DTP software group test review

businesslike but powerful DTP package
Photo of DTP software group test
£539 + VAT

Legacy is a powerful concept in the world of computing. It explains why your PC boots through DOS, for example – Microsoft had to retain compatibility with the old operating system in case any users out there still ran programs on it. And legacy also explains why PageMaker still exists, now on version 6.5 and more than a few years old.

The idea was that Adobe’s new In Design would negate the need for PageMaker. However, it turned out that many users are still quite keen on PageMaker, thank you very much, and aren’t keen to see it scrapped. PageMaker is also primarily a business application in contrast to In Design’s more artistic leanings. Thus Adobe quietly keeps PageMaker on its books.

PageMaker’s antiquated origins aren’t hard to see when you first run the program. It’s a strange mix of modern and old program design concepts. You get a stylish modern floating toolbar, for example, through which you can access the usual text frame and shape tools. But along the top of the screen is a decidedly Windows 3.1-looking toolbar which offers access to virtually every other feature in the program. This is located beneath a menu system that’s also fairly busy, creating confusion if you don’t keep your wits about you. PageMaker reminds us fairly effectively why programs have instruction manuals.

The wizard that greets you when you start the program must also be one the driest ever – you’re invited to choose from designs under several categories, such as newsletter, reports and even postcards, although the designs don’t have names or descriptions. Instead you’re merely presented with thumbnail previews and document numbers. You must simply pick one that looks broadly correct, in which case a preset design is opened full of dummy text. Forget about any hope of a walkthrough on what you should do next.

In use, the program is similar to all DTP programs. Although PageMaker doesn’t make heavy use of floating palettes, like Xpress and In Design, at the bottom of the screen is a bar offering precise control over text size, leading and kerning. If you dig around the View menu you’ll also find a useful layers palette and there’s also a styles palette allowing you to globally modify text designs. It’s worth noting that you get a free copy of Adobe Distiller for outputting high resolution PDFs for professional printing.

However, PageMaker is plain clunky to use. Like Quark XPress, the program has its own odd way of doing certain things. Try as we might in our test document we couldn’t import the same JPEG pictures used with the other packages here (we got an error saying the files were corrupted), and, despite following steps in the manual, we couldn’t fill a text box with a red tint. We also couldn’t manually enter a point size for text and had to stick to irritating predefined values. We were probably doing something wrong in every case but the point is that the common sense manoeuvres we undertook worked fine in the other packages on test.

PageMaker is capable but, in our humble opinion at least, very businesslike and clunky. Unless you have prior experience of the package, you’d be advised to steer clear.Quark XPress holds a warm place in the heart of many journalists and layout artists. It’s been around for well over ten years (a lifetime in computing terms) and has built up an army of satisfied users. It’s very likely indeed that most newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and posters you see will have been designed using Xpress.

However, this isn’t to say that Xpress is some kind of übersoftware, capable of amazing DTP tricks. In fact, it’s a very deceptively simple program which, along with the fact that designers are trained in Xpress early in their careers, is what accounts for its success.

Unlike every other DTP or even every other graphics program, Quark Xpress uses a single row of icons through which all the main functions are accessed. The toolbar features primarily frame, text box and shape tools which, when it boils down to it, are all you need in page design. At the bottom of the screen is a context-sensitive palette which shows various parameters and settings, such as font name and size, or the co-ordinates of the mouse cursor at any given time.

There are other floating toolbars available if you want them – just click on the View menu – and the standard complement for most layout artists is the Colours toolbar (which includes Pantone support), the Document Layout toolbar (which enables you to jump around the pages in the document at ease), and the Styles toolbar (which lets you globally apply typeface attributes).

However, digging deeper reveals some extraordinary features. You can draw text boxes or frames in freehand using your mouse, for example, while an entire range of useful predefined text boxes and frames are also available. Elsewhere you’ll find that this version of Quark Xpress shares In Design’s ability to automatically generate cut-out clipping paths around photographs, saving the bother of manually generating them in Photoshop. The Xtensions manager lets you add-in third party programs to Xpress’s arsenal, boosting its feature base even more (albeit for a fee).

Xpress’s trouble comes from the very thing that makes it so appealing to many – its idiosyncrasy. Quark Xpress does things its own peculiar way. Unlike virtually every other Windows program in the world, it doesn’t make much use of context sensitive right-click menus, for example. Elsewhere, keyboard combinations like CTRL+A, to select all the text in the frame, produces an irritating beep of non-compliance, whilst the things that can be undone with CTRL+Z are very limited. Elsewhere again, when you draw a text frame, the cursor doesn’t always automatically appear inside (whether the cursor appears apparently depends on what tool you had selected prior to drawing the frame). These are things that experience will overcome but to a newcomer they’re damned irritating.

