A Creativity Suite for the Rest of Us

New, affordable desktop publishing software for the
Macintosh unleashes the power of words and images

By Peter C. Reynolds

Twenty years ago, the Apple Macintosh redefined personal computing by making it easy to combine images with text, inventing what came to be called desktop publishing. But as professionals embraced it, ordinary users were left behind. Even though the iEra extended multimedia capabilities by means of ap
plications such as iMovie and iPhoto, desktop publishing languished, represented by an 800-pound gorilla and a handful of weak contenders. Revisiting this field after a long hiatus, my first reaction was sticker shock. For the cost of the "industry standard" page-layout application, the local Epson dealer would sell me a dozen Stylus color printers--ink cartridges included! The entry-level "creative suite," consisting of page layout, image processing, and digital drawing applications, cost nineteen Epsons, a sizable sum if printers were money. Was it possible to find Macintosh applications that could produce, say, a state-of-the-art newsletter for $100--a creativity suite for the rest of us?

Fortunately, over the past two years software developers have produced a smorgasbord of new applications that make creativity affordable on a Macintosh once again. In this review, I focus on text creation and page layout programs, especially those that take advantage of Tiger and Leopard's text, color, and graphics capabilities, while excluding products with Windows-inspired interfaces, those pitched to print professionals, and those that cost more than $130. 

I have tested all the products reviewed here by creating original text in each, then adding antialiased text, photos, and drawings from a range of affordable graphic applications, specifically Acorn, ArtRage, LiveQuartz, Painter, Pixelmator, Seashore, and ZeusDraw. I also tested export and import functions in a variety of file formats, including those that support transparency and multiple layers, as well as those used by copy shops and on the Worldwide Web. To assess the minimum configuration, all applications were evaluated using a Macintosh PowerBook G4 (1 GHz) with 768 MB of RAM and Mac OS 10.4.10, even though all the applications are universal and Leopard-ready.
Most newsletters and blogs integrate text produced elsewhere, and for putting words on a page, it is hard to beat Nisus Writer. It has been on Macintosh computers since they came in beige, and the current generation takes advantage of OS X typographic features to consolidate formatting options in a single panel that pops out of the text window, making for a pleasingly uncluttered interface that is a delight to serious writers (Nisus Writer Express v.3.0, $45; http://www.nisus.com). Another well-regarded word processor is Mellel v.2.2 (http://www.redlers.com, $49), which emphasizes support for a multilingual user base, especially Middle Eastern languages. Apple's new release, Pages '08 (see below), combines a good word processor with image-processing and page-layout functionality. And the old workhorse, Microsoft Word, sports a new release (Word 2008, http://microsoft.com, $149 for students and teachers when included in Microsoft Office), but it is still more expensive than competing products and geared to corporate needs. 

Scrivener v.1.11 (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html, $39.95), bends the categories by organizing literary content the way iPhoto organizes visual content. Suppose you are writing a review of software products. You have manuals in PDF, screen shots saved as PNG files, earlier drafts you wrote in Word, and some audio narration recorded from product demonstrations at a trade show. Sure, you can put all of these sources in the same folder, but when added to a Scrivener project, their titles display in a panel on the left side of the word processor window. If you select a PDF or text document, it displays in front of you, with an optional split window so you can compare two documents simultaneously. For audio files, you can easily control the audio in one half of the split screen while transcribing it in the other. If you are a spatial thinker, you can display and rearrange text files as cards tacked to a cork board, a verbal analog to the slide sorter in PowerPoint. Also, Scrivener's native word processor, which is easy to use, exports drafts in common formats, so you are not locked in. Like a pad of Post-It notes, I found myself reaching for it time and again.

For years, the Mac SOHO limped along with Microsoft Word 2004, which incorporates a page-layout mode into the word processor. Although it is possible to create an attractive, multipage document in Word, the thicket of menu trees does not invite the casual user. But with the arrival of Pages '08 from Apple (http://www.apple.com), the long-suffering author of the text-flowed document has finally found a home on the Macintosh. Pages '08 combines a solid word processor with some advanced page-layout features to make the creation of attractive documents intuitive, fast, and affordable. I used one of the many well-designed templates to create a five-page newsletter with three multipage stories, plus sidebars and inline graphics--it looks great! For corporate compatibility, users can track changes to the text, create charts and tables, and save documents in Word format. Pages '08 comes bundled with Numbers (a spreadsheet) and Keynote (for presentations) in the iWork suite ($79), making it a bargain, especially when compared to Microsoft Office 2008.

