Corel PrintOffice

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Well-integrated vector, text and bitmap power and a consistent, user-friendly interface combine to provide a surprisingly sophisticated entry-level publishing and graphics solution.

Corel PrintOffice screenshot

No doubt inspired by the developments at Microsoft (see PhotoDraw 2000 preview), competition is really hotting up in the office-based graphics market. Hot on the heels of Adobe's attempt to reposition PhotoDeluxe with its Business Edition comes Corel's attempt to move its consumer PrintHouse Magic product upmarket with PrintOffice. To be honest I nearly didn't look at it as Corel's record in this area has been so bad. In the past the company's entry-level approach seemed to be to buy in programs cheap or cripple their own, cobble them together with some half-hearted linking device to give a veneer of integration and then to ship them out as soon as you could say "undeniable value for money". Having given Adobe a fair crack of the whip though, I thought I had better give Corel the same.

Unlike Adobe's PhotoDeluxe BE, Corel's PrintOffice isn't a single program but a collection of three - PrintOffice, PhotoHouse and Colleagues and Contacts. This immediately got my bundling radar going, but it does mean that Corel can offer a dedicated publishing program which makes much more sense than trying to offer project-based print from within a bitmap environment. Like all programs of this type, PrintOffice tries to get its users off to a quick start by offering to base its projects on pre-designed samples. Many of these, such as the car wash banners and thank you cards, are clearly a hangover from the consumer PrintHouse, but there is also a lot of business content. In particular there are over 500 business projects ranging from business cards to fax cover sheets arranged into 60 themed sets.

Selecting samples is rather clumsy as you have to select the theme before you are shown a preview and even then the thumbnails are too small. The level of automation is also slightly odd as some projects walk you through adding your own details while others simply put in a sample name and address. There's nothing like the sophistication of a program like Publisher 98, but eventually the project appears ready for customisation. To the left of the main work area is a large panel called the notebook offering such basic choices as "change things" and "add things". Clicking on these takes you through other choices such as "draw something" until you are forced to select a tool where you are then presented with a hint page. The text tool's hint page, for example, explains that this "lets you place words in your project." Well I never.

At this stage I nearly opened control panel to begin uninstalling as the program seemed to be aimed at children or users who had never seen a computer before. However at the bottom of the hint page were further options including "change font". I clicked on this expecting to be told which menu to use to call up the normal Windows Font dialog, but instead the notebook panel itself gave all the options to change font, point size and so on. In fact this turned out to be true of every option and setting that the user makes while working in PrintOffice - there are no traditional dialog boxes, everything is controlled with the notebook.

The notebook panel isn't just a help system then but a complete interface. More than this, the interface isn't just a replacement - it's an improvement. To begin with as you change settings they are automatically previewed in the - completely unobscured - work area. This dynamic update makes control much easier especially of tasks like copy-fitting. The notebook system also allows alternative ways of accessing power. At the bottom of the notebook, for example, you will often find preset and wizard options which provide a selection of pre-designed alternatives or walk you through the steps involved in making your choice. The emphasis is very much on ease of use and helping beginners, but the system isn't allowed to hold back more experienced users as the context-sensitive property bar, right-click menu and keyboard shortcuts can all be used to bypass the sequential drill-down approach and jump instantly to the required command.

Despite first appearances then, the PrintOffice interface is actually quite powerful. The same is true of the functionality on offer. The basic rectangle, oval and regular polygon shapes, for example, can be quickly turned into rounded boxes, arcs and stars using the node-editing Shaper tool. More advanced tools include a table tool which offers cell-based text editing and a symbol tool which allows any character from any installed symbol font to be sprayed onto the current project. Much the most important tool in any publishing program is the text tool. PrintOffice's text handling is again surprisingly powerful, particularly when it comes to laying out text. PrintOffice allows text blocks to be set up complete with multiple columns and automatic text flow between frames and between pages.

With its inclusion of a spell-checker and a thesaurus, PrintOffice could just about claim to be a full-blown DTP program but I wouldn't want to push it anywhere near its 250 page limit. Instead the program's strength lies in the production of shorter, design-intensive projects such as brochures and leaflets. PrintOffice offers a number of formatting effects to help catch the eye through the Styles tab at the bottom of the notebook. The colour and line options for example offer include customisable two colour gradients and dashed lines, while the shadow and fade commands allow objects to be given automatic drop shadows or automatically lightened or darkened. The effects can undoubtedly be striking but compared to professional packages they are under-powered. The drop shadows are clearly created by simply copying and offsetting the original, for example, while the fade effect is not in the same league as a true transparency effect.

