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Terminally thin upgrade to the long-standing graphics all-rounder.

At one stage the CorelDRAW Graphics suite had the PC graphics world to itself and each year's new release was a major event. Even when its Mac-based rivals FreeHand and Illustrator converted to the PC platform, CorelDRAW had such a head start that there was no real comparison. However, over the years Corel lost its graphics focus and allowed DRAW's rivals to make up lost ground. With Corel's recent forced sale to venture capitalists, DRAW's loyal users want to know whether the suite still has a future.

The emphasis in this latest release is on making DRAW a more intelligent and more helpful drawing environment. As such, top of the new features list is the new Smart Drawing tool. This intelligently guesses the shapes you are trying to create such as circles, triangles and arrows, and automatically straightens sketched lines and smooths curves. From the way that Corel is hyping this, you'd think that the Smart Drawing tool replaces all others and is now the only one you need to produce your designs. In practice though the program can't really second guess what you want to achieve and in most cases correcting its attempts takes far longer than using the existing tools.

Corel is hyping the new "intelligent" Smart Drawing tool, but it's certainly not foolproof.

Much more helpful are Draw's new snapping features. You can now choose to have the mouse snap to existing nodes, intersections, midpoints, quadrants, tangents, perpendiculars, the edge or centres of objects, the baselines of text and the printable area and these snap points are all now highlighted as tooltips as you mouse over them. The new snapping doesn't just work with the drawing tools, it also works with the Import Cursor which makes it easier to position imported bitmaps especially as the cursor gives feedback on both the original and current image size.

DRAW's enhanced snapping is great if the new object you want to add overlaps or touches an existing one, but often you want to align separate objects. That's where the new Dynamic Guides come in. Switch these on and you can drag out temporary guidelines from any existing snap point so that you can precisely move, align and draw objects relative to others. The constant feedback with snap points and dynamic guides flashing on and off as you move your mouse over the image can be disconcerting, but it really does help you get things right first time as you draw.

Dynamic guides and new snapping features aid technical drawing.

Other features that help boost efficiency and productivity include the revamped Eyedropper tool. This can now be used to pick up properties, transformations and effects as well as colours and can also now sample colours not just from your image but from the wider desktop. Completely new is the Virtual Segment Delete tool which works across objects so that you can remove implied segments where lines overlap. Quickly draw a noughts and crosses grid, for example, and you can then delete the ends of lines to leave the central rectangle. This is particularly useful when you are manually tracing existing artwork.

Another tool that has been enhanced is the Text tool. DRAW's text handling and multi-page DTP-style layouts have long been one of the program's major strengths, but the capabilities haven't been seriously touched for years. As such I was especially interested to see talk of "enhanced text layout flexibility" in the launch press release. What this boils down to in practice is a new option in the Align and Distribute dialog to align text objects based on their bounding box or first or last baseline. It's hardly going to set the world on fire. And neither is the new improved display of type onscreen which means that you can now see comparatively minor text changes such as kerning and leading even when viewed at low zoom levels - especially as you'll still have to zoom in to check that they look right at 100%.

Much more useful when it comes to handling text is Draw's new Unicode support which means that you can now use up to 65,000 unique characters in your projects. This is especially useful when working with foreign languages such as Japanese, Chinese and Greek and to reinforce its new multilingual capabilities, CorelDRAW now lets you install multiple languages on one system and set the language for the user interface and Help files. The new Unicode support is also useful with the Insert Character docker window as this now lets you access all the extended characters and symbols in extended OpenType fonts.

Another docker window that has been enhanced is the former Library palette now renamed the Symbol Manager. This is used for storing items that are regularly repeated in your drawings and has now been redesigned to make it possible to store symbols locally within each drawing and externally to be shared between drawings and users. It's also now easier to edit your symbols and to tell when you're working with them as the selection handles are now coloured blue. As well as being more convenient, symbol-based handling helps ensure consistency, enables single edits to update multiple objects and drawings and, when exporting to Flash SWF format, can cut file sizes dramatically.

Import and export capabilities have always been one of CorelDRAW's biggest strengths and again this has been enhanced. The main improvements are apparent when it comes to technical drawing with new import support for HPGL 2, CGM 4 and Microsoft Visio 2000 and 2002 files and improved export to CGM 1 and 3 formats. The import/export support for the crucial AutoCAD DXF/DWG standard has also been improved including line style and fill mapping and enhanced text handling. CorelDRAW also boasts complete compatibility with the Corel DESIGNER DES format which isn't really surprising as the latter is actually just a reworked version of DRAW.

