do so tomorrow. And with its multiple undo, synchronized text and layout spaces, QuarkXPress 6 certainly has more to offer the print designer than version 5.

There are other factors though that might help you make up your mind. Quark has put up the price of the full product so for new users the choice of InDesign is a no-brainer. Upgrade pricing is more reasonable but here other factors come into play. The new activation scheme will put off many users, especially as you can't install on a notebook for non-synchronous use. The system requirements have also gone up dramatically and the program now only runs under Mac OS X 10.2 and Windows 2000 or XP so you might well have to upgrade your whole system(s) and also any third-party XTensions assuming they're available. Then there's the new multiple-layout approach and file format which could demand retraining. And, in a desperate attempt to finally shift its userbase from 4.1, Quark has decided that this new release should only be able to save to version 6 and 5 formats. As many users, including outputting bureaux, will undoubtedly stick with 4.1, this is a recipe for confusion at best.

Quark seems determined to make this a make-or-break release. For their sake I hope it's not.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

2

Overall

3

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

October 2003

Quark XPress
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