Adobe PageMaker 6.5

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Misguided and poorly implemented improvements to the market leader's interface and page layout abilities instead highlight the program's weaknesses in these areas and leave it looking dated.

Adobe PageMaker 6.5

PageMaker 6.0 was the last of the major DTP programs to come out so it should really be the turn of the other major contenders, XPress and Ventura, to show their wares. That's going to be happening soon, but Adobe are clearly hoping to press home their advantage - or at least to minimize the potential threat - with a new upgrade, PageMaker 6.5. The general feeling about version 6.0 was that, although the developments in electronic publishing and new controls over page elements such as grouping, alignment and masking were all welcome, it was actually the kernel of the program - its interface and its core layout capability - that were most in need of an overhaul. It is exactly these areas that the latest, Win 95-only, version of PageMaker attempts to address.

On loading the program the new interface is immediately apparent and immediately familiar. Adobe have imported wholesale the look and feel of their flagship photo-editing program Photoshop. What this means is that the old PageMaker on-screen palettes are still there, but now there are even more of them, with the addition of the new Layers and Hyperlinks palettes. And each has been enlarged, most noticeably by the addition of new icon commands for creating and deleting palette elements.

Interfaces are inevitably something of a matter of taste, but this has to be a backward step. With all of the six main palettes, the toolbox and two plug-in palettes visible, unless you are working on a 20" screen, there is no room left for the page itself. Worse, to meet the new Adobe house style, the most commonly used palettes for styles and colours now eat up considerably more screen space without offering any more feedback or functionality than their previous incarnations. On the plus side, the palettes can be tabbed so that, for example, those for master pages and layers can be grouped together. Even better, when you are really irritated - and you will be - you can always hide all palettes with the new Tab keyboard shortcut for toggling their display.

PageMaker's idiosyncratic menu system has also been rationalised to some extent. The Utilities menu for example is no longer the third after File and Edit, and the commands for controlling the display and use of guides have sensibly been moved to a new View menu. On the other hand, there are still plenty of oddities such as the use of a Place command rather than the more usual Import. Adobe have also tried to rationalise keyboard shortcuts to ensure that they will be the same across all their programs. Having said that, their choice of key combinations is bizarre. I thought shortcuts like Shift + Ctrl + 8 to toggle the display of the master pages palette had died out with WordStar.

Perhaps the change that will make most difference to old PageMaker hands is the use of shortcut menus. In the past right-clicking changed between a normal and a full page view, a task so common that it become second nature. Now right-clicking calls up a context-sensitive shortcut menu so that, if you have an image selected for example, you can change its text wrap settings or its link status. Again, although the move is undoubtedly a sensible one, the system has not been carried through completely. To change the image's brightness or to apply a plug-in effect, for example, you will still have to resort to the main Element menu.

All in all, the changes to the PageMaker environment are at best a missed opportunity. Little thought seems to have been given to ease-of-use and there is an austerity throughout the interface that at times seems deliberately off-putting. It's difficult to believe, but the market leading high-end DTP package still does not offer a typeface preview in its font dialogs - presumably you are expected to know exactly what each of the hundrends of fonts on your system look like or you shouldn't be using the program in the first place. When other programs are offering features such as multiple levels of undo, walk-through wizards and complete customisation, the fact that PageMaker's interface cannot even stretch to a button bar is pretty pathetic.

One of the most obvious of the new features of the interface are the three new rectangular, elliptical and polygonal frame tools. Frames are an entirely new category of page element that have been introduced to strengthen PageMaker's core layout abilities. Although they are new to PageMaker, frames are the basis of the layout capabilities of almost all competing programs. The question is why has PageMaker made such a U-turn and what do frames offer?

Essentially each frame is a container for either text or graphics. This has the immediate advantage that frames can be used to set up layouts ready for adding text and pictures later. This ability to establish a page design independent of content is more or less compulsory for jobs like newsletters and magazines where layouts are repeated and deadlines are tight. Frames also have the advantages that they can be given a fill and an outline and also allow a gutter - a distance between the edge of the frame and its contents - to be set. This is extremely useful for items like boxed tickets or adverts where previously it was necessary to align separate text blocks and drawn rectangles. Finally with non-rectangular frames it is possible to create striking text and graphic effects such as text flashes.

