From layout to printout – reviews of six DTP software packages – includes related articles on overall scores and high-end DTP programs – Software Review – Evaluation
We Test Six DTP Packages That Will Have You Designing Painlessly and Inexpensively
With all the clamor about the World Wide Web these days, it’s easy to forget the real meat and potatoes of marketing your business–hard-copy brochures, newsletters, and fliers. Regardless of the time and resources you spend advertising electronically, you can’t afford to ignore these essential promotional tools. Desktop publishing has become so common for many business needs that it’s something we all do without a lot of pomp and circumstance. You probably perform rudimentary DTP tasks without even realizing it.
Your word processor ships with a variety of fonts, templates, and clip art for creating striking, attention-getting printouts. Despite these hidden goodies, you’ll soon need more options and features, items found in a good, inexpensive page layout program–one that does nearly all the work for you and contains all the fonts and clip art images you’ll ever need. Most of today’s accessible DTP programs aimed at small businesses cost considerably less than $100, and they have all of the bells and whistles designed to get your documents published without wasting your time.
The Selection Process A decade ago, the DTP software category boasted as many as 12 to 15 programs for Windows and eight or so for the Mac. Many haven’t survived. Now, there are only a handful of Windows programs and even fewer Macintosh applications. The good news is that this seems to be a category where the strong truly survive.
In addition, the line between professional DTP software applications and so-called small-business packages is now more clearly delineated. In the professional DTP program arena, two packages, Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress, have clearly established themselves as industry standards, with Corel Ventura bringing up the rear and gaining ground.
For this buyer’s guide, we set out to review half a dozen friendly yet powerful DTP applications with price tags under $150 street. We looked at Microsoft Publisher 97, IMSI Master Publisher, and Software Publishing’s (formerly Allegro New Media and Serif before that) PagePlus and Publishing Power Suite, all for Windows; for the Mac we saw Adobe HomePublisher Deluxe 2.1 and Abbott Systems Ready, Set, Go 7.0.
Our Testbed For this review, we put these six packages through their paces in a small-business environment. We followed the tutorials, heeded the advice of the wizards, and created banners, ads, newsletters, fliers, and so forth. Although a high-end DTP program can easily lay out a 400-page report with charts and graphics, we kept our sights on smaller but equally vital tasks. If you think you might need more publishing power, check out the accompanying box, “Professional High-End DTP Programs: When Economy and Ease of Use Won’t Do.” But for most small-business needs, these mainstream DTP applications will make your work look more polished, professional, and presentable.
HomePublisher Deluxe 2.1
RATING: * * *
If you need a small-business publishing solution for your Mac, Adobe HomePublisher Deluxe 2.1 is your only real choice. Hands-down, it’s easier to use and a much better value than Ready, Set, Go–the other Mac application in this review. Adobe has made significant improvements to this program since acquiring it from Aldus–most notably by adding 12 fonts, 1,500 clip art images, templates, and AutoCreate wizards.
The AutoCreate wizards are useful for stepping you through DTP chores, but they’re not nearly as well-developed as those found in Windows applications. Granted, HomePublisher’s wizards did a good job of walking us through the initial layout of a document, including adding titles, headers, footers, newsletter banners, folios, and more. Most would do a reasonable job of displaying previews of how the document will look when adding graphics and text. Once you finish with the wizard, however, the resulting document turns out to be a mere shell with no dummy text and graphics. If you’re new to desktop publishing, this could be confusing as you figure out what goes where.
We liked the AutoCreate feature for setting automatic jumplines (“Continued on page 7”) in newsletters. If you’ve ever tried doing this manually, especially in multipage documents, you know that it’s a chore trying to keep track of which stories jump to what pages. We also found HomePublisher’s clip art images were more appropriate for business on the whole than those found in some of the other programs. Many of the templates that come with this program are also more suited to business applications, rather than the often fancy and frilly documents found in Microsoft Publisher 97, for instance.
Although HomePublisher doesn’t have the Cue Cards, Quick Tips, or help boxes used in most Windows programs, Adobe makes excellent use of the Mac’s Bubble Help. Hover your mouse over a menu, command, or tool and a description of the item appears. There’s also a highly useful document on the CD-ROM that provides three pages of tips, or Dos and Don’ts for successful document design. On the other hand, we’ve seen the design guides that ship with Adobe’s high-end PageMaker and Illustrator–come on, Adobe, you can do better for the small-business desktop publisher.
Overall, this is an easy-to-use application, ideally suited for small print jobs, such as brochures, newsletters, fliers, and the like. The best news is that the final documents look professional and print well. Adobe is the leader in desktop publishing and design applications, and there’s no better place to publish than on a Mac.
