Quark XPress 4

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New drawing power and improved long document handling mean that XPress  remains the print-orientated publishing program to beat. Doubts remain  though over Quark's commitment to the PC platform.

Quark screenshot

Quark XPress is a paradox. After ten years of success on the Mac it has become virtually synonymous with professional DTP, but even after five years on the PC its presence is minimal. This much-awaited latest release is intended to redress that imbalance. Quark hopes it will not only satisfy the existing Mac users, but also seize the high ground in the Windows market. However, it is going to be an uphill struggle. To understand how the same program has come to be such a success on one platform and such a failure on another it's necessary to look back.

XPress's major strength has always been its combination of hands-on control and design automation. On the Mac its only real competitor was - and still is - PageMaker. PageMaker's success stemmed from its mimicking of the traditional method of paste-up with its resizable text blocks and images. XPress offered the same sort of flexibility and creativity with its text and picture boxes, but it took things further. With advanced features, such as the ability to scale text proportionately when resizing text boxes and to save pages directly as EPS files, it took the design-intensive crown.

Just as importantly, XPress also offered automation and efficiency. In particular its use of automatic text boxes with automatic page insertion allowed it to handle longer files. Because these documents are based on master pages it became possible to radically redesign a layout, sloping text boxes or changing the number of columns for example, with all changes happening instantly throughout the entire publication. The use of text style-sheets offered the same level of consistency, control and efficiency when formatting. Crucially, the use of text boxes rather than text blocks meant that new files could be flowed into the same layout enabling the same design to be used repeatedly.

XPress offered a mix of functionality somewhere between the simple creativity of PageMaker and the structured efficiency of Ventura, a combination that was irresistible for one group of users in particular. The ability to set-up good-looking design-intensive layouts that could be used time and time again was absolutely tailor-made for the production of regular publications - PC Pro included. The match was perfect. Too perfect. With the high-end Mac-market in the bag there was no incentive for Quark to look elsewhere to broaden its appeal. Worse, because the program was now mission-critical to a mainly conservative user base happy to pay over the odds, there was suddenly a strong argument against continuous development - if it ain't broke don't fix it.

When Quark did eventually port XPress over to the PC the situation couldn't have been more different. To begin with competition was intense. PageMaker and Ventura were fighting it out between them for the professional market while pushed from below by the new breed of budget programs such as PagePlus. There was no ready market for XPress to mop up especially at the price it was asking. Still its strengths would have ensured that it did reasonably well if it weren't for the compatibility problems. The first Windows version simply seemed unreliable, particularly when it came to the all-important area of output. The general advice was to wait until the next major release when all teething problems would be sorted.

It's been a very long wait. Loyal XPress users have been waiting around five years for this latest upgrade which in computer terms is an eternity. When the last significant release came out Windows 95 was still a gleam in Bill Gates' eye and PC Pro had yet to hit the news-stands. Not surprisingly, the expectations of the new release are intense. Is XPress 4 finally going to capture the Windows market or is it simply too little too late? Quark has certainly had enough time to come up with something very special, but does it deliver?

When the program first loads, it initially looks like nothing has changed as the interface is virtually identical to that in 3.3. To many users this will be reassuring, but it is also disappointing. In particular the typical Mac reliance on floating palettes is beginning to look very dated and, with over ten available, can severely cramp the available workspace. Moreover, while other programs at least allow palettes to be grouped or rolled up, XPress offers nothing to alleviate the problem. In fact closer inspection shows that there have been two introductions to the XPress interface which, although very simple, make a huge difference. The first is the introduction of a context menu accessed with the right mouse button. This offers clipboard and view commands and access to the ubiquitious Modify dialog box. In common with most other dialogs, this is now tabbed so that multiple settings, for controlling a box's position, formatting, and runaround for example, can all be made at the same time. Such features might not be leading edge, but they certainly boost productivity.

