Top 10 desktop publishing programs. (Compute's Getting Started With: Desktop Publishing) (Buyers Guide)
by Bill Harrel
The trick to selecting a desktop publishing package is finding the one that best suits your needs. If, for example, you want to publish a simple, four-page newsletter for your company, you don't need a program designed for creating process-color separations or generating long, multiple-section documents. Usually, programs with these high-end, professional publishing features are expensive and difficult to learn and use.
Conversely, if your application calls for a DTP powerhouse that can handle prepress color or compile long works, an economically minded program designed for busy small business managers won't satisfy you. Such programs are long on convenience and short on the precision and features needed for professional results. Again, you should know what you require before you buy. Otherwise, you might end up with a package incapable of publishing the types of documents you need. Or--perhaps worse still--you could find yourself with a program too complicated to learn on an already too-busy schedule.
The 10 DTP packages in this review are a diverse lot. They range in price from $50 for Spinnaker's Easy Working Desktop Publisher to $900 for QuarkXPress.
I've placed them in the order I think would be most useful to COMPUTE readers. However, these assessments are based on my overall opinion of each program and not necessarily according to the tasks they excel at. Read each listing and determine which comes closest to your page layout needs.
Of all the packages listed here, PagePlus is the best bargain. It provides 80 percent of the functionality of some high-end programs for less than a tenth of the cost. This is the only low-cost product that supports both spot and process color separations, and PagePlus has several other useful features that make it a desirable alternative to investing in an expensive, hard-to-learn professional product.
Features include: a powerful table editor; text frames that can easily link and jump text from one frame to another (which is great for newsletters); and a ChangeBar that lets you assign line weights, colors, and many other attributes with a few mouse clicks. You can move rulers into your editing area to easily measure and resize objects.
The $60 price tag is incredible, but for another $39 you get the PagePlus BumperPack, which includes more than 100 True-Type fonts and several hundred clip art images. PagePlus comes with several useful manuals that cover the basics of desktop publishing, including some excellent design tips.
2. Microsoft Publisher
Microsoft Publisher provides the most help to the novice. It has an online tutorial that introduces you to the program and most of its features. The program's PageWizards, a set of interactive macros, automatically create many types of documents--brochures, newsletters, flyers, business cards. Pop-up cue cards, or dialogs, appear at stages throughout the layout process providing hints and information about program features. And the documentation contains a wealth of information about page layout and typesetting.
The PageWizards feature is unique to Microsoft Publisher. Nobody else has anything like it. When you open the program, PageWizards is one of the startup options. Then, based on your answers to several questions about tone, size, number of columns, and so on, PageWizards creates your document. All you do is replace existing sample text and graphics with your own.
Microsoft Publisher still doesn't support color separations--a serious limitation. But it does ship with WordArt, a feature that lets you create a wealth of special effects with TrueType fonts. You also can use WordArt with Microsoft Word and several other Microsoft products.
Of the top four professional packages, PageMaker is the most powerful, versatile, and easiest to use. It handles long documents, short documents, and color all reasonably well. This is the program for those who publish all types of documents.
PageMaker's process color separations are powerful and straightforward. And if you're unfamiliar with prepress separations, the documentation includes a full-color booklet explaining the process and how to get the best results.
Another exciting feature is Panose font matching. When you open a document in PageMaker that contains fonts not on your system, Panose searches for the nearest match and alerts you that it's about to make a substitution. If you don't like Panose's choice, you can choose any other font installed in Windows. And you can save Panose substitutions for future use, allowing PageMaker to always substitute the same fonts. This is especially useful if you use fonts from several vendors, which often have different names. Service bureaus will find it handy for matching the myriad fonts their customers use.
You can't go wrong with this program.
4. Express Publisher
As long as your documents don't need to be color separated or contain a lot of pages, Express Publisher is a strong program. Express Publisher's ability to rotate text at any angle and easily jump text from one frame to another makes it especially suited for one-color newsletters and newspaper display ads. Also helpful in these kinds of documents is the program's free text feature, which lets you stretch and manipulate text as you would in a draw program. The program also comes with TextAppeal--a type special effects program similar to Adobe TypeAlign or Bitstream MakeUp.
Express Publisher has several drawbacks. It doesn't let you create either spot or process color separations, so your output is limited to black and white. Also, the program supports only 48 letter-size pages, and there's no way to compile short document files into longer works.
The real problem with this package is that it has been around for awhile and needs upgrading. The features that made it stand out last year--text and graphics rotation, and text frame linking--are supported by many of this year's products.
5. Easy Working Desktop Publisher
This program packs many useful features into a low-priced, easy-to-use program. It works similarly to a word processor. A button bar and ribbon across the top of the editing area makes setting tabs and margins a snap, and you also can use it to change fonts and format text.
Instead of a lot of complicated options, the toolbox consists of two easy-to-use tools: a text tool and a pointer. One manipulates text and the other works with graphics and frames.
