Serif PagePlus 4

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A budget DTP program  offering good value for money. Best suited for simple, graphical  publications, it provides considerable power but at the same time manages  to make page layout fun.

Serif PagePlus Home/Office 

PagePlus Home/Office Edition is the new Windows 95 version of Serif's popular desktop publishing package. As its name and price imply it is designed for the tight budgets of home users and start-up businesses. Intended for occasional rather than daily use, the aim is to make page layout as simple and enjoyable a task as possible.

Taking a leaf out of its main competitor's book, PagePlus offers a lot of hand holding primarily through the use of Microsoft Publisher style Page Wizards. Although it is possible to start a document from scratch, the assumption is that the user will choose to base a design on one of the supplied templates. These are over a hundred of these divided into home and office use and covering categories as diverse as business cards and school work.

Selecting the newsletter option for example, brings up previews of a range of newsletter type from corporate to jazzy. Having selected one of these, and entered a title and issue number, your customised publication is created for you based on sample text and items of clip art. Obviously the method works best for the simplest and most graphically orientated publications such as greetings cards and certificates. For many of these the page wizards will do all the work for you and all you will have to do is print them out. Unfortunately for more text intensive items such as newsletters, despite all the help Serif tries to offer, this is only the beginning of the design job.

Not that PagePlus can ever be accused of leaving users to their own devices. By default there is a QuickHelp box floating on screen at all time, showing useful information about the current operation or options available. Clicking on the box minimizes it to a less intrusive Hint Line at the bottom of the screen. More information, tutorials and demos are available from the comprehensive online help.

Rather more questionable are the pop-up Hints and Tips. Some of these are marginally useful, but most are of the deliberately ridiculous, "The-spirit-of-Elvis-has-just-been-detected", type. Possibly amusing on their first appearance, these soon pall when the same tips keep recurring. The emphasis on fun rather than serious use is made even clearer by the bundled Space Invaders game. Within ten minutes of first loading PagePlus, a Tip had appeared inviting me to press "Save Earth" now and I was obliged to plunge into battle with invading aliens. Very enjoyable, not very productive.

The idea that using PagePlus should above all be fun is carried through into its approach to design. One feature, the Change Bar, shows this is particular. This is a floating on-screen palette that allows the user to quickly change the properties of any selected text or drawing element. It works rather like a graphic equalizer as dragging sliders makes interactive visual changes to the selected item. With the cursor in a headline for example it is possible to drag on a slider to increase the point-size of the text until it fills the width of the page.

This obviously makes sense for options like point-size, width and leading that are based on numerical values, but the same mechanism can also be used for randomly changing typeface. Originally I couldn't see the point of this and took the typographically pure line that it would encourage the use of too many and inappropriate fonts. After having played with the Change Bar I changed my mind completely. Being able to instantly see the different effect of using alternative typefaces within the current page layout is genuinely useful. More than that it is addictive, turning the design process itself into a kind of interactive creative game.

The one definite criticism about the Change Bar is that too much weight has been given to it at the cost of more precise text control. In particular calling up the Character dialog for setting options accurately takes over 5 seconds, long enough to put off anyone from using it regularly. Style and paragraph based options also seem to have been comparatively ignored. Contrasting with the up-to-date feel of the rest of the program, the dialogs for bulleting and numbering for example seem distinctly dated and under-powered.

On the positive side, PagePlus does offer some sophisticated text handling controls. Double clicking on any free floating or frame text opens it up in WritePlus. This is a word processing module that allows fast editing without having to worry about the effect on layout. The controls offered are comprehensive with features such as spell checking, find and replace, word count and even auto correct. Having said that there are obvious limitations and trying to load a large imported Word file caused an unrecoverable internal resource error.

Overall it is clear that PagePlus is much happier dealing with shorter lengths of text where it can take a more graphical approach. In fact there is even an option to turn any free-floating text to a picture which converts the text into a Windows metafile. This then allows special effects to be applied for example to stretch or crop the text or to shade it to create a watermark.

For more complex graphical text effects, PagePlus offers another semi-detached module called LogoPlus. As its name suggests this is intended for creating logos or other eye-catching design features. Path or envelope effects can be applied to text and other elements such as stars or circles can be added and formatted. If you don't feel confident, as you would expect, there are pre-drawn samples to base your own efforts on. LogoPlus can't compete with a dedicated program like Corel, but for occasional use it's more than adequate.

Other surprisingly powerful features in PagePlus include its comprehensive control over object layout. There is a Status Palette that allows precise placement, sizing and rotation. There are also options for grouping and alignment of multiple objects, features that have only just been added to market leader PageMaker.

Like PageMaker too, this latest version of PagePlus claims to be an electronic publishing solution for creating online documentation and Web pages. Unfortunately this falls heavily into the hype category as HTML is not supported and the only way to create an Adobe Acrobat PDF document is to print the publication to a Postscript file and convert it with Distiller which is not included.

As you would expect at its price, PagePlus does have major limitations. For professional design use it is clearly out of its depth, with no Pantone support or colour separation amongst many other restrictions. More telling is its lack of long document support with no multiple chapter publications, automatic table of contents generation or cross referencing. Even the table editor that used to be bundled has been removed.

In fact, despite its new 32-bit power, PagePlus Home/Office begins to seem uncomfortable when asked to produce anything over a few pages in length. The longer the document, the longer everything begins to take and the bigger the danger of an internal error. For office use on text-intensive publications like reports or newsletters, Microsoft Publisher definitely has the edge, but for home use on graphical publications such as greetings cards and posters, PagePlus is excellent value. More than that, it manages to make the whole design process enjoyable, a point that other page layout programs would do well to copy.

Features

3

Ease of Use

5

Value for Money

5

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

January 1998


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