Closer inspection also reveals that there have been changes to the XPress toolbar. A number of the existing icons now offer access to fly-outs from which variations of the tool can be selected. Many of these variations are completely new and lie at the heart of XPress's new functionality. In particular the new Bézier and Freehand box and line tools mean that any custom shape can be created either precisely, by setting points and manipulating curves, or more flexibly, by sketching onscreen. Further creative options are available through the new ability to merge and combine boxes and to convert selected text into editable Bézier outlines.

Such power combined with existing formatting strengths, such as the ability to apply advanced two-coloured blends, opens up a number of striking effects. To create an eye-catching headline, for example, it is possible to convert text to Bézier boxes, edit the individual outlines, combine the letters and apply a radial fill. Even more impressive effects are possible when a text or image file is loaded into the boxes. This opens up a huge range of creative options with text and graphics fitted to any shape that the designer can imagine. Perhaps the most obvious effect, and one you can expect to see a lot more of, will be the ability to create graphical headlines made up of bitmaps.

With the ability to easily create graphical masks from shapes or from scratch you might think that there was little more XPress could offer. It does though with its ability to create automatic masks. This is done through the clipping panel of the picture box modify dialog. Using this it is possible to pick up any clipping boundaries, paths or alpha channels that have already been defined in the image with an external photo-editor like Photoshop. If none have, however, you can still quickly create your own by automatically scanning for non-white areas of the image. There are options for setting thresholds and noise levels to fine-tune the results.

Once a clipping path has been established it is possible to use it as the basis of a text-wrap runaround with the addition of a user-specified offset and smoothness level. Another major advance for text-wrapping is the ability to flow text around all sides of an image. In the past, XPress took the purist line that this was undesirable as it affected legibility and so it only allowed text to flow around one side of an image within a single column. This discipline has now gone completely out of the window and it is even possible to flow text within the holes of an image whether readable or not.

As well as flowing within boxes, XPress also now allows text to be flown along paths. Curves are created with either the orthogonal, Bézier or freehand text-path tools and, once selected with the Content tool, text is added as soon as you begin typing. It is possible to flip the text and to choose between four options for orientating letters with regard to the line. It is even possible to choose whether text alignment should be based on the top, middle or centre of the line and whether it should be based on the text ascender, descender or baseline - though for some reason it is impossible to set an offset.

XPress doesn't just offer fine control over the text, the formatting of the path can also be controlled precisely. There are now 11 default dash and stripe styles and it is also possible to create your own customised versions. Each line style is fully scalable so that it can be used successfully at any size. Each line style can be used for framing boxes, for stroking Bézier curves and also for adding rules to text and text styles. It is even now possible to control the gap colour - the colour that appears between lines and dashes - though for some reason this isn't possible when applying text rules.

With such design power allied to such control, XPress leaves DTP rivals like PageMaker far behind. However there are some disappointments and limitations. There is no easy way to add regularly-shaped polygonal boxes, for example, let alone more complex shapes like spirals. The automatic image masking is limited to dropping out white and there are no bitmap-based effects. Object handling is also fairly basic - with this amount of drawing power it would make much more sense if it was XPress that offered layers rather than PageMaker. For advanced features like these or many others, such as lens effects, texture fills, enveloping and so on, a dedicated drawing package is still the best solution. However, for a huge range of text-heavy but design-intensive projects the mix of power that XPress offers is ideal.

As well as boosting its graphic design power, Quark has also turned its attention to the other end of the publishing spectrum - long document management. In many ways, with its use of master pages, automatic text boxes and style-sheets, XPress should be well-suited for the creation of books and manuals, but this has always been a surprisingly weak area. Now though its core capabilities have been extended. The introduction of character style-sheets, for example, helps boost formatting efficiency and consistency within paragraphs while the new maximum permissible numbers of styles, colours, tabs and paragraphs effectively remove any size limit on single publications.