But the real story is in the program's extensive list of advanced options, especially those designed for working with long documents. You can't compile multiple document files into one long work, as in Ventura, Frame-Maker, and PageMaker, but you can insert chapter breaks (similar to Word for Windows section breaks). Chapter breaks let you format blocks of pages as separate sections, making long documents easier to manage. With the chapter break features, you can create separate headers and footers for each chapter, restart page numbering, and even renumber footnotes.
A couple of other long-document features worth mentioning are the automatic table of contents and index generators. This is exceptional functionality for a product in this price range.
This is an entry-level program designed for novice desktop publishers--which means it should contain features to help you lay out your documents. Easy Working Desktop Publisher falls short here. The templates consist of sectioned off pages, or shells. Other packages reviewed here ship with templates that contain sample text and graphics, so you can see what your document will look like before you choose a template.
Of all the DTP packages, QuarkXPress has the most powerful color features. However, it lacks long-document features, making QuarkXPress not quite as versatile as PageMaker. While PageMaker, Ventura, and PagePlus all support process-color separations, QuarkXPress provides more options for assuring successful color reproduction at the print shop. Two important options are traps and spreads, which let you compensate for press registration irregularities. To trap and spread with PageMaker, you have to use a separate utility, such as Aldus TrapWise. The problem with this approach is that you must have your separations trapped at the service bureau, which means you can't control the entire process.
QuarkXPress provides extensive control of graphics and fonts. The Picture Usage option, for example, displays a list of all pictures in your document. Clicking on the Show Me button in the Picture Usage dialog box takes you to the page and location of the graphic image. QuarkXPress doesn't, however, provide a way to copy all the pictures in your document to a new drive or directory. Instead, you must use File Manager and then re-establish the links after opening your document. This makes preparing documents for remote printing troublesome.
Like PageMaker, this complex program is remarkably easy to use. In fact, the two programs are so much alike that you can forget which one you're working in. Both use a layout-table metaphor--you can grab and move objects on and off your pages easily, similar to conventional paste-up.
7. Ventura Publisher
Ventura Publisher is the program of choice for many professional book and catalog publishers. It provides a wealth of features for stringing several document files together in one long work. It also provides process-color separations and other features usually associated with short-document publishing, but the program is big and awkward to use, it's just easier to use something else.
Ventura's list of long-document options is extensive. Not only can you compile several chapters into a longer work, renumber the pages, and then create tables of contents, indices, and other lists; but you also can automatically renumber the figure and table numbers in captions. All the other programs (except FrameMaker, if you understand its variable language well enough) make you go back into each chapter and renumber captions manually.
The program's variables options lets you quickly update portions of your documents, such as parts numbers or product names, globally with a few keystrokes. And, since Ventura's table editor treats table text the same as other text, you also can use variables to keep your data current in long grids and other word charts.
8. PFS: Publisher
Similar to a word processor, PFS: Publisher sports a button bar for formatting text and working with frames, and it has some long-document features uncommon to DTP packages in this price range. Although the program comes with 50 templates, they're simply empty shells devoid of text and graphics. This really doesn't give novice users a good idea what they will look like when fleshed out with text and graphics. A handy cataloging feature, which lets you view templates before you open them, saves time.
PFS: Publisher has easy-to-use index and table of contents generators. A table editor lets you create word and number charts. The irregular text wrap feature, which contours text around irregular-shaped graphics, works similarly to the same feature in PageMaker or QuarkXPress. Both the table editor and text wrap feature are simple and powerful. A QuickButtons feature lets you assign commands to a floating tool palette, so that often-used options are a mouse click away.
This program is a long-document workhorse. But it's also big, awkward, and hard to use. Its lack of conformity to standard Windows conventions also makes it difficult to learn.
An impressive feature is FrameMaker's ability to publish online documents. In combination with an optional Frame Technology product, FrameReader, you can publish documents that are similar to Windows Help files. Your online documents can have hypertext links between bitmaps and text, or between text in one section and text in another. These links allow you to jump from topic to topic by clicking on highlighted text or a bitmap. This is a great way to create online manuals for employees, or even hypertext training sessions. Online publishing isn't big yet, but it's likely to be more popular in the near future.
While FrameMaker lacks process-color support, its spot color options are extensive. However, version 4.0 (which should be available by the time you read this) has been completely reworked. It has done away with some of the awkward terminology and non-Windows Common User Interface (CUI) conventions. Expect Version 4.0 to be a much stronger DTP market contender.
10. Publish It!
Although Publish It! is easy to use, it's plagued by limitations. It doesn't support several standard DTP features, including color separations and crop marks, which are essential if you plan to get documents reproduced at a print shop. Publish It! is geared toward reproduction on laser printers, which have definite quality, quantity, and page size limitations.
This program isn't really suited for most business publishing. In some cases, you'd be better off with a word processor, especially for long documents. You should consider it only if you have no DTP skills and need quick-and-easy, unsophisticated layouts. Otherwise, almost any of the other products listed here would serve you better.