Serif PagePlus 5

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Latest version of the entry-level DTP program builds on its high-end paper  based control to add comprehensive Web support. The program offers a lot for the  price, but still has its limitations.

Serif PagePlus 5

In the past Serif's DTP package PagePlus was very much aimed at the budget-conscious home and home-office user. Now it has raised its sights and is also targeting what it terms the "growing business". In fact the latest version is even subtitled the "professional edition". Rather than simply competing with the old enemy Microsoft Publisher, PagePlus seems keen to take the challenge upmarket.

Despite the shift in emphasis, the program is still firmly built on ease of use and the principle of producing results quickly. In particular the provision of over 300 page wizards is designed to give the user a flying start with their projects. Select from the broad range of categories such as brochures or business stationery, choose a general mood such as modern or traditional, enter various details such as your name and address and PagePlus will cook up a layout to the given recipe.

The active help continues as you work on the project. Draw a text frame to flow your text into, for example, and the Frame Wizard pops up to ask how many columns you want, what size of margins and whether you want a background fill. The new Calendar Wizard is another typical example. Drag on screen and the wizard materialises to find out which month to view and what style to present it in and then creates the appropriate OLE graphic to the correct size. Double-click on the graphic and the wizard is launched again to enable updating.

With wizards, QuickTours and serious and not-so-serious tool hints constantly appearing, help is always at hand. The latest PagePlus still prides itself on being "friendly as a puppy", but thankfully also recognises that some people don't like dogs. If you become irritated by the constant stream of wizards and tips jumping up and licking your face you can selectively turn them off or simply choose to disable the "fun stuff". A more fundamental advance is the overall improvement in the quality of online help.

Another example of PagePlus's new more sober approach is the ChangeBar. When this control palette first appeared it was treated as something of a toy. If you were formatting a heading for example you could drag sliders to change not just the point-size and text width, but the actual typeface - not exactly high-level design but a lot of fun. That capability has now gone and, although the sliders are still there, a separate tab encourages precise values to be set. A new tab has also been added that gives complete control over the size and positioning of both text and graphics.

The ChangeBar is more professional and powerful than it was, but it still has limitations. It doesn't offer access to all formatting commands, for example, so that to change case or apply a text fill it is still necessary to call up the Character dialog. This wouldn't be too bad, but for some reason the dialog takes a full 35 seconds to appear on a reasonably fast system. More irritatingly, the ChangeBar is the only way to control baseline jump. This means that a basic task like superscripting or subscripting must be done individually by manually setting both point size and positioning. At least this is an advance on version 4 where the capability had completely disappeared.

The ChangeBar is also used for accessing a new capability, intelligent text fitting. Often in a design you will have a set amount of space that you want to fill. Normally this copy-fitting can be a laborious process involving repeated fine-tuning until the desired result is achieved. With PagePlus it can all be done instantly and automatically. The feature undoubtedly works but the fixed order of first changing point-size, then leading and then paragraph spacing is the exact opposite of the way the professional designer would tackle the job.

One of the major changes in PagePlus 5 is the re-introduction of TablePlus. This is a semi-detached module that allows cell-based tables to be created and pasted into a layout. The module offers a number of quite advanced features such as the ability to include basic formulas and to automatically fill cells with standard sequences like days of the week. As such TablePlus is ideal for the production of relatively simple projects like invoices. However there are still limitations. Text is still not entered directly in the cell and colour handling is very different from that in the main program. More importantly, the very fact that tables are created as OLE objects leads to complications. There is no way to have a table flow across pages, for example.

Another new module in PagePlus 5 is the Design Portfolio. This is an optional panel running down the right-hand of the screen that gives access to frequently used items. If you design a logo for your company in the text effect module LogoPlus, for example, you can then drag it onto the Portfolio window. To then include the logo in any other project you can simply drag it back from the Portfolio onto the page. The Portfolio is certainly useful but it is also something of a missed opportunity as the concept could easily have been widened to offer access to the 400 fonts and 17,500 items of clip art that are supplied with the program.

