Adobe PageMaker 7

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Hardly a major release but the new PostScript/PDF functionality extends the old favourite's shelf-life.

PageMaker was the program that invented the whole concept of desktop publishing way back in 1985. What made the program so revolutionary was the way it took traditional design methods, involving the paste-up of typeset text and screened images, and simply translated them to the computer environment. Ironically the secret of PageMaker's early success became the reason for its later problems as its largely manual approach just wasn't suited to more advanced requirements such as handling longer documents, Web repurposing and scriptability.

Adobe's solution was radical. It stopped development of PageMaker - apart from the almost entirely cosmetic 6.5 Plus - and started again from scratch. The result was the totally new InDesign, a next-generation DTP application intended to take over from PageMaker and to take the fight to Quark XPress. But it didn't turn out quite as Adobe planned. The behind-the-scenes advances in InDesign made little practical difference so, not only did InDesign fail to challenge XPress, very few PageMaker users made the transition either.

So now with this unexpected upgrade has Adobe recognised the reality of the marketplace? Is PageMaker back from the dead with a major transfusion of new blood? Or is this just another cynical attempt to wring as much revenue as possible out of the dying patient?

PageMaker has always recognised that by its nature any DTP application must lie at the heart of a larger workflow incorporating text and graphics from different sources. As such the first advance in the new release is the updating of PageMaker's import filters. For text the most important file format is Microsoft Word and PageMaker 7 now supports Word 2000 documents complete with support for index and table of contents markers and footnotes and endnotes. There still seems to be trouble importing Word styles however so I was forced to fall back on the improved RTF import.

More work has gone into improving PageMaker's support for graphics and especially for files produced with Adobe's own applications. In particular PageMaker 7 now supports files in Photoshop's native PSD and Illustrator 9's AI format. The support for the bitmap-based PSD is relatively unproblematic and means that users can now work with a single image file rather than juggling layered PSD and flattened TIFF versions. Strangely though there is no command to automatically open the placed PSD back into Photoshop.

PageMaker 7 can place native Photoshop PSD and Illustrator AI files.

Support for Illustrator 9's AI files is rather more complicated. To begin with the dialog is actually the same dialog as for importing Acrobat PDF files as Illustrator 9's native format is now PDF-based. However PageMaker doesn't have Illustrator 9's flattening technology so is unable to display or print transparency effects. Looking at the readme file it's not too hot on Illustrator 9's spot colour, blends, gradients or feathering either. Generally it looks as if it's better to stick to the tried and tested EPS route especially as the EPS filter has been updated to support PostScript Level 3 which is essential if you're intending to produce in-RIP separations.

As well as supporting the import of Acrobat 5's PDF 1.4 format files, PageMaker 7 can also now produce them thanks to the bundling of the latest Distiller 5. This ability to quickly create electronic versions of any project that can then be viewed in the free Acrobat Reader program has been a great strength of PageMaker since version 6 and is becoming even more significant as PDF also establishes itself as the preferred medium for commercial print.

PageMaker now offers up-to-date and fully integrated PDF export.

Adobe hasn't just bundled Distiller with PageMaker 7, it has completely incorporated it via the revamped Export PDF command. This now provides a tabbed dialog in which you can manage how article threads are handled, set up password security and so on. Using the Edit Job Options command you can also take control over all Distiller's settings such as colour, font and compression handling. You can even use the Embed Tags in PDF option to create PDF files which can reflow depending on the screen size they are viewed on.

It's not all good news. By its manual nature PageMaker isn't ideally suited to creating reflowable PDFs, one reader has already been in touch to report problems with fonts in embedded OLE tables and no doubt the next InDesign will go much further with support for advanced features such as PDF transparency. Even so PDF output remains one of PageMaker's major strengths and the updated support is definitely version 7's major selling point.

So apart from its new import and export capabilities what new power does PageMaker 7 offer? Adobe is now pushing PageMaker as a business-oriented solution and is making much of its new data merge capabilities. Using the new Data Merge palette you can link to an external source and add variable data to your publications to create personalized publications. Data can be previewed on screen, empty lines can be removed, custom layouts can be created and images can be linked to and embedded.

The Data Merge palette offers personalized publications but is extremely clunky.

A bit of inspection though immediately reveals limitations. To begin with you can't link to actual databases but only to comma-delimited text files. When it comes to merging you also find that there's no real control with no way of conditionally selecting the records you want to print. More importantly you can't merge directly to the printer as the system works by copying and pasting pages to a new file. For short local print runs the data merge will do the job, but the system isn't scalable and hardly state-of-the-art.

And incredibly that's it for new power! So how can Adobe possibly claim that PageMaker is a business DTP solution? The obvious competition is Microsoft Publisher - PageMaker 7 even offers a converter updated to support Publisher 2000 files - and at first the comparison looks embarrassing. PageMaker's templates and clip art are frankly dreadful while features such as its macro-based data merge look prehistoric compared to the latest Publisher's ODBC-compliant Mail Merge. There's no doubt which program offers the most power and the better working experience.

But desktop publishing is a special case in that ultimately it is judged by its output -and here the tables are turned. Thanks to its PostScript and PDF-based control, PageMaker is able to offer both simple Acrobat electronic publishing and reliable commercial print. For in-house print Publisher wins hands-down but it doesn't offer direct PDF support and for colour-separated work its reliability is suspect whereas thousands of PageMaker projects go to successful commercial print every day.

Ultimately the test of any DTP program is whether it produces the goods and for most simple jobs the program I - and thousands of others - still turn to first is PageMaker. Clearly Adobe has moved its development effort elsewhere but, by updating PageMaker's PostScript and PDF support, it has done just enough to keep the program a going concern - and a lot of users will be grateful for that.

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Tom Arah

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System Requirements: Pentium 200 or higher, 48MB RAM, 175MB disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 or NT 4 (with SP 5 or 6), SVGA, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

September 2001

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