As well as access to the styles tab, the notebook also offers access to a catalog tab. The most common use of this is to keyword search through the bundled 35,000 business-orientated clipart items to view thumbnails which can then be dragged onto the project. It's clear that thought has been put into the process as it's also possible to select borders and backgrounds which when dragged onto the project are automatically resized to fit the page and sent to a locked background layer. The benefit of the catalog's phrases option is more debatable. If you can't think of anything to write on your birthday card, for example, clicking on this will give you a choice of general or humorous phrases that you could include.

Much more generally useful will be the 10,000 stock photos arranged into ten broad categories from business world through to world architecture. The photos are all of high quality so in most cases you will be able to use them as they are, but to edit an image all you have to do is to double-click on it and it will automatically be loaded into the PhotoHouse module. In the past this shift from vector to bitmap program was often a laborious process involving saving and opening files and would certainly involve getting to grips with an entirely different interface. As PhotoHouse shares the same notebook-based system as PrintOffice, however, you immediately feel at home and can get down to work straightaway.

In fact the PhotoHouse interface is even simpler than PrintOffice's with five main starting options from Get and Prepare Image through to Print, Save and Exit. Again when you select an option you are immediately presented with more so that you drill your way through to the functionality you want. In fact the notebook system really comes into its own in a bitmap environment as it can seamlessly guide you through complex tasks. To remove red eye, for example, you can be walked through zooming in on the face, selecting the eye and selecting a replacement colour and only when you are happy with the result do you click on Done.

Again the PhotoHouse interface is so friendly that you suspect that it must be under-powered, but in fact some surprising functionality is available when you look for it. The range of special effects, for example, includes some advanced options such as a lens refraction filter where you can choose the type of lens to imitate, the refraction colour, the position of the flare and the brightness and size of the effect. The basic brush too isn't actually as basic as it might initially seem with control over everything from nib size, shape, style, angle and even transparency, edge fading and ink flow rate. As if that wasn't enough an advanced settings page offers control over texture, spread and spacing and colour spacing - more than top of the range Photoshop offers.

It's important not to get carried away, however, as PhotoHouse also has some major limitations. The omission of any album capabilities for handling multiple images is disappointing, for example, though you can at least use the notebook for browsing multiple thumbnails. The colour correction capabilities are also severely handicapped by the omission of any local retouching tools. The biggest shortcoming of all though is the limited selection handling with no magic wand tool and no ability to keep selections as floating layers for creating compositions. Having said this, it is exactly these sort of capabilities that can make bitmap editing so intimidating and for the intended audience I think Corel has probably pitched it about right.

The same is true of the third PrintOffice module, Colleagues and Contacts, a program for keeping track of people and events. In the past, in its attempt to throw functionality and value at the user, Corel would almost certainly have bundled a full Outlook-style PIM, but Colleagues and Contacts is a very simple program based on a calendar, address book and list book that all share the same simple notebook-based interface. Like PhotoHouse the program can be run as a standalone but it makes most sense integrating with PrintOffice through the ability to print mail merges based on inserted text fields. Theoretically the combination could be used to run an advanced invoicing system, but a much more likely and appropriate use would be to create a personalised Christmas cards mailing.

All told PrintOffice is almost the exact opposite of what I expected. The suite offers a well thought-out range of basic features that are well integrated and presented in a consistent and efficient interface. Moreover, although the package is firmly aimed at helping the occasional user to get good results quickly, the hidden power means that more regular users will take some time before they hit its limits. PrintOffice's biggest success is that you are more likely to be surprised by what it can do than by what it can't. For example, in a program that is so clearly desktop print-orientated, I was surprised to find that PrintOffice also offers comprehensive Web output not just to HTML table format but also to the more recent Layers and CSS formats.

I never thought I'd say it but, for its entry-level target audience, PrintOffice is a well-focused, well-integrated and even understated product. And undeniable value for money.

Tom Arah



Ease Of Use


Value For Money




ratings out of 6

Corel PrintOffice
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System Requirements: 486 or higher, 16Mb of RAM, 55Mb of disk space, Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

Jan 1999

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