One of the most common uses of PagePlus will be for creating personalised projects like greetings cards and certificates. PagePlus now allows you to add mail-merge fields such as names and addresses so that you can automatically customise each design for different recipients. The data is stored in a standard address file which can hold up to twenty fields for each record. However it isn't possible to see the data in the context of the layout and with no conditional control it is impossible, for example, to automatically print out only those letters whose addresses are based in one city.

So far all the new features in PagePlus 5 are welcome but slightly uninspiring. The killer feature Serif is pinning its hopes on is its all-embracing conversion to the Web. Existing users might be rather wary about this as PagePlus has actually boasted Net support before - in fact since version three. However in practice this support soon evaporated as it boiled down to the ability to create Acrobat files - a feature entirely dependent on the purchase of Acrobat Distiller and which could just as easily have been claimed by any Windows application!

Somehow the holding operation has paid off, Serif has avoided a law-suit, and now it has finally made good on the promise. Selecting the Switch to Web Publishing command replaces the Mail-merge menu with a new Web menu. This offers a number of dedicated features such as the ability to add hyperlinks to any selected object or text. When your navigational links are in place, selecting the Preview Web Site command automatically converts your design to HTML and opens it into your browser. It's as simple as that.

Well not quite. Yes the publication will be converted, but the results might not be exactly what you expected. Any text in a coloured frame, for example, will automatically be converted into a GIF graphic. The same will happen if the text frame overlaps with another frame or an imported image. Your web page will look great, but won't be searchable and might take a minute or more to download. In other words no one will visit it.

PagePlus offers a number of tools to avoid such mistakes including the Layout Checker wizard which picks up on these problems and others like the use of non-standard typefaces. More useful still is the automatic redlining which appears around overlapping objects indicating that they will be turned into a graphic unless they are repositioned. To be sure of the best results a much better idea is to start from scratch with one of the dedicated Page wizards.

Without any advanced features like site management, scrollable frames or direct HTML editing, PagePlus isn't going to threaten the likes of FrontPage as a web page creator. However for those many users wanting to explore the benefits of going online with a no-frills presence, the simplicity of the PagePlus approach has a lot going for it. In particular the fact that all pages have to be contained within a single publication creates a natural limit to complexity - a ceiling that ensures that the site remains manageable.

PagePlus's web output has caught up with and, if anything, overtaken Publisher's. What really sets the program apart though is its high-end power. This has been expanded in the latest version with long document features such as automatic table of contents generation and the ability to index publications. Another impressive innovation is the Photo Optimizer wizard. This prints out the same image 24 times on a test sheet with slightly different settings for contrast, gamma and colour values. By selecting the most accurate reproduction you can effectively calibrate PagePlus to your desktop printer.

It's in the field of commercial print that PagePlus leaves Publisher standing. Features like Pantone support and imposition controls are useful for in-house work, but essential for external output. More importantly, PagePlus is the only budget program that offers full colour separation for both spot and process work. Screen angles and frequencies can be set and even trapping parameters. It's even possible to import and separate CMYK Tiffs. This is serious publishing power.

However the fact that commercial print can be produced with PagePlus doesn't mean that it is necessarily the right program for the job. Colour separation and pre-press work is a very complex business and a long way away from the security of desktop printing. You really need all the help you can get from a completely reliable and dedicated commercial publishing program. It's significant in this regard that although PagePlus can colour separate images, its manual still recommends leaving it to your commercial printer to strip in photographs.

Of course it's always good to be given as much power as possible, but this should be kept in proportion. Advanced features like the ability to produce colour separations or an index might save your life on the occasional project, but if you are likely to need them regularly you are soon going to hit their limitations. Despite its professional aspirations PagePlus remains a budget program. For the entry-level user PagePlus offers impressive power and value, but the serious "growing business" might do better to think ahead.

Ease of Use

5

Features

4

Value for Money

5

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

January 1999


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