When it comes to software, designers do not live by one product alone. Mixing and matching among competing solutions is nearly universal.
However, according to a survey by market research firm I.T. Strategies, when wide format printer owners were asked to list the software applications they used for design, Adobe topped the list with 193 mentions. The most popular Adobe product, by far, is Photoshop.
Quark is next with 24 respondents indicating they use Quark exclusively while another 32 indicate they use Quark in tandem with Adobe’s Illustrator and/or Photoshop. Corel follows, with 28 Corel-only users and ten respondents who use their programs alongside Illustrator and Photoshop.
This blending of products has made inter-operability between graphic files formats important, but has also made differentiation more important than ever. Here’s a look at what the leading packages offer.
How Suite it Is
Adobe has attempted to end-run the need for competitive solutions by wrapping everything designers could use into a single package. It’s long-awaited Creative Suite 3 (CS3) launched in April—the largest product launch in the software company’s history. Encompassing 13 software applications in all, designers and photo imagers can get their hands on the latest updates of Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Acrobat, and more in a variety of packages and configurations.
The firm’s Design Standard suite is geared specifically toward professional designers and print providers. It incorporates Acrobat 8 Professional and CS3 versions of InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator for $1,199. Upgrade pricing is also available, as is the ability to purchase individual applications or all 13 titles in a Master Collection for $2,499.
Within the voluminous list of new and enhanced features driving the new releases are several design features that "work well when working in large format," states Lonn Lorenz, product manager, CS3. Specifically, the ability to create Smart Objects in Photoshop lets designers alter the size of images without altering the original image file. This non-destructive editing lets designers work with vector data that would otherwise have been rasterized in Photoshop. For proofing purposes, it lets designers scale down the image to a smaller page size without down-sizing the original files.
Photoshop CS3 builds off of Smart Objects with new Smart Filters—essentially traditional filters that are applied to images in a non-destructive manner.
Another benefit for large format designers, Lorenz says, is larger PDF page sizes. From a previous 200 inches, the max page size in a PDF is now 200 feet.
The page layout program InDesign offers the ability to add Photoshop effects to objects on a page, without permanently altering them. The list of available effects has grown, with the addition of directional feather, bevel and emboss, satin, inner and outer shadow, and more in the CS3 release.
Headlining Illustrator’s new features is Live Color, which lets users combine and experiment with colors. The tool lets designers create color schemes based on 23 "color harmony rules" or you can invent your own. You can work within existing libraries like Pantone or use previously saved, custom libraries.
As with most new software, the performance of the products within the suite has been enhanced, especially for those with the most robust processors—image scrolling and zooming, as well as refresh rates, are faster. Photoshop CS3 specifically boasts a 40 percent speed increase versus the previous version on Intel-based Macs, according to Adobe.
Working with HP, Adobe has also enhanced its Photoshop print dialog—adding a color-managed print preview for one last soft proof before sending the file to be output. Indeed, one of the benefits of the suite approach—as opposed to standalone offerings—is unified color management across multiple applications, Lorenz says. For CS3, color management settings can be synchronized across more software platforms, including Acrobat, from the Adobe Bridge program.
"People go pale when you mention color management," Lorenz jokes. "Now, we have it on default so [color management] is in place out of the box. I think we did the right thing with color management, because there’s no such thing as turning it off."
Another advantage to the suite, Lorenz adds, is the ability to work with a consistent user interface with the assurance that the programs "will work well together." For instance, the suite enables an end-to-end PDF workflow which "other programs can’t match."
Art in the 21st Century
"We wanted to push the boundaries," is how Corel Corp. product manager Rick Champagne describes the company’s recently updated Painter digital art program.
The Ottawa-based company issued the new version of Painter in February, what Champagne describes as a "digital art studio built from the ground up." Version 10—signified by its roman numeral X—includes a host of new features alongside enhancements to existing capabilities.
Among the multitude of new features in Version X is the RealBristle Painting System, which Corel says "faithfully replicates traditional art media with individual bristles that blend and splay."
There are also new composition tools, such as Divine Proportion and a Layout Grid, to help users properly orient their work. "Proportion is the key to making something aesthetically pleasing," Champagne says. The grid is an easy way for designers and photo imagers to adhere to the "rule of thirds"—properly composing a design according to a standard rule. Of course, this being art, users are free to transgress these rules.
For photo imaging, the photo-painting system is built with more color schemes based on a select style—like Impressionist or Watercolor—and an updated auto painting pallet that can automatically apply brush strokes following the form of the original image. "We’ve added more control and intelligence into our brush strokes," Champagne says. The color management engine has also been updated with a Kodak engine. "It’s the same as in CorelDRAW," Champagne notes.
A new palette matching effect lets users copy a color scheme from one image and apply it to another with controls for variation, brightness, intensity, and more.
Version X also offers "performance enhancements vital to a professional workflow," Champagne says. Among them is support for universal binary on Intel-based Macs, which Corel says offers the "most dramatic" speed improvements among the performance boosting attributes on X. The program also works on PCs running Windows Vista with enhanced support for Adobe Photoshop. Specifically, the program can open PSD files with layer masks, alpha channels, and layer sets maintained allowing users to better integrate images edited in Photoshop into their Painter creation.