If you’re new to the professional DTP field then In Design is probably a better choice, not least because if you want to produce PDF files within Quark Xpress then there will also be the additional expense of purchasing Acrobat Acrobat Distiller (£205 + VAT).This is an unusual group test because there aren’t any programs that are not up to the task. Each program reviewed here is very capable of producing professional-looking publications given time and effort. The question therefore becomes the ease with which they let you do this.

First, forget about PageMaker 6.5. It’s looking decidedly dated nowadays. It has an interesting, business-like way of working but is irritatingly clunky in use. Corel Ventura is similar. We just got fed up with right-clicking here and navigating through this sub-menu there to bring about even slight changes to a document. These really are legacy tools for those already used to them.

Serif Page Plus is a fun program and is stunningly inexpensive compared to the rest on test. But it’s very narrowly focussed on home user projects. Which is fine if you merely want to produce certificates and colourful calendars, but if not, you’ll end up fighting against the nature of the program.

Quark XPress is still magnificently simple to use yet very powerful, even if it does cost as much as some PCs. There’s also the fact that the entire publishing industry uses Quark Xpress so you’re guaranteed file compatibility, for example, as well as help from people if you ever get stuck.

However, for our money at least, In Design nudges ahead. It’s got some fairly nifty features that make page layout a breeze, as has Quark Xpress, but, most importantly, In Design has built-in PDF output. Many printers now operate a ‘straight to plate’ facility, cutting out the prepress separations stage, saving money and time. In Design was made with this in mind and thus claims the crown as the future of desktop publishing. The £539 + VAT price tag won’t make the accountant smile, but it will be money wisely invested.Page Plus has reached version 7, so logic dictates that maker Serif must be doing something right. However, unlike some of the professional-level products here, Page Plus is a home-user tool, offering a semi-professional range of features but concentrating primarily on documents such as certificates and greeting cards.

To this end the program starts with a colourful wizard which asks what you’d like to do. You can use a Page Wizard, which asks you both what document you want to produce and what you’d like to put in it, before going off and producing this to a preset design, or you can start from scratch by defining just the document type (such as A4 or poster). There’s also the option of taking a tour to find out what the program is capable of, although this is merely a text and pictures walkthrough and not an interactive tutorial.

Once you’re using the program the home user credentials are hard to miss and, in fact, can become pervasive. A good example of this is when, in our test document, we wanted to draw a text box and fill it with a red tint. It took us some time to work out how this is done because Page Plus assumes you want a colourful gradated or conical fill, of which several are available on a swatch palette. If you merely want a common or garden solid fill, you must right click on the text box, select Fill from the context sensitive menu, and select Solid Fill from the dialog box – convoluted, to say the least.

Serif also steers you towards producing fairly trivial stuff such as greeting cards, calendars and certificates. There’s no wizard that guides you through producing a newsletter or homemade newspaper, for example, despite the fact the program easily has the capability. On the other hand, Page Plus is able to create Web sites, albeit ones that rely heavily upon CSS layers, making them incompatible with older browsers.

The moral of the story is that if you stick to what Page Plus is good at then you can’t go wrong. The Schemes palette lets you drag and drop entire colour schemes onto a document, making designing a page incredibly easy and fun, and we particularly liked the ChangeBar palette which lets you alter text spacing, size, leading and kerning live on screen using sliders. This is something that the big boys of Quark and Adobe might take note of.

We were fairly satisfied with Page Plus 7. We managed to make the program crash once when trying to use Print Preview without a printer driver installed, and the lack of a decent grid to align objects to is a pain. But if you don’t expect too much of it then Page Plus is terrific.When computers were new to the world, people talked of ‘killer applications’ – programs so useful that they helped sell the PCs they were designed for. Word processors, spreadsheets and databases were the original killer applications but in the late Eighties and early Nineties they were eclipsed by desktop publishing software.

Why this software proved popular isn’t hard to understand. Previously professional publishing involved lining up lead typefaces and dowsing them with ink. With DTP software, designing a page was as simple as moving a mouse around the screen. Combined with the growth in popularity of the laser printer, DTP became unstoppable.

Publishing and design houses jumped on the bandwagon. The first professional DTP program was Quark XPress and even now, over 10 years later, it’s still king of the hill. This is because designers are trained in Xpress early in their careers and are generally a conservative bunch. Quark Xpress also makes what should be a complex and difficult task very easy and it’s not without justice that it’s heralded as the supreme DTP program.

The DTP market has slowed down recently, largely because Quark has such an unshakeable hold at the top end of the market whilst at the bottom word processors have eaten into the domestic market.

