Serif PagePlus 6

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With new wizards, a streamlined interface, smarter documents and enhanced web capabilities PagePlus tries to match Publisher blow for blow - but still comes off second best.

At one time Serif PagePlus and Microsoft Publisher used to battle it out for the lucrative mid-range design market with each new release outscoring its rival. Eventually though Microsoft applied its programming muscle and took Publisher into new territory, reinventing the program as a combined paper and web publishing solution built on automated design principles. The breadth of power combined with hand-holding ease-of-use was ideal for the occasional user and left PagePlus reeling. After a two-year break, however, PagePlus is ready to climb back into the ring.

Serif clearly recognises that to compete it needs to boost usability and this is where most of the effort has gone in PagePlus 6. Templates are the key to getting users off to a quick start and PagePlus has added over a thousand of these, from party invitations through to business web sites. Improvements to the Startup Wizard that guides you through setting up your publication include an enlarged preview area with six samples at a time and the storing of company and address details for reuse. This is undoubtedly a big improvement on version 5, but Publisher still offers more templates with greater customisation capabilities. More importantly Publisher provides themed design sets which are crucial for the business user looking to produce a consistent and attractive house style.

The much expanded templates are still pretty tacky.

Once your template loads, the new PagePlus interface is immediately apparent. Again PagePlus has borrowed ideas from Microsoft with its new Studio side-panel strongly reminiscent of Publisher’s – in fact the main difference is that the Studio runs down the right of the screen rather than the left. Within the Studio you have tabbed access to various panels for drag-and-drop management of design features such as line styles, text formatting and colour. Each panel has been well thought out so that the Text panel, for example, offers access to the current document styles and all available fonts, both with previews. Taken together with existing features, such as the hint line, property bar and floating Change Bar, and new options, such as the multiple document interface and improved zoom, PagePlus 6’s new Studio-based interface is streamlined, efficient and friendly.

As well as accessing existing power the Studio is also used for accessing two of PagePlus’s new features - again both copies of existing Publisher capabilities. The first is the new Colour Scheme panel which allows you to choose any of 68 pre-supplied colour combinations from "apple" through to "wildflower". Each scheme is made up of five co-ordinated colours which, when applied to template-based designs, are capable of instantly changing your publication’s entire look-and-feel at any point in the design process. Unfortunately the majority of the PagePlus schemes tend towards the garish, so it’s just as well that you can create your own.

Changing colour scheme enables the look-and-feel of a publication to be radically altered at any time.

The second new Studio-based feature is the Gallery panel. This offers drag-and-drop access to a whole host of image components organised into categories such as attention grabbers, mastheads and logos. Once added, the text in many of these components, such as the 3D Text elements and coupons, can be quickly customised with the Studio’s dedicated Wizard panel. Other more complex components, such as business forms and text effects, can be further customised with PagePlus’s in-built TablePlus and LogoPlus mini-applications. Instant access to both these mini-applications, and to CalendarPlus and any other installed Serif OLE application, such as DrawPlus or 3DPlus, is also available from the new OLE Flyout tool.

Other new flyout tools include no less than 27 new graphic shapes including stars, triangles, arrows and callouts though there’s no freehand tool or editing capabilities. Rather more powerful are the 18 new text frame shapes including ovals, hourglasses and heart shapes. These act just like rectangular frames with the ability to control columns and margins and to set auto-fit and should lead to a burst of creative new designs – as Serif puts it "now you can break out of the boring box". Also helping your designs to break out of the box is the new ability to set an imported bitmap’s background to transparent so that your pictures can take on any shape not just rectangles.

new graphic shapes and text frames enable more graphical layouts.

In terms of output, the main improvements have been made to PagePlus’s web capabilities. Since version 5 PagePlus has offered a Publisher-style dedicated web mode and this has been enhanced with the ability to add sound, video, Java applets and even to add HTML code directly. A rather more realistic enhancement is the bundling of 600 animated GIFs. When it comes to publishing your site the main new feature is HTML 4 support. In many ways this is ideal for PagePlus’s DTP-style web capabilities as CSS-based handling offers pixel-precise placement and accurate font control. The problem is that viewers with older browsers will just see a jumbled mess. For a business site the threat of losing potential customers isn’t acceptable, but for the personal user this is far less important. Alternatively you can always set PagePlus to revert to outputting HTML 3.2 nested tables though this is considerably more complicated.

PagePlus still doesn’t seem completely comfortable outputting web sites but feels much happier when outputting to paper with advanced features such as comprehensive support for commercial print including full process colour separation. This is by its nature a complicated area and version 6 attempts to help users through the jungle with a Professional Print Wizard which walks you through the steps necessary to prepare your Postscript files ready for output. The wizard is fine as far as it goes, but it’s disappointing that there is no direct support for producing Acrobat PDF files. At least PagePlus has made one aspect of high-end print a lot simpler: imposition. For producing publications such as greetings cards and folded brochures you can now leave PagePlus to take care of orienting and ordering the printed output to produce correctly assembled masters.

PagePlus’s commercial print capability remains impressive, but it no longer provides the program with the killer punch it needs against its old rival - at least not since Microsoft finally added separation capabilities to Publisher 2000. In fact PagePlus no longer outscores Publisher in any department. Serif has done well to come back fighting but in all areas, from starting templates through to final web output, it is still outscored by the market leader. Publisher is undoubtedly the stronger program and the bigger hitter, but that’s not quite the end of the story. PagePlus has one shot left in its armoury: value. With Serif’s typical discounting you can expect to pick up PagePlus at a bargain price. By dropping a division and targeting the personal consumer rather than the more demanding business market, PagePlus is still able to pack a considerable punch.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

Tom Arah

April 2000

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