Much more important though is the new ability to manage multiple chapters. This is achieved through the Book palette which allows chapters to be opened and added from anywhere across a network. Chapters can be reorganised and printed and it is possible to synchronise page-numbering, colours, styles and so on throughout the publication. Another major introduction is the ability to generate tables of contents and tables of figures with the Lists palette. This searches documents looking for specified paragraph-based style sheets and adding them to a list. This list can then be automatically alphabetized, formatted and added to the document and then easily updated in future. A nice touch is the fact that the list is shown in the palette and can be used for navigation - very handy when dealing with long documents. Indexing is now handled in a similar way with a specialist XTension included on the CD.

XPress's long document management has certainly been enhanced, but it still lags behind programs like Ventura and FrameMaker. The use of style-sheets could be expanded to handle properties like background colour, bulleting and numbering. Automatic layout could also be dramatically improved with the ability to specify side-heads and straddle-heads, while the ability to include cross-references is essential for many longer documents. In fact text handling could be improved all round with a dedicated story editor that allowed text to be dealt with separately from the layout. The biggest disappointment of all though is the lack of any cell-based table editing. For much technical work this is essential and XPress's omission rules it out of the running for many design jobs.

Another huge area of weakness is XPress's electronic outputting options - or rather the complete lack of them. The latest XPress still does not support output directly to the Adobe Acrobat format. Many publishers who would like to be able to offer their publications not just on paper but as files for download from the web or for browsing on CD are unable to do so because of the lack of integrated support. In fact with Adobe Distiller it is possible to create basic PDFs, but it is impossible to automatically set up tables of contents, bookmarks and so on. With the increasing proliferation of PDFs, and their likely use in Postscript-based print production environments, this is a format that any professional publishing program must cater for.

The lack of support for arch-rival Adobe's format is more than just an oversight. Quark has spent much of the last few years developing and promoting its own electronic publishing format, Immedia. However its inferior specification, proprietary nature and the fact that files can only be created with the Mac version of XPress have limited its take-up to niche markets. Incredibly though, in its attempt to push Immedia, Quark has even chosen to ignore the Web. There are simply no options for outputting pages to HTML from XPress. When budget programs like Publisher can automatically recreate their pages as HTML tables and high-end programs like FrameMaker can repurpose their publications as ready-linked sites, this really is a huge limitation. The phrase "head in the sand", springs to mind.

Having said this, of course, XPress's core market remains paper-based print. This has always been a huge strength with unmatched features such as trapping control that can be set at a publication, colour or object level. High-end support has been boosted in the new release with ICC-based colour management from Kodak and the ability to produce hi-fi colour based on the six plate Hexachrome system. Glossy magazine publishers have been crying out for this for some time now and, with XPress in the fold, the system should become more widespread. Lower down the scale, for those producing spot colour work, the ability to define multi-ink colours based on percentages of existing colours should help make the most of tighter budgets.

Even for paper output, though, XPress has some surprising limitations and weaknesses. While the new tabbed print dialog consolidates a number of features including print styles, for instance, the so-called "print preview" only shows the basic orientation of the page. With a program like Corel Draw it is possible to preview each colour-separated plate and to interactively change layouts and impositions. Potentially more serious is the question of Postscript support. This had serious problems in the previous PC release of XPress which eventually led some outputting bureaux to stop accepting its files. The latest version now has a Postscript error handler to help isolate problems which is a step forward, but hardly reassuring. More worrying still, there seems to be no mention of support for the latest Postscript version 3 despite the fact that this offers a number of advantages for high-end processing.

It's too soon to tell if the PC-based XPress's outputting is now reliable, but it's certainly true that the program as a whole seems more stable. I was slightly worried when the installation routine fell over and failed to create a program group, but since then XPress has felt very solid. Even complicated procedures, such as repositioning multiple images with complex runarounds, happen instantaneously and seem well within the program's comfort zone. Trying to do the same in Corel Draw would always call for a quick save to file first, just to be on the safe side. In a way then XPress 4 does now finally seem comfortable under the Windows environment.

