When I began my duties as TidBITS Senior Editor recently, one of my first official functions was to order some business cards for myself. Although I could simply have plugged my contact info into the existing TidBITS business card template, Adam and Tonya wanted to come up with a new design that incorporated information for both TidBITS and Take Control. So they sent me the graphics and suggested that I see what I could come up with in each of two business card design applications: Business Card Composer from BeLight Software and SOHO Business Cards from Chronos.
Designing business cards is not exactly rocket science. I've done it before - without the benefit of any special software - and I fully expected that either of these two applications would make it a completely painless and speedy process. While I found a lot to like about both packages, though, I found them to be surprisingly different. I also discovered that first impressions can be deceiving; SOHO Business Cards, the more polished-looking program, was in fact much less capable of producing good results easily.
Business Card Basics -- Both Business Card Composer and SOHO Business Cards start with roughly the same fundamental model: choose a design from one of their many premade templates, and then tweak the colors, graphics, fonts, masks, and other elements to your liking. (You can opt to start with a blank card, too, if none of the existing designs meets your needs.) Tools are also included for drawing lines and shapes, for aligning elements, and for moving them forward or backward with respect to other elements. The applications automatically fill in fields such as name, address, phone number, and email address from a contact you select in Address Book. When you're happy with the final design, you can print it to business card blanks you can buy for your own printer (both programs support a wide variety of brands and styles), or create a PDF that you can send to a commercial print shop.
Business Card Composer includes about 420 designs; SOHO Business Cards comes with more than 800 (for each of several card sizes). Both applications also include libraries of clip art that can be used for backgrounds, logos, and ornamentation. On the whole, I found the premade designs and artwork in both packages to be attractive and useful, a few lemons notwithstanding - though Business Card Composer's designs struck me as more creative and visually appealing, even if there were fewer of them. In my case, however, because I was starting with my own logos and had fairly specific ideas about what I wanted, I decided to start with a blank card in both programs, and then return to the templates later on to design cards for my own company, alt concepts, inc.
Business Card Composer -- The design process in Business Card Composer was straightforward, albeit with a few quirks. For example, one of the first things I wanted to do was resize a graphic I'd dragged in. I assumed that, as in virtually every other application, holding down Shift while resizing would maintain the graphic's original proportions. But no: As I discovered by trial and error, the proportions are kept the same by default, and pressing Shift turns off that constraint!
Similarly, a few features I expected to see were bafflingly missing. You can align elements with each other horizontally but not vertically. Although alignment guides appear as you move objects on the canvas, the alignment applies only to the edges of an element's containing box; in the case of a text block, baseline alignment would have been much more useful. Similarly, I could find no way to put text in small capitals. (SOHO Business Cards suffered from neither of these limitations.)
Despite these quibbles, Business Card Composer was generally quite solid. It helpfully separates your canvas into a background layer, for elements common to multiple cards, and a foreground layer, for information specific to each person. In addition, you can have a single file that holds designs for both the front and back of a card (which we decided to use for TidBITS and Take Control); you can switch sides with a single click.
To add Address Book data, you choose a contact and design your card with actual data from that person's record (all of which is editable). If you then want to use the same design for another person's card, you can select a new Address Book record with a couple of clicks. You should be aware, though, that if you edit a piece of data (say, a phone number) for a contact, switch to another contact, and then switch back, your edit will be lost. Business Card Composer's Address Book fields work best when Address Book contains exactly the information you want on the cards; otherwise, your best bet is to add custom text manually.
After working up some sample double-sided TidBITS/Take Control cards from scratch, I looked for a design that might work well for my own company. After finding one I liked, I plugged in my contact information, changed a couple of colors, and was ready to print within about five minutes. In short, the happier you are with an existing design and the less fiddling you need to do, the easier the program will seem.
SOHO Business Cards -- I thought I would like SOHO Business Cards better, because it has a slicker interface and comes with a much larger library of graphics, fonts, and templates. But as I used it, I discovered that its frustrations outnumbered its benefits.
For example, I quickly found it infuriating that in the Design pane - where you can resize and reposition elements - you can only see blocks representing where text from my Address Book will be placed, but not the actual text itself. You have to switch to the (non-editable) Preview pane to see what your design will look like with its text. Because the Design view gives you little sense of how the final block will look when filled with contact data, the design process becomes one of incessantly switching panes, a real annoyance.
SOHO Business Cards has a special Fields palette that's designed to give you extra control over layout and typography. You can specify, for example, what happens if the text in an address field is too wide: the box can expand to the left or right, or the text can shrink to fit the block. The latter choice sounded like just what I needed, because one of the lines in my address is much longer than the others. But to my dismay, I found that when I switched to the Preview pane, only that one line of my address had shrunk; the rest stayed at their full size.
In fact, SOHO Business Cards's fundamental reliance on so-called smart fields to hold and format Address Book data is misguided. The idea is that you choose a smart field with exactly the combination of Address Book data you want, set up its characteristics, and then watch as it automagically reformats itself to display the data of each new contact. Unfortunately, SOHO Business Cards provides no convenient way of printing cards for multiple contacts at one time; you must manually select the Address Book contact used to insert data into any given card design. Furthermore, you can't edit data inserted from Address Book; if something is not quite right, you must either change the data in Address Book itself or manually insert a custom text field. In other words, in one respect SOHO Business Cards's design is optimized for constantly changing data, but in another respect, it assumes you're working with just one set of data. Those two design imperatives are very much in conflict.
On the bright side, SOHO Business Cards does have the full range of horizontal and vertical alignment options I expect from a good graphics application, making layout of graphical elements a breeze. It offers extensive typographical control (unlike Business Card Composer) and lets you adjust attributes like drop shadows, transparency, and rotation of any element with great ease. Unlike Business Card Composer, which lets you adjust the zoom level of the canvas only to a handful of preset magnifications, SOHO Business Cards has a slider that instantly zooms to any arbitrary size.
In the end, however, it took too much effort to get the result I wanted. Furthermore, SOHO Business Cards doesn't support double-sided cards directly, so each side had to be a separate file. And although many of the templates provided were quite handsome, none of them was a good fit for my own company's cards.
Printing -- Since my printer - an aging inkjet on its last leg - can no longer be coaxed into producing crisp text, professional printing was the only option I considered. Both SOHO Business Cards and Business Card Composer use the same technique: choose File > Print Online (SOHO Business Cards) or File > Order Cards Online (Business Card Composer) and you'll be taken to a Web page with instructions to save your file as a PDF and send it to any of several recommended print shops. That process worked, but I still had to visit each of the printers' sites, evaluate their options and prices, and then manually send in a file. I had been hoping for more of a seamless printing process such as the one iPhoto uses for making photo albums and prints online, but no such luck.
Final Thoughts -- If you're prepared to be happy with one of the applications' built-in designs, and if the information you want on your business card is identical to your Address Book card for yourself, either application should get the job done. But if you want to color outside the boxes, Business Card Composer will make your job far easier. Business Card Composer costs $40 for the boxed edition; the downloadable edition, which I tested, includes fewer graphics and templates, sells for $35 and is a 17.7 MB download. SOHO Business Cards costs $30, and is a 17.7 MB download.