So how do the PageMaker frames work in practice? First you add your frames by dragging with the appropriate tool on screen. Each frame looks identical to its equivalent drawing element except that when it is empty it is indicated by a blue cross. To fill the frame you can select it with the text tool and start typing, or you can place an external file into it, or you can select both the frame and a graphic or text block and use the Attach Contents sub-command from the Frame command on the Element menu.

The main controls offered over the frame are all available from the Frame Options dialog box, which again must be reached through the Element menu rather than through the more natural shortcut menu. For graphics it is possible to size the image to fit the frame, or the frame to fit the image, or to clip the image like a mask. For text it is possible to set different gutters for each side of a rectangular, or a single gutter for a non-rectangular frame. It is also possible to set a vertical alignment, so that text need not necessarily appear at the top of the frame. To create a label, for example, the address can be set to be centred within its frame.

These features are welcome, but compared to other programs the functionality is pretty basic. It is impossible to set a gutter between a graphic and its frame, for example, and there is no vertical justification to spread paragraphs evenly throughout the height of the frame to ensure that text lines up at the bottom of the page. More importantly the implementation just doesn't seem finished. Frames cannot be made to automatically flow to create more pages as needed, while trying to create a triangular text flash came down to a near unworkable matter of trial and error. Even more worrying, in one instance detaching a graphic from a frame led to its complete disappearance though hopefully this should be due to the review program's late beta status.

All in all, this first appearance of frames has a very unfinished air about it. Adobe seem to be in at least two minds about the idea, unsure whether to push it as a major new feature or to play it down and say it was never really needed. In the end they seem to have decided that to compete they must offer the functionality, but they are still clearly much more comfortable with the comparative simplicity of their existing text blocks and freeform graphics. For the future the move to frames is undoubtedly going to be significant, but this seems to be a trial run.

The most powerful feature normally associated with frames and completely missing from the PageMaker implementation is the ability to automatically reformat them, in particular to change the number of columns within a frame and to have the text automatically adapt itself to the new design. For longer documents in particular this can be absolutely crucial and has always been PageMaker's weakest point. For example, if you wanted to see what the book you are working on would look like and how many extra pages it would need, with three columns rather than two you would have to go in and resize the text blocks manually on every single page. And then back again if you preferred it how it was!

Adobe have clearly decided that this weakness had to be addressed and so have brought in an implementation to work with their existing text blocks and freeform graphics. Again this potentially radical addition is virtually hidden away. On the various layout dialogs such as the Column Guides or Document Setup commands there is a new Adjust Layout check box. If this is selected when you change the page's size, orientation, margins or number of columns, the program will automatically resize and move all the relevant text blocks and graphics to fit the new layout.

Or rather that's the theory. The problem is, with its freeform layout system, how does the program know which elements it should move? In fact this is decided according to a snap-to zone parameter set under a Preferences option. What this means in practice is that whenever a page is to be reformatted, PageMaker looks at the current text blocks and images and, if they lie close enough to the existing column guides, tries to format them to the new layout.

In other words, the program is simply mimicking the manual process. The problem of course is that unlike the user the program has no in-built intelligence. As the manual points out, "since a software program can only make a limited set of decisions about page design, you'll want to double-check your pages after adjusting layout," or to put it another way, "don't expect it to work". Reformatting the most basic of formats can be reasonably effective, but trying to change more complex layouts can lead to completely unpredictable results (see walk-through).

Again the new feature has been played down for good reason. Adobe are right that automatic layout adjustment is not an optional add-on for a serious DTP package, but this implementation is not up to the job. An add-on macro solution with a 50% hit rate is not good enough for a process that can fundamentally change the layout throughout a publication. It would have been far more sensible to follow all other packages and limit automatic adjustment to text within frames where control can be that much tighter. By trying to implement a system that can work on freeform layouts, PageMaker 6.5 is trying to run before it can crawl.

The third of PageMaker's main new layout features is its use of layers. Anyone who has used a drawing package will know about layers and anyone who has used Photoshop or Illustrator will immediately recognise the implementation. Using the icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette, new layers can be created and named. Any text, graphic or drawn element added to the layout is then automatically associated with the currently selected layer.

The advantages that follow from this are that the layers can then be easily reordered, locked, hidden and deleted. Suggested uses might be to have a locked layer for the logo and address details on an internal stationery publication, or to have a layer for the text that varies in an advert that changes between regions. Perhaps the most obvious use is in a workgroup environment where an annotations layer would allow the addition of comments that could be hidden before proofing and deleted before final printing.