For non-technical users Corel is heavily promoting two new export capabilities. The first is the enhanced support for the round-tripping of web-oriented XML-based SVG images with better text embedding and support for symbols and bitmaps. The second is the new Export for Office command. This is a large dialog built around a central preview in which you make a few simple choices: whether you're targeting Microsoft Office or WordPerfect Office; whether compatibility or editability is more important; and whether the results should be optimized for presentation, desktop print or commercial print. In practice the command is just a front end to guide the user to one of three formats - WPG, EMF or, nine times out of ten, PNG - and to then set the bitmap resolution depending on the desired output.

That's about it for new power in the main DRAW module, but the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite has always offered more than just vector drawing. In fact in its heyday the suite also provided separate applications to handle bitmap editing, business presentation, charting, animation, 3D and professional DTP along with a whole host of supporting utilities. Since the version 10 release however, Corel has chosen to concentrate on just two other major modules, the bitmap editor PHOTO-PAINT and the Flash web animator R.A.V.E., both of which share the same DRAW look-and-feel.

Of these two satellites, PHOTO-PAINT is the more regularly useful and the more powerful. Indeed at one point with pioneering features such as its multiple undo, artistic brushes, vector-based text and movie features, it could even claim to outclass Photoshop. Disappointingly however, Corel allowed the program to languish and these days its professional aspirations are long gone, though it remains a capable consumer product.

So what new power is on offer? PHOTO-PAINT's PC Photography focus is clear in its new Touch-up Brush which lets you interactively remove unwanted dust, scratches and tears by blending surrounding textures and colours. And. er. that's it apart from the multiple language support and Export for Office command that we saw in DRAW. This really isn't acceptable and if Corel expects users to keep using PHOTO-PAINT they really need to keep it up-to-date. Otherwise they should drop it from the box and cut the price accordingly.

The only notable/noticeable addition to PHOTO-PAINT is the Touch-up Brush.

So on to the new release of Corel R.A.V.E., version 3. This module which is dedicated to the production of efficient and eye-catching Flash SWF animations was introduced with much fanfare back in version 10 as it seemed to answer the criticism that the DRAW suite was weak when it came to producing Web graphics. And by grafting on a keyframe-based Timeline docker window, it certainly makes it easy to set up striking movies as you can quickly animate even advanced effects such as distortions, envelopes and extrusions.

The Flash format offers much more than just animation however, and Corel's attempts to graft on simple behaviours in R.A.V.E. 2 wasn't enough to turn the program into a serious Flash authoring package. So what more does version 3 have to offer? Well to begin with, there's the Smart Draw tool, Unicode support, revamped Symbol Manager and enhanced snapping capabilities and dynamic guides that we saw in the DRAW module. And. er. that's your lot. With no new dedicated web vector power to speak of, it's clear that Corel has given up on R.A.V.E. as a serious standalone package just as it has with PHOTO-PAINT.

DRAW's new symbol management makes especial sense in R.A.V.E. but there's no new dedicated Flash functionality.

In fact, standing back from this release, you have to ask just how much work has actually gone into it. The programming involved in the new releases of PHOTO-PAINT and R.A.V.E. - which after all isn't actually a standalone application but simply a tweaked version of the DRAW module - is virtually non-existent. More to the point, much of the apparent work in the new DRAW, including the enhanced snapping, symbol management and improved import and export options, was actually done last year when Corel reinvented DRAW as DESIGNER. And of the little that's left, many features such as the Save for Office dialog and enhanced Eyedropper tool are actually just different ways of getting at existing power and so hardly a programming challenge. No wonder Corel is hyping the SmartDrawing tool.

Of course one bad release, or even the current series of disappointing releases, doesn't mean that CorelDRAW has become a bad program. The range of power it offers is no longer up-to-date but it's still generally impressive. And with a US price cut from $529 down to $399, new users could even be said to be getting a bargain - especially when you remember that alongside the three main modules you also get a host of utilities for handling screen capture, bitmap-to-vector tracing and font management, plus a range of 1000 fonts, 1000 photos and 10,000 clipart images.

Sadly though, apart from a free training CD, there are no new goodies in the box (in fact the range of clipart is diminishing) so no-one could argue that existing users are getting a bargain. In fact for existing users the update is so thin that, apart from the new snapping features which many upgraders will choose to disable, most will probably never notice the difference. As such, the suggested upgrade price of $179 - getting on for half the price of the full suite - is almost a slap in the face to those longstanding users who want to stay loyal. It's even worse for existing UK users where the dollar pricing is mysteriously converted to no less than 179 + VAT (and the full price to 359 + VAT)

Thanks to its pioneering past, CorelDRAW remains a competent graphics all-rounder, but it has now fallen behind its rivals and its future is looking uncertain. For a number of releases CorelDRAW freewheeled, then idled; now it looks like it's dying on its feet.

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System requirements:Pentium II, 128/256MB of RAM, 250MB of hard disk space, Windows 2000 or XP, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM.

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Tom Arah

March 2004

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