RATING: * * *
WIN 95 / WIN
With an estimated street price of $30, Master Publisher is an absolute bargain, especially when you consider what comes in the box. Not only do you get a friendly, easy-to-use DTP program, but you also get draw, paint, and type special-effects applets. And we didn’t even mention the 20,000 clip art images, 1,000 JPEG photographs, 2,000 fonts–the list goes on and on. For creating simple documents to print on your desktop printer, this program has everything you need, and then some.
We were very impressed with Master Publisher’s wizards, or PagePilots. They are thorough, and the finished designs are quite impressive. Not only do Page Pilots let you choose from more than 100 nicely designed templates, but you can also select fonts for headings, banners, body copy, and so on during the layout process. You can also choose graphics and color schemes. Our only disappointment is that the choice of graphics is too frivolous for most business applications. But then, the images are for placement only; you can replace them with your own.
You can use Master Publisher to create almost any type of document, including fliers, newsletters, business cards, and brochures. There is also a book PagePilot, but creating books, multipage magazines, and manuals with any of these programs will require more work and time than you can likely afford. Creating books requires the ability to automatically generate indices, tables of contents, and other lists, as well as a feature for combining sections and chapters. These features fall into the realm of such programs as PageMaker and Corel Ventura.
Even though Master Publisher’s draw and paint modules are not anywhere near as sophisticated as, say, CorelDraw’s and Adobe Photoshop’s, you can put them to good use to create logos and other simple images. Combine them with the PowerText option for creating text effects, such as warping, 3D planes, and fitting text around objects, and you won’t find these simple programs all that limited. Master Publisher wisely includes a browser applet to help you choose from the extensive clip art collection, or you can use the black-and-white hard-copy catalog.
Master Publisher also supports process-color separations, but we’re betting that you’ll get mixed results at best, considering the lack of color correction and the inability to make sophisticated output settings. Again, you’ll have better luck using a professional package if you plan to print full-color photographs and the like. Frankly, Master Publisher nearly rivals .Microsoft Publisher 97 at its own game–providing impressive and inexpensive page layout.
RATING: * * 1/2
Software Publishing (formerly Allegro New Media and Serif) touts PagePlus Home/Office as “the easiest desktop publisher ever.” We’re not sure about that–Publisher 97 and Master Publisher are pretty impressive. PagePlus Home/Office is almost as easy. Its Design Page wizards are almost as helpful as Publisher 97’s (but not quite as thorough as those found in Master Publisher) and there are plenty of them–more than 100 divided into two categories, Home and Office.
To bring the Design Page wizards up to snuff, though, the program should provide more hand-holding. Publisher 97’s brochure wizards, for example, help you determine where to place items according to how the document will fold, as well as where and how to format the mailer panels. Granted, this means wading through several screens before arriving at the completed template. But when you get there, the document’s nearly complete and there’s less chance of making a mistake. PagePlus, on the other hand, lets you make only a few preliminary decisions and then leaves more for you to do and figure out.
However, there’s quite a bit of onscreen help, such as Design Hints, and a context-sensitive window that provides useful advice determined by which tool you’ve selected and where you’re pointing in the document. We liked that we could edit Design Hints or create our own–a great way to make notes about how features work or things to remember. In addition, the Layout Checker wizard does a reasonably good job of checking your final document for layout and potential printing problems.
Although PagePlus doesn’t support Web page conversion, it lets you create links in Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF), a popular electronic format found on various Web sites. Curiously, PagePlus doesn’t include Acrobat Distiller, the program required to turn documents into PDFs. The PagePlus CD-ROM has a couple of PDFs on it but not Acrobat Reader, the program required to access PDFs. Adobe places no restrictions on the distribution of Reader, so this is merely bad housekeeping on Software Publishing’s part.
Another serious limitation of PagePlus Home/Office is that it doesn’t support spotor process-color separations. We tried to find them where they should be–under the Print menu–but they weren’t anywhere in the program. In other words, you can’t easily print out camera-ready art for the print shop. Spot-color documents are possible through a time-consuming workaround (deleting all objects except those of one color, printing, and repeating the process for each color). Consider this program only if you plan to print out on your desktop laser or ink-jet printer.
Although we liked this program, we ran into limitations. Unless your DTP needs are restricted to simple, short documents destined for your printer, we suggest you look elsewhere. At press time, Software Publishing announced PagePlus 4.0 with an estimated street price of $70. According to company claims, it addresses all the problems pointed out here with some new features.