However there's a lot more to true PC-compatibility than a lack of bugs and GPFs. To begin with there is the level of usability that Windows 95 users have come to expect. Many of XPress's failings, such as the lack of a toolbar or property bar, are common to most Mac-derived programs including PageMaker, but there's really no excuse for the inability to preview fonts in a high-end DTP program. Just as restricting are the measly one level of undo and the rudimentary online help. These are serious limitations, but in the end it's the smaller niggles, such as the fact that the Get Picture and Get Text commands both default to the same directory and that there is no list of recently opened files, that gradually mount up and tell against XPress. Sorting these out would have taken Quark no time at all, but would have saved its users plenty.

In most cases the user will be able to live with such failings, but there are more fundamental problems with Quark's high-handed approach to PC compatibility. In terms of graphic support, for example, XPress can only import a total of ten vector and bitmap formats. Admittedly these include the most important - TIFF, EPS, WMF, GIF and JPEG - but there is no support for the Windows enhanced metafile format or for the increasingly popular PNG. Text formats are even more hard done by. Only tagged ASCII, RTF, WordPerfect and Word files can be imported. Worse, the Word filter has not even been optimised for the latest release so it was unable to read Word 97 files. In the end I was forced into saving files in Word 2 format which, in addition to being very inconvenient, meant losing out on features like character-based style-sheets.

Going your own way is all very well, but this is definitely going too far. Quark seems to have transferred its mental block from Microsoft's operating system to its word processor. That would be fine if they weren't the operating system and word processor used by the majority of people on the planet. In fact, now I come to think of it, that's obviously why XPress doesn't offer Web support - it's too popular! In a way it's almost funny, but it's also very serious. XPress is an excellent program and this is a major release that reinforces the program's pre-eminence for design-intensive work while boosting its long document capabilities. By all rights it should be the dominant package on the PC as it is on the Mac, but it isn't and, if things continue in the same way, it won't be.

The problem isn't so much with the program itself - the core power and reliability are now there in place - it's with the company. It's now Quark that has to prove its PC-credentials by offering a greater emphasis on usability, more leading-edge power, faster development, more compatibility with existing standards and greater value for money. XPress's splendid isolation might have served the company well in the past, but now Quark would be wise to look around itself and start building some bridges.

Tom Arah

XTensions

One of the new features in the latest XPress is the manager used for controlling the loading of Xtensions - the name given to XPress add-ins. Such plug-in technology is a common feature of many Mac-derived programs allowing the core functionality of a program to be extended. PageMaker users will be familiar with the idea through the numerous Adobe Additions available from the Utilities menu, but the Quark system is far superior. In PageMaker a great deal of power that should be integrated, such as the handling of drop caps and bulleting, is instead left to semi-detached add-ins. Worse, because the technology is based on a rudimentary command-based scripting language, the additions are quite likely to fail. XTensions are built on a far more robust programming base and are much more professional as a result.

In many ways XTension technology has been Quark's secret weapon. With over 450 now available on the Mac they have largely been able to fill the gaps in XPress's own functionality. If a customer needs to be able to tie in their publication to a database, or to create impositions, or to convert PageMaker files, for example, somewhere there will be an available solution. On the Mac then, the installed base of high-end professional users willing to pay handsomely to extend the functionality of the core program has led to a virtuous circle where customer, developer and Quark itself all benefit. In fact, without Xtensions, it is difficult to see how XPress could have survived the long years since its last release.

On the PC though the situation is very different. Here the user tends to expect off-the-shelf, turnkey solutions. If a required feature is missing, the assumption is that it will be there in next year's release - and probably at a lower price. Of course the PC system can work for specialist third-party developers too, but it depends on a much wider user base. With Quark's attempt to treat the PC market as if it is identical to the Mac's, that base is simply not there. As such, the range of XTensions available for the PC is much lower, one of the program's major strengths is lost, the potential market narrows accordingly and there becomes less incentive to try and develop for the PC. In other words the virtuous circle becomes vicious and everyone suffers.

Thankfully there are some encouraging signs that the deadlock might be about to be broken with a number of the larger third-party developers, such as Astrobyte, announcing new PC-based XTensions to accompany the launch of the latest XPress.

Features

5

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

3

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

April 1999


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