CorelDRAW 8: A Hedy Experience
Only someone vacationing on Jupiter would be unaware of the fanfare attending the August release of CorelDRAW 8. For months before, the coldly rendered features of actress Hedy Lamarr assaulted us from full-page magazine ads and monstrous Macworld Expo posters; and there followed what must be the longest-running promotional sale in history. The suggested retail price, variously quoted between $400 and $695, is meaningless; Hedy, ubiquitous at retail outlets and throughout the pages of mail-order catalogs, can be had for $150, $100, $50, or even free. Lowest prices go to purchasers of an iMac or other CPU, but you get the "competitive upgrade" price just by claiming to own any drawing software more sophisticated than a crayon, and some outlets have given up the "upgrade" pretense altogether.
The hype notwithstanding, I’m delighted to obtain a full-featured, professional-level graphics program inexpensively. After all, even someone whose brain’s linguistic side is dominant occasionally needs to make up a poster, a business card, a logo, a house plan, or a Web photo. Faithful SuperPaint has a place in my heart, but it’s old, and its range is limited. Some time ago, I tried Deneba’s Canvas 5, but the chief result was that I’ve been hoping, ever since, for something to displace it from my computer. CorelDRAW seems to be just the ticket. (I make no comparison, though, with Illustrator or Freehand, since I don’t own them.)
Large and Demanding — The CorelDRAW package comes on two CDs. Besides the vector-based CorelDRAW itself, you get to manipulate bitmaps with Corel PHOTO-PAINT 8, and convert them to vectors with CorelTRACE 8. There are also several Photoshop plug-ins (which PHOTO-PAINT accepts), lots of sample files, oodles of clip art, Web art, photos, and fonts, plus OEM versions of the simple image-file organizer Canto Cumulus and the font management utility FontReserve. (Many users found you also get a free copy of the AutoStart worm, necessitating a recall of an early production run. Corel lists serial numbers of affected batches on their Web site.) One thing you don’t get, alas, is respite from Hedy’s face, which is still in yours – on three manual covers, two CDs, one CD jacket, and the splash screen each time you start up.
You also need to bring a lot to the party. You’ll need a lot of RAM – I mean a lot of RAM: CorelDRAW likes at least 35 MB of its own, and adds as much as 30 MB to the system heap. You’ll need a PowerPC-based Mac with a lot of speed: CorelDRAW runs acceptably on my 604e/180, but Corel wisely recommends a G3. There are lots of floating windoids, so you’ll need plenty of screen real estate. And you’ll need a lot of disk space: a typical installation is 130 MB. The installation is painless, almost all files going into one folder, with a log telling you what went where; but the program still depends upon dozens of undocumented libraries and preference files.
Still, if CorelDRAW is immense, it has good reason. For one thing, it’s fully stocked with professional capabilities. It includes several standard spot and composite color collections (Pantone, Focoltone, etc.). It’s ColorSync-compliant. It prints at three levels of optimizable Postscript (as well as looking darned good on my StyleWriter). It can output negatives, bleeds, separations, halftones, and traps. It lays out text with styles, precise kerning, columns, and linked frames. It can open and save many formats such as PICT, Illustrator, Photoshop, AutoCAD, GIF, JPEG, TIFF, and plenty of others I’ve never heard of. It even generates HTML, using your choice of tables, layers, or styles to position objects.
CorelDRAW is also heavily customizable, along the lines of Microsoft Word: you can modify menus, palettes, toolbars, keyboard shortcuts, and individual workspaces. Plus it’s thoroughly scriptable, which is a convenience and a delight.
Finally, CorelDRAW is full-featured. Besides the expected geometric shapes, bezier curves, and text, CorelDRAW lets you work with calligraphic curves; dimension lines; gradient, pattern, bitmap, and texture fills; text inside shapes, wrapping round shapes, or following a path; and special effects such as object blending, distortion, extrusion, envelopes, transparency, drop shadows, and lenses. (Some bitmap filters and effects are also included, but to edit a bitmap seriously you’ll need to switch to PHOTO-PAINT.)
Easy and Strong — You can’t judge a program by its feature list; a checkmark in a comparison chart doesn’t mean that a feature is useful, reliable, well-designed, or well-integrated. But I find that CorelDRAW’s features are mostly just that. For all its bulk, CorelDRAW feels remarkably lean and straightforward.
Corel’s success in this area seems to be due largely to some serious thought about interface. Essential tools are nicely placed within the user’s immediate sight and reach, reducing the need to hunt through menus or bring up palettes or dialogs. Of course, you can bring up palettes and dialogs; indeed, CorelDRAW often provides multiple ways to accomplish a given task. But there is never any feeling of redundancy – each method has its place. Typically, you work in five neatly defined areas:
- The toolbox, where you choose a tool
- The color palette, where you choose a color
- The menus
- The property bar
- The document itself
Of these, the toolbox is the worst. It’s a palette of mysterious icons, many of which are hidden until you click some other icon. I know that this has become common in graphics applications; but I still hate it. Fortunately, since CorelDRAW is customizable, you can construct a more convenient alternative toolbox, where nothing is hidden; and pop-up tooltips tell you what each icon means.