This is certainly possible, but I'm not convinced that layers are essential in a DTP environment. The capabilities to group and lock objects and to make them non-printing have been available since version 6.0. The only advantage layers can offer is if they make managing these functions easier. Instead, the use of layers adds a whole new level of complexity. For example, if you are cutting and pasting within a document you have to set whether the objects involved will remember their existing layer or move to the currently selected one.

More importantly the use of layers can actually be dangerous. In particular, because it is very easy to forget to select the right layer when adding page elements, it then becomes easy to lock or hide objects by mistake or even to delete them. This is especially true as all layers are document wide so that changes you make to the current page may have unforeseen effects throughout the document. Layers do add some functionality in certain very specific circumstances, but again this is more than offset by the added complexity and risk of the implementation.

ageMaker's area of greatest strength since version 6.0 has been its ability to easily create electronic versions of its publications. This is particularly true of the tight tie-in to Adobe's own PDF portable document format through the bundling of Acrobat Distiller. In 6.5 this has been extended with support for the new Acrobat 3.0 format, though users will still need the separate Acrobat Exchange to linearize files, a process that will allow the latest Web browsers to download PDFs a page at a time.

More fundamental changes have been made to the HTML Export plug-in used to create Web pages. This has been completely redesigned and is significantly faster. PageMaker styles are now automatically mapped to the 16 basic HTML styles, while all graphics including TIFFs, EPS previews, metafiles and so on are automatically converted to the web supported GIF or JPEG formats. It is also now possible to specify whether export is done on a page or threaded story basis, so that all the basics for creating working files are now in place.

The major advance for use in both PDF and HTML files is the new ability to create hypertext links. This is done through the new Hyperlinks palette. Each link is created through a two stage process. First some selected text or an object is made into a named anchor by clicking on the new icon at the bottom of the palette. Second some other selected text or an object is made into a named source by clicking on the existing anchor name. Alternatively, it is possible to create a link to an external Web page with the create URL command from the Palette's own menu. Links are tested by selecting the Grabber tool which puts PageMaker into browser mode. All sources are indicated by a blue box, and clicking on one will automatically jump to its anchor.

With the new improvements, the creation of HTML files from within PageMaker becomes a realistic possibility. However, that does not necessarily make it desirable. A PageMaker page is a very different thing to a Web page. Almost all design features from fonts to page layout are lost in the conversion, while many of the latest HTML features like frames cannot be supported. Certain design-based features like the new provision of a 216 colour palette optimised for online use are appreciated, but an advanced page layout program will never be an ideal environment for the creation of Web pages.

Probably more practical for those serious about publishing on the Net is the new integration that will allow elements from PageMaker to be dropped directly into a dedicated Web page creator like Adobe PageMill. This integration is present across the board between Adobe products and has been enhanced in a number of areas. Adobe Illustrator files can now be imported directly into a layout and the new multi-channel DCS support to and from Photoshop will allow the use of high quality images based on the Hexachrome hi-fi colour system - though currently this also demands a separate Photoshop plug-in.

Advanced professional features like these, however, cannot gloss over PageMaker's fundamental weaknesses in areas like line and fill formatting, version control and the creation of long documents. Even the absolute basics like formatting remain weak with features like bullets and dropped capitals still having to be set individually. And surely PageMaker must be the only software of its price that still depends on a plug-in to change the case of selected text! This general and increasing feeling that the program has been cobbled together is typified by the Table Editor. Even in its third version this stubbornly remains not just an add-on, but an entirely separate program, creating tables that are effectively treated as independent graphics. This over reliance on clumsy plug-ins not only limits ease-of-use, but seriously affects functionality.

In many ways then the new release of PageMaker is as notable for what hasn't been changed as for what has, but maybe that's just as well. After all none of the major innovations can be called an unqualified success. Adobe were right to identify the two areas most in need of enhancement as the program's interface and its core layout power. However, in both cases, the changes they have brought in represent one step forward and two steps back. Of course you can ignore the new features, but that's not normally the point of an upgrade.

Having said all this, it's important to remember that a good program does not become a bad one overnight, and for many tasks and many users PageMaker remains the best option available. Hopefully the moves made in PageMaker 6.5 will prove to be trial runs for more mature and well thought-out versions of the interface, frames, automatic layout adjustment and layers in a generally tighter PageMaker 7.0. With new releases of both Ventura and XPress due imminently that version cannot come too soon.



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System Requirements: 486 or higher, 8Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 4.0.

Tom Arah

October 1998

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