In this test we attempt to look at a representative sample, both of home, office and professional level DTP software, but the marginalisation of the DTP market has lead to some high prices. It’s worth point out that for basic DTP tasks a word processor like Microsoft Word is actually fairly capable.

Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.Two years ago Adobe introduced its In Design product as a direct rival to Quark XPress. The company simultaneously released Macintosh and PC versions, both of which operate identically (the instruction manual is the same for both). In Design also looks virtually identical to the two other professional Adobe products, Photoshop and Illustrator, which between them have the professional graphics market largely sewn-up. In Design effectively completes a PC publishing triumvirate.

The program reached version 1.5 in the middle last year although didn’t deviate from its principle focus of keeping things very simple. In Design is not wizard driven – you don’t even get a video tutorial, although sample files aplenty are supplied. However, even a child could knock-up a professional publication in minutes. If you’ve used any other Adobe product then so much the better because the toolbar is virtually identical, with similar icons and functionality. Elsewhere, concepts that Adobe invented, such as layers and colour swatch palettes, are also present, and serve to make document creation astonishingly quick and easy. As just one example of the product convergence, if you choose to transform some text by stretching or skewing it then you’ll see that the In Design dialog box is identical to the one used in Illustrator.

Adobe boast too of In Design’s plug-in structure which means the program can easily be expanded by third party companies (the usual example of this being database extensions which would enable you to produce catalogues quickly and easily within In Design). Automatic clipping path creation was also introduced with In Design. This is able to take a graphic and automatically create a text wrap path around it (with varying levels of success). This means that most photographs can be dropped straight into the page without a prior Photoshop session.

Considering Adobe invented the portable document format (PDF) it’s no surprise that PDF support is very strong here, both at high resolution and low resolution ‘Web’ level. Quark Xpress users used to having Adobe Distiller tie up their machines for hours on end will no doubt appreciate this. In Design also has a cool ‘pre flight’ option which bundles all the pictures and fonts together ready to be transmitted to the printer via ISDN or by CD-R.

There are flies in the ointment. In Design consumes system resources like the clappers – with a complicated document open the program becomes very slow and cranky, even on a reasonably specified machine. It crashed on us a couple of times although recovered the documents when next used.

In Design definitely gives Quark Xpress a run for its money. If you’re an experienced Xpress user then the transition to In Design may be rocky but if you’re new to professional DTP and have used any other Adobe product then you’d be foolish to consider anything else.Corel Ventura doesn’t so much install on your PC as colonise it. Installation takes in the order of 15-30 minutes and a total of 259MB of programs is copied to your hard disk (much more if you choose to install the free copy of WordPerfect).

This is because the main Ventura DTP program is merely the centre of the storm. Around it are many ancillary programs such as Corel Photo-Paint, an excellent image editor which is also sold separately, and Bitstream Font Navigator, which makes working with fonts on your system a lot easier. There’s also Corel Database Publisher, designed to take in dBase or other major database formats at one end and automatically produce print or HTML catalogues at the other.

The multifaceted nature of the bundle makes for a potentially overwhelming state of affairs, particularly if you’re new to DTP, and once activated, the main Ventura program doesn’t help matters. The best way to describe it is as a cross between a word processor and a vector graphics program. Once you open a new document (several templates are available although these are merely pre-designed documents which you manually modify), a blinking cursor appears at the top of the page. This is unusual because most DTP software expects you to start by drawing text boxes or other types of frames.

The panic doesn’t last long because a quick glance at the simple toolbar on the left of the screen shows that there is in fact both a text box and frame tool, which operate in a similar way to all other DTP programs (including having the ability to draw esoterically shaped frames, although you can’t draw freehand, as in Quark Xpress).

However, further investigation of the menus reveal yet more word processor-like tools – you can create tables in the document, for example, and check both grammar and spelling. The program also talks in terms of footnotes and endnotes, again word processor concepts. It seems Ventura has an identity crisis.

Perhaps the most radical way in which Ventura owes more to word processing than DTP is the lack of decent palettes. Xpress and In Design, for example, offer palettes with complete control over text, such as kerning and leading adjustment. In Ventura the text palette merely lets you change the font and type size. If you want to alter the kerning then you have to navigate through a right click menu and an eventual dialog box – hardly intuitive.

But all of this isn’t to say that Ventura isn’t powerful. Get a grip on its features (several enormously thick manuals are supplied), and it’s as capable as Quark XPress. It even includes a ‘preflight’ ability to prepare for colour film separations at a repro house. Two CDs full of clipart and photographs are also supplied.

If you’re new to DTP and want a complete solution, including all the image editing and text preparation tools you need, then Ventura is worth investigating. There is a pervasive ‘office suite’ feel to it, however, and more creative types might want to plump for XPress or In Design instead.

Company: Adobe

Contact: 0131 458 6842