But suppose you want the level of control that printing presses and production runs require? Is that affordable too? Unlike Pages, frame-based page layout begins with an empty rectangular page instead of an empty text file. For the Mac, there are two low-price contenders in this niche, Swift Publisher and iCalamus, but only the latter delivers the goods for multipage documents.

With Swift Publisher v.2.2 (http://www.belight.com, $44.95), I used the built-in text and image tools with some imported artwork to create a CD cover, a book jacket, and letterhead stationary--fairly swiftly too. The interface is intuitive and easy to learn, but there are gaps in its usability. Even though the download edition advertises  "professionally designed templates," there is not a single one for a business card, presumably because the company also sells a collection of business card templates for an additional $34.95. Although one can still make a business card template in Swift Publisher using a real one as a guide, there is no such easy work-around for the program's claims of "publisher." Unlike Pages and Word, it cannot link text to an empty text box on another page. Once a text file is copied into the first text box, the overflow can only be linked to a subsequent location by physically drawing a new box each time or by replicating the current text box on a newly created blank page. In short, Swift Publisher is fine for a series of one-page layouts, but if you are producing a document with stories that continue on other pages, it will make you wish for a Mac IIci running PageMaker.

Fortunately, iCalamus v.1.11(http://www.icalamus.net, 89 euros for students and teachers, €129 otherwise) bridges the gap between amateur and professional frame-based publishing. Admittedly, moving from Pages '08 to iCalamus--from California to Germany--I experienced culture shock, for the interface is a spartan, monochrome gray reminiscent of classic QuarkXPress. But by following the manual's step-by-step instructions, I quickly set up a two-page spread with mirrored text boxes. Then I imported a book-length RTF file into the first box--and watched with satisfaction as my two-page layout propagated to four hundred pages of laid-out text with formatting preserved. I also created a three-page newsletter with empty frames on each page, then imported artwork and three multipage stories, one starting on the last page just to see if it links backwards--it does. One can place a graphic from a file into a predefined frame (or resize the frame to match the import), while pasting design elements to different layers, making the creation of templates straightforward. The iCalamus program includes a library of empty frames for a range of paper sizes, including business cards; but it has no predesigned templates with canned images and designs.

For testing its graphic capability, I created two book jackets and a set of letterhead stationary, and all looked professional when printed on a photo-quality printer. The built-in vector-drawing tools enable last-minute enhancements and corrections, but they are not a substitute for the visualization and creative control provided by specialized graphics applications (see below). The built-in word processor, however, is fine for writers who like to type in content that is tailored to the laid-out page. With its robust text flow, precision framing, and long-document capabilities, iCalamus handles like a German car, complementing the effortless, American sedan of Apple Pages. 

If you want to create text that is also visual art, you will need a vector-based program that represents text and shapes as mathematical expressions that can be scaled and printed with minimal visual distortion. Now there are two affordable alternatives to Illustrator, both still in first release: LineForm v.1.3.2 (http;//www.freeverse.com, $79.95) and ZeusDraw v.1.1 (http://www.chromaticbytes.com, $90). Both offer comparable functionality: drawing tools, object creation, layering, Bezier curves, gradients, antialiasing, and tight integration with state-of-the-art OS X color and text. While both applications will get you where you want to go, I prefer ZeusDraw for its elegant text tools and for its integration with the proprietary color picker called Shades (sold separately, $18.95). Both applications have free trial editions, so take them for test drives to see which is best for you.    

The Creativity Suite for the Rest of Us

Macintosh users now have a good selection of affordable desktop publishing applications. For making the alphabet into art, both LineForm and  ZeusDraw provide a good range of drawing and text tools. The innovative Scrivener organizes your literary sources so efficiently you have no excuse but to get to work. For word processing, Mellel, Nisus Writer, and Pages '08 are all excellent products, each with its own strengths. And for laying out the finished page, Swift Publisher, Pages '08, and  iCalamus provide a spectrum of professionalism, ranging from the one-page layout to book-length flows of linked text. In talented hands, these applications in the $100 range can produce visually-attractive, professional-looking pages that can rival the output of far more expensive software.

March 2008

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