RATING: * * * 1/2
Microsoft Publisher is by far the most popular and best-known small-business publishing package on the market today. It was the first to introduce layout wizards, automated layout troubleshooting, and other features designed to get the person who doesn’t have time to learn desktop publishing from computer to printout. When it was introduced several years ago, we thought the wizards and other help were valuable, but the ensuing documents were too silly and frivolous for most serious small businesses. That’s changed. Of the 100-plus new PageWizard design templates, only a few caused us to cringe.
Publisher 97’s new features, such as mail merge and HTML (World Wide Web) publishing, leave everybody else playing catch-up. With mail merge, you can now put addresses on envelopes, fliers, and other mailers automatically from supported databases, contact managers, and PIMs. Or you can merge addresses into label layouts, saving yourself valuable time.
The new Web site feature works in two ways: YOU can either convert an existing publication to HTML or run the Web Site PageWizard. As you can imagine, making the transition from a document designed for a printer to one designed for the Web can be tricky. But Publisher 97 does a fairly good job of making things fit in an attractive manner. Then you run the Preview Troubleshooter, which points out potential problems and bad design elements. Frankly, we were a bit dubious when we saw this new feature listed on the box, but it works quite well, providing pleasing designs–specially if you run the wizard and let Publisher lay out the document for you, rather than try to convert an existing publication. Simply replace the text and graphics with your own and Publisher does the work.
Although the PageWizard templates are greatly improved, Microsoft could learn from Master Publisher’s PagePilots. For example, Publisher 97 doesn’t let you choose specific fonts from your PC’s installed font list while running the wizard. Publisher 97 doesn’t come with as many frills, either. For instance, you get only 5,000 clip art images rather than Master Publisher’s 20,000. But Microsoft has come up with an interesting wrinkle: It provides a huge collection of image, sound, and video files on its Web site, a feature called Microsoft Clip Gallery Live. Besides that, you’ll also find adequate draw and type special effects in the box. In fact, Microsoft WordArt is a nifty little utility for manipulating type, allowing you to do just about everything imaginable to your banners and logos.
Of the programs we reviewed, Publisher 97 is the most polished and provides the widest range of DTP options. It’s not suitable for book-length documents or full-color layouts, and it doesn’t support process- or spot-color separations. But if you can live with these limitations, you shouldn’t live without Publisher 97.
Publishing Power Suite
RATING: * *
No matter what Software Publishing chooses to call this program, Publishing Power Suite is merely PagePlus patched up to run under Windows 95. A few years ago this was a hot program, receiving a fair amount of favorable press, including accolades from this magazine. But now it’s showing its age. Power Suite doesn’t come with any layout wizards nor does it offer the kind of help found in the other DTP programs. On the other hand, it ships with tons of clip art (7,000-plus), 400 fonts, a draw applet, a 3D modeling applet, and even a photograph morphing tool (which has nothing to do with page layout).
Like Ready, Set, Go on the Mac, Publishing Power Suite is more suited for the experienced publisher on a tight budget. It’s quite similar in operation to PageMaker and supports many of the high-end features that are the bread and butter of professional programs, such as process-color separations and intricate typesetting options, at a fraction of the cost.
In all fairness, Publishing Power Suite does provide the inexperienced user with some advice, such as context-sensitive help screens and Page Hints, that’s unavailable in professional packages. Its templates, though, are not customizable on the fly, as they are in most of the other programs reviewed here. Instead, you get shells containing dummy text and graphics that you replace with your own layout elements–a method that makes you do all the work.
You can use Power Publishing Suite for just about every type of document, except for book-length works because it can’t combine chapters and generate lists, such as tables of contents and indices. For the best of both worlds–automatic layout wizards and high-end features on a budget–check out PagePlus 4.0, which should be available by the time you read this. In the meantime, choose Publishing Power Suite if you need a combination of relative ease of use and a few professional-strength power features.
Ready, Set, Go 7.0 for Mac
RATING: * *
Ready, Set, Go is certainly a capable desktop publishing program, but it’s more a poor man’s high-end layout package than an easy-to-use small-business application. It comes with no frills, such as fonts, clip art, and wizards, and little-to-no help when it comes to layout and design. In fact, the program offers little help at all–the documentation is skimpy and abysmal. You have to be familiar with the ins and outs of desktop publishing to put this program to good use.
What you do get with Ready, Set, Go is a full-featured, pseudo high-end application (in the league of Quark and PageMaker) without the almost $900 price tag. The program looks and feels a lot like PageMaker and it doesn’t have the easy-to-understand interface of the other programs in this review. It supports multiple master pages, which are underlying shells for placing recurring formatting, such as columns, running headers and footers, and graphics. And unlike HomePublisher Deluxe 2.1, the other Mac program reviewed here, Ready, Set, Go also supports process-color separations, which are required for full-color printing press output.