Corel is keeping mum on the forthcoming CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X4. As for the existing X3, it recently received full Vista certification, which users can download as a free service pack upgrade. According to Corel, the update gives the program some user interface changes, improved security and text handling, and refinements to the import and export file compatibility.
"Basically you’ll find the same features as the previous version with the benefits of Vista," notes John Falsetto, product manager. When updating a new version for Vista compatibility, third party plug-ins will also need to be Vista-certified to work properly.
One CorelDRAW feature the company is currently beta testing is CorelDRAW Courier, enabled through a partnership with Corel’s WinZip Computing subsidiary and a firm called YouSendIt. Courier is a file transfer server minus the hurdles of an FTP site, says Falsetto. CorelDRAW users can access the courier service from within the program to securely send and track large digital files.
The Courier service will likely be available in several tiers, including free and paid access depending on usage and maximum supported file size and bandwidth. The free service will support sending up to 100 individual files with a total file size download limit of 100 MB per 30 days, while the Plus service supports sending up to 200 files with a total file size download limit of 2GB per 30 days.
"We are looking at productivity tools for future versions of the Flexi product," notes Matthew Scher, director of product management, SA International. "We’re looking at ease of use and improving the overall performance."
The current version 8 of Flexi already boasts productivity-enhancers, according to Scher. "Helping to expedite the proofing process is important because proofing can be tedious." Flexi8’s template-based system can automatically add a business’ logo and customer info with a single click export to PDF or JPEG file.
Not all design programs were created equally, especially when it comes to wide format, Scher says. "Some programs limit the size of the page or grind down or become unstable when dealing in larger sizes." Flexi8, by contrast, was designed to handle wide format output, he adds.
"Ease of use is what entices people to the program," Scher states. Features such as an on-screen spell-checker—designed by bad spellers, for bad spellers, Scher jokes—also ensures a smoother workflow. A wizard-style color management feature and a growing number of profiles are helping to soothe color management nerves, Scher adds.
While Vista updates have been issued for a number of programs, SA International is advising its Flexi8 users to not run the program on Vista PCs as many of the drivers may not "play nice" with Microsoft’s newest operating system.
"There will be a Flexi9 this year," Scher says, and that edition will be Vista-ready.
Productivity features will also headline a forthcoming release of CADLink’s SignLab, says Michael Chramtchenko, director of marketing, CADLink Technology Corp. Likely coming in the third quarter of this year, it will offer several new features including Visual Production Manager for automatically or manually nesting multiple print, cut, or print and cut jobs on a single sheet of media.
"We’re looking to bring better production tools to design," Chramtchenko says. He adds that while many of the features on the design-side of the software equation are becoming more uniform among competitors, there is plenty of room to differentiate on the production side. "We’ve focused on how to help users manage multiple queues and multiple output devices," he adds.
Training will also feature more prominently in the company’s value-proposition, according to Chramtchenko. Every customer will receive an hour’s worth of free training, scheduled at their convenience and conducted online. Using Virtual Network Computing, a CADLink technical manager will access the user’s computer and walk them through the features of the program.
"There is no set instruction, it’s entirely up to the user to decide what they want to go over," Chramtchenko adds. That training is complimented by a library of short demonstrational videos—225 and counting—on the company’s Web site and around-the-clock technical support.
Quark Gives it Away
Quark has upped the ante in its battle with Adobe by making series of formerly pay-for plug-ins to XPress design program, free.
The software modules, dubbed Quark XPert Tools Pro, are available to XPress 7 users as a free download. Among the benefits of the free XTensions are "better scaling, improved guides, and powerful text-linking," according to Quark.
Among the XPert XTensions relevant for wide format designers is Scale, which lets users scale multiple objects and their contents within a layout; BoxTools, which enables designers to adjust the size and placement of graphical elements and text; ImageInfo, for accessing image metadata and modifying photos in layouts; and Print, which lets users export pages as EPS files. The XPert Toolbar is customizable and is complimented by XPert type, which lets designers apply common formatting options more quickly.
Speaking of free, Quark released a free update to its QuarkXPress 7—version 7.2—to include support for Vista as well as improve the overall performance of the program and add a few feature enhancements. Vista compatibility will bring the ability to drag and drop photos from within the Windows Photo Gallery directly into XPress.
The so-called QuarkAlliance of application developers are currently testing XTensions software for Vista compatibility. Among the vendors who have edged close to making an announcement of compatibility, as of this writing, is Extensis, which offers font-management software.
Version 7.2 offers more than Vista compatibility. Among the new improvements are changes to the Job Jackets user interface. Job Jackets is a workflow tool that enables multiple users to collaborate on a single project and version 7.2 gives users the ability to create new rules from the layout evaluation dialog box and create new layout specs from the layout menu.
The flattening tool has also been augmented to allow users to specify resolutions for vector graphics, drop shadows, and blends within a graphic.
On the color management front, 7.2 adds support for Kodak’s new Color Management Module (CMM) with black point compensation. Kodak’s CMM joins a roster of different CMMs that Quark makes available within QuarkXPress 7.
While design software continues to improve, it’s important to remember that many of the benefits manifest themselves on newer computer platforms—particularly Intel-based Macs. Especially for tackling the larger files created by wide format designers, powerful processors and ample memory can make or break the software experience.