The Microsoftization of Deneba: Canvas 5.0.1
Although I’m no artist, I do need to make diagrams and pictures occasionally, and the early surprise and pleasure of MacPaint and MacDraw helped define the Macintosh for me. For years I was a fan of SuperPaint (TidBITS-112), which essentially combined the two; but it "progressed" to become sluggish, and when I used it to diagram my New Zealand garden, it was clumsy, it wouldn’t print, and screen updating was slow. That’s when I switched to Deneba’s Canvas 3.5.
Put Me in the Picture — Canvas, which first appeared in 1987, had developed a kind of cult following. It could both draw and paint, and it went beyond SuperPaint in its precision, multi-layered documents, and the many cool tricks it could do thanks to its component architecture, which allowed integration of new tools, such as binding text to a path, or adding dimension measurements. It was quick and rugged. Most remarkably, it handled a huge variety of graphics formats.
When Deneba announced that Canvas would be so radically improved as to be designated 5.0, we adherents were smug. We’d backed the right horse this time! Our anticipation, though, was prolonged. Canvas 5.0 was advertised month after month; the upgrade was previewed at Macworld Expo in August, 1995, and again in January, 1996; but no product. Finally, it "shipped" at the Expo in August, 1996 – meaning that in late September and early October, users began actually receiving copies.
A collective howl of anti-climactic despair arose on the nets. Users complained of crashes, erratic behavior, of slow screen updating, of unaccountably large file sizes, of inability to print, of inability to export to PICT or to import from Canvas 3.5. My own first 5.0 project, a house diagram, was a dismal failure – the dimension measurements showed as nonsense, and rotated text wouldn’t print on my StyleWriter (I went back to 3.5 and did the job easily). Deneba’s customer support server was swamped; an email provoked an automated response after a few days, a human response after weeks or never. Evidently, for all our patience, 5.0 was still not the real release.
In November, a 5.0.1 updater appeared. In January, a new installation CD shipped. My printing problems went away when I adopted Apple’s Color StyleWriter 1500 driver (no thanks to any advice from Deneba). The dust was finally settling.
Graphic Analysis — As promised, Canvas 5.0.1 goes well beyond its predecessor, integrating into one program capabilities that could save users from having to purchase single-purpose applications in a number of areas.
It’s a draw program. You get the usual vector-based shapes and Bezier paths, plus many specialized shapes, enhanced by pen widths, arrows and calligraphic shapes, plus colors, gradients, hatchings, and textures, all heavily customizable and savable in library form for later use. Bezier paths can also now be combined and blended in powerful new ways.
It’s a diagram program. As in 3.5, "smart lines" link their objects even when the latter are moved, and dimension tools and "smart mouse" features help with exact measurements.
It’s a 3-D program. The extrusion tool now makes parallel or circular rotatable objects with customizable lighting.
It’s a page layout program. A new type of document, the publication, can have columns, linked text boxes, headers and footers. You can have cascading paragraph and character styles, automatic hyphenation, even widow and orphan control.
It’s a paint program. The paint tools include many new ways of laying on color, plus complex transfer modes and tools for smudging, sharpening, blurring, saturating and so on.
It’s an image-processing program. You can use channels, masks, and filters to manipulate images in complex ways.
- It’s a presentation program. You can use successions of images to make a slide show (not much changed from 3.5).
Dull as Paint — Unfortunately, Deneba has created a decidedly unpleasant user experience. The program feels at every step like a cross-platform port: the help file reminds one of Microsoft Help; the dialogs have an un-Mac-like look and feel; a status bar mars the bottom of the screen; 3.5’s extensive scriptability is completely gone; and there are occasional meaningless error messages. Installation is a nightmare, with dozens of undocumented files dumped into the System folder. The manual, while impressively slimmed down from 3.5’s 900-page brick, is a tedious, repetitive reference, burdened with double sets of illustrations and instructions for both Windows and Mac.
A number of problems come down to speed, or the lack of it. On my computer using Canvas 5.0.1 is painfully slow. Okay, so I’ve got an LC 475. But that’s a 68040 processor, though without an FPU. It runs 3.5 quickly, and comments on the net suggest that even Power Mac owners find 5.0.1 sluggish.
The screen is astoundingly slow to refresh – and it chooses to refresh a lot, at the most unaccountable times: after you’ve peeked at a palette; after just about any individual operation on a single object; even after scrolling in a floating window that doesn’t cover any of the drawing. If you switch in from another application, the screen sometimes partially redraws, then the floating palettes redraw (also a tedious operation), and then the screen starts redrawing (slowly!) all over again. Besides which, the screen often unaccountably vanishes in the middle of an operation, or redraws incorrectly, so you have to force a refresh – and wait through it.
Various operations seem to send my computer into a frozen limbo: no status-bar message, no watch cursor, no change in my menubar clock, no response to clicks, no ability to switch away, nothing. Thus I have frequently believed the program to have crashed and restarted the computer; but it appears that most of the time there was in fact some calculation going on. An indication of this would have been nice.
Bad Brushwork — Basic tools have not been much improved; on the whole, they are inconvenient and clumsy to use, both physically and mentally.
For example, selection tools are poor; it can be difficult and tedious to select the particular vector items you want, because all you can do is click or draw rectangles.
With the Bezier path tools, it is difficult to see what’s going on as you draw or select, even with your face right up against the screen. Drawing a new path is unnecessarily difficult: after you draw the first point and tangent, the tangent vanishes, leaving just a point that’s difficult to see and which gives you no sense of what will happen as you draw the second point and tangent. (As you draw subsequent points, the previous point and its tangent are both shown, so why not as you draw the second point?) There are no keyboard shortcuts for selecting points or tangent handles; you have to find them by eye (not easy) and click right on them (ditto). There have been some improvements in these tools – a new pop-up menu is a welcome relief from the numerous modifier-click path editing combinations one used to have to memorize – but they don’t make up for these basic shortcomings.
When you use a paint tool, you can’t see what you’re doing either, because it appears as the same little icon regardless of the size and shape of the actual brush you’re using; in effect, you’re trying to paint with an invisible brush, so you just have to guess at the effect of clicking the mouse at any particular point. This is a major step backwards from 3.5.
It is hard to learn what the current settings are for any particular object. For instance, after you select an object, clicking on the line tool doesn’t show you the object’s line width (you must tear off the palette and scroll through it, hunting for the selected item); nor does the object’s pen or fill color become selected in the inks palette. The distinction between a particular object’s settings and the default settings remains confusing as well.
Drawing Conclusions — Canvas 5.0 was shamefully full of bugs and errors; a glance at Deneba’s own lists of changes and fixes in 5.0.1 shows just how full (and such lists are usually deliberately incomplete).
Canvas 5.0.1 runs far more reliably, but still in a sluggish, useless, unhelpful way. The slowness of screen redraw, in particular, is unforgivable; I have enough spare RAM that the program could cache the whole screen as a bitmap (though even paging out to disk and back would be vastly faster than what’s happening now), and in any case I don’t see why all 50 objects on the screen have to redraw just because I change the color of one of them. Both screen redraw and the interface with the basic vector and paint tools need to be rethought from the ground up, if this version of Canvas is to be useful.
Meanwhile, Deneba has not dropped Canvas 3.5 from its list of current products. That’s wise.