As longtime PageMaker users, we had no trouble laying out all types of documents in this program, including a brochure, flier, and newsletter. But if you’re not a seasoned DTPer, we doubt you’ll have a similar experience. Laying out pages in Ready, Set, Go is reminiscent of sitting down to a conventional layout table with Xacto knives and glue and pasting up camera-ready art onto boards, an old-fashioned method that has been lost in these electronic times.
Ready, Set, Go can lay out virtually any type of document, except full-length books or manuals. Frankly, this program isn’t for the faint of heart or anyone with smaller desktop publishing tasks. Nor is it for those who don’t have time to learn a new profession–desktop publishing. But if you plan to do a lot of publishing and don’t have the $900 or so to plunk down on the professional-level QuarkXPress or PageMaker, Ready, Set, Go is certainly an alternative. But be prepared to spend some time learning to use this program.
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Contributing editor WILLIAM HARREL operates a design firm in Southern California and has authored or coauthored 17 books on desktop publishing.
When Economy and Ease of Use Do
Low-priced, small-business-oriented DTP programs are great for quick jobs. But if you’re in the document design business, or if you design lengthy documents, you truly need a fuIl-featured page layout program, such as Adobe PageMaker, QuarkXPress, or Corel Ventura. These three programs are well-established, loaded with features, and boast loyal users.
There are major differences between professional DTP programs and those in the main review, especially in price and feature set. All three of these full-fledged applications list for about $900, and all three have very steep learning curves. What you primarily get for the money is the ability to create and manage long documents, extensive controls over printing and prepress output (essential for high-quality, offset-printing press runs), intricate typesetting controls, color-correction tools, and much more–including the ability to use plug-in applications, such as HTML conversion tools, features that make these programs even more powerful. Also, these programs need plenty of muscle for creating complex and eye-catching page layouts. Don’t even think about using any of these packages without at least 32MB of RAM and a very fast Pentium or Power Mac.
Adobe PageMaker 6.5
WIN / MAC
Essentially, PageMaker 1.0 running on a Macintosh culminated in the invention of desktop publishing. Originally owned by Aldus, both PageMaker and desktop publishing itself have come a long way. Once the industry leader, PageMaker lost a lot of ground to QuarkXPress, primarily due to aging and a lack of meaningful upgrades. But Adobe has changed all that; the recently released PageMaker 6.5 is everything it should be. In addition to nimbly handling just about any publishing task you throw at it, new HTML and Acrobat conversion features have placed it once again in a neck-and-neck race for best of class. It’s also the easiest to use of the three major products. Adobe Systems, 206-4 70-7000, 800-42-ADOBE, www.adobe.com; $895
Corel Ventura 7.0
Corel Ventura, once known as Ventura Publisher, was the first DTP program to run on PCs, long before Windows came into play. It made an ungainly transition to Windows 3.1, and then changed hands a few times. Corel, makers of CorelDraw, the indisputable Windows draw program leader, has done a remarkable makeover–not only bringing Ventura into the Windows application family but also making the program look and act much like other Corel applications. Ventura has always been the best long-document program on the market. Add that to Corel’s kitchen-sink approach to marketing (you get Ventura, WordPerfect 7, tons of clip art and fonts, HTML and JAVA-based Web publishing, Corel Photo-Paint, and much more), and Ventura stands out as the greatest value among high-end DTP packages. Corel, 613-728-0826. 800-772-6735, www.corel.com; $895
WIN / MAC In today’s market, QuarkXPress is the desktop publishing industry leader, It overtook PageMaker a few years age while PageMaker floundered at Aldus. Quite simply, QuarkXPress provided what professionals needed–better typesetting controls and more reliable graphics and color prepress output. However, the current version of QuarkXPress is showing its age. We’ve been waiting for version 4.0 for a while but it wasn’t available at press time. Although Quark is still a capable page layout program, it has no built-in HTML or long-document list-generating features and is more difficult to use than either PageMaker or Ventura. You can, however, find plug-ins (called XTensions) to make the program do just about anything you want. The problem, though, is that XTensions tend to be expensive. A good HTML conversion XTension, for example, can cost as much as $500. We’re looking forward to a new and improved QuarkXPress in the coming months. Quark, 303-894-8888, 800-788-7835, www.quark.com; Win, $895; Mac, $995
HomePublisher Deluxe 2.1 Master Publisher PagePlus Home/Office Publisher 97 Publishing Power Suite Ready, Set, Go 7.0 for Mac
Desktop Publishing Programs
HomePublisher Deluxe 2.1
* * * $50
* * * $30
* * 1/2 $40
* * 1/2 $80
Publishing Power Suite
* * $70
Ready, Set, Go 7.0 for Mac
* * $150
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