The property bar is like having many palettes in one; it’s a windoid whose contents constantly change appropriately to give you options, settings, and information for the current object or tool. Once you’ve selected an object and are wondering what you can do to it, you just look in the property bar to find out.
The best part of the interface is the variety of operations you can perform on an object directly and interactively, using the mouse, right in the document. Contextual menus give you access to relevant commands without moving to the menubar. Handles and cursors provide a physical milieu that’s clear, consistent, and intuitive. Click once, and handles let you move an object, or stretch it, or reverse it; for text, you can also alter leading and kerning. Click again, and more handles let you rotate and skew, and set the center of rotation. Double-click, and you’re editing the path’s Bezier points. Colors can be dragged onto an object to assign them, or to mix them into the existing color. If an object has a gradient fill, you can tweak its end colors, intermediate colors, direction, position, and midpoint; the interface here is absolutely ingenious. The same goes for special effects such as blends, distortions, envelopes, extrusions, and transparency.
Another of CorelDRAW’s strongest suits is its approach to color and object management. A wide choice of color models and palettes makes it easy to navigate the color space. A clever find-and-replace feature lets you say such things as "find all red rectangles" or "change all hot pink fills to coral green." You can peruse objects through dialogs that list and describe them verbally. Most notably, the program actively helps you maintain uniformity and similarity among objects. You can copy and paste outline, text, and color properties separately; you can incorporate attributes into named styles for convenient, consistent application to objects – including, remarkably, color styles that describe color relationships (change the "parent" color and all objects with "child" colors change appropriately). You can even "clone" an object, creating a duplicate which adopts given properties of the original, automatically or on demand.
Finally, let’s not forget multiple undos. There’s nothing like knowing that you can experiment without penalty to get those creative juices flowing.
Moody and Recalcitrant — The bad news is that although CorelDRAW 8 doesn’t look or feel like a port, it doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the Macintosh environment. The size and position of document windows are not remembered between launches. Resizing a document window also zooms its contents. Fonts that lack a separate bold or italic family member (such as Geneva) cannot be made bold or italic. The program doesn’t grasp that I have two monitors with different bit-depths.
In fact, CorelDRAW feels like a beta. Constant small glitches undermine one’s confidence and interfere with one’s intentions. In dialog boxes, sometimes nonsense appears, or information is outside the legible area, or scrollbars don’t scroll properly. Mysterious error messages occur from time to time. It’s easy to get into a situation where the document window refuses to let itself be activated, and all work comes to a halt. The status bar allowed itself to be dragged clean off the screen, and to recover it I was forced to throw away lots of preference files. One feels compelled to save early and often, but even this may not be enough; I’ve seen text mysteriously lose its envelope settings overnight, and there are reports of textures becoming corrupted.
The manual is typical of reference manuals for large programs: turgid, compendious, dull, repetitious, formulaic, sometimes opaque. That’s perhaps inevitable, but a printed hands-on tutorial, a quickstart guide, and a shortcut reminder card would have been welcome compensation. The program has some learning curve, after all; there are important hints that the user needs to begin working, such as Option-clicking a color to change an outline rather than a fill. A number of features described in the manual are completely missing: most notable is the lack of any textual find-and-replace, a silly omission in a program that includes a spell-checker.
Online help is a curious hybrid. Part of it is Altura QuickHelp (like FileMaker Pro), and is quite good; but other parts, including the tutorial, are Apple Guide, which is a pain to use, and crashes my machine.
Also distressing is the lack of support from Corel. Neither by email nor on Corel’s own newsgroup was I able to obtain responses to questions in preparation for this review. This makes CorelDRAW seem like not just a beta, but an orphan; I hope Corel has created this version without allocating resources for listening to users and fixing bugs.
On Balance — For many years I rode a 1986 BMW K100RT motorcycle. Folks often asked me how I liked it, and I’d say: "It’s wonderful. After I replaced the springs, the seat, the alternator, the water pump, the brake fluid reservoir, the throttle cable, and the windscreen, it turned out to be one of the greatest bikes ever made."
CorelDRAW 8 is rather like that. It has true premium quality, but for that reason one marvels at the presence of so many little defective details. Still, like dust bunnies, these lurk mostly under the bed and in dark corners; they may make you sneeze now and again, but on the whole the room is pretty clean and perfectly usable.
CorelDRAW’s most noticeable shortcoming is its text-handling capability. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, but here the program has an air of pretending to be something it’s not. After all, without find-and-replace, automatic page numbering, multiple master pages, and so forth, you won’t be laying out any catalogs. So the columns, frame linking, and automatic hyphenation features seem more cute than useful.
If Corel were actually charging the suggested retail price for CorelDRAW, I might be inclined to criticize more heavily. At present prices, though, the verdict is positive: it’s a generous package of splendid features with a brilliant interface and professional output. If, like me, you want to own just one high-powered graphics program, CorelDRAW could be a great choice. In a word, it’s powerful and fun. Even if it is a beta. And even with that darned face everywhere.
As Harvey Korman says in the movie Blazing Saddles: "That’s Hedley."