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Canvas 7 – Not Quite Heaven

For the past six years, my relationship with Deneba and its combination draw/paint program Canvas has been something of a roller-coaster ride. With Canvas 3.5, I was contented: it was an excellent replacement for my old favorite SuperPaint, which was starting to show its age; and, Canvas’s splendid import/export capabilities made it useful in many difficult situations. With Canvas 5, I was disgusted: it was slow, it felt like a port, it was unstable, the interface was incomprehensible. With Canvas 6, I was surprised but once again contented: the program had been thoroughly cleaned up and was now a worthy successor to version 3.5. Although it lacked the power of either CorelDRAW or Corel PHOTO-PAINT, which I had reviewed shortly before, Canvas 6 was simple and convenient, satisfying and delightful for general use; and I found myself turning to it often.




Now, with Canvas 7, I’m still contented but also puzzled. Its advances over its predecessor are real, but so miscellaneous that the program seems to have found its feet while losing its way. Bare enumeration of new features would be in vain; you can consult a list at Deneba’s Web site. Instead, I’ll describe their general categories, and try to assess whether the changes are moving this program in the right direction. (It might help, at this point, to read my earlier reviews and Deneba’s feature list, so as to get a sense of where I’m coming from.)

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Cleaning Up the Workspace — On startup, Canvas 7 shows no obvious changes; there’s nothing like the dramatic alteration of the workspace that marked the leap from Canvas 3.5 to 5, or even 5 to 6. But you soon discover numerous small interface tweaks. To change the view’s zoom factor numerically, you can now type directly into the window’s zoom value box, without having to bring up a palette. You can rotate the window for a better view. Aligning of objects and the "smart mouse" are now accessible via contextual menus. Guidelines can now be positioned numerically.

Bezier drawing is better on several counts. Colored nodes and anti-aliased drawing make curves far easier to see. Selecting a node now reveals not only its handles but those of the two adjacent nodes as well. The number of nodes can be automatically reduced. It is at last possible to draw all or part of a curve live by fitting it to points.

Breaking Down the Barriers — One of Canvas’s greatest strengths has always been how it combines on a single page three types of objects: vector (draw), text, and bitmap (paint). Previous versions did much to reduce the conceptual barriers between these object types, and Canvas 7 does even more.

For example, in the past, while you could create a bezier curve by drawing freehand, you were then entrenched firmly in the bezier world, forced to work with nodes and handles to reshape the curve. Now a new tool lets you reshape it by continuing to draw freehand, and another lets you pull a point on the curve as if it were a rope.

Similarly, with a bitmap object, you could previously use vector tools to draw a shape, but to select a non-geometric area, if color-based tools couldn’t handle it, you had to draw freehand. Now bezier shapes can be converted to selection shapes (and vice versa).

Deneba has lifted major limitations on transparency modes introduced in Canvas 6. For example, if you added directional vector transparency to an object, you got a simple gradient running from one end-node at 0 percent to the other at 100 percent; you could move the end-nodes, but that was all. Now you can interactively add intermediate nodes and dictate their transparency values.

It was previously possible to turn a vector or text object to a bitmap, but now such objects can receive filters and adjustments previously reserved for bitmaps, such as blurring, posterizing, and color shifts, without turning them to bitmaps; they keep their editability as vector or text objects. In essence, the object is seen through its own private paint-type filter; so it isn’t surprising that Canvas 7 also introduces lenses.

Weaving the Web — Gone is the objectionable Java-based Colada; Canvas now generates HTML documents directly. But this HTML relies on CSS level 2 absolute positioning, so (unlike tables) it can’t be handled by older browsers, nor even by the latest version of Netscape Communicator unless you render text as images.

Canvas can also now easily create three-stage buttons through a new palette, and renders them along with good JavaScript.

To export as GIF or JPEG, you no longer need to choose one or the other and then pass through a sequence of confusing dialogs; instead, you make all your choices in a single export dialog. This export dialog isn’t any easier to understand, but it is certainly more convenient, especially since, along with new optimization abilities, it previews up to four different export options simultaneously. Also, it is now possible to rotate a bitmap and retain that rotation when exporting. Thus, one no longer needs another application to post-process a JPEG made at the wrong compression, or from an inverted scan.

A new document type permits creation and editing of animated GIFs, with frames represented by "pages;" you can view several successive frames simultaneously, but amazingly there is no way to play the animation without exporting and switching to a Web browser, and there are no built-in transitions such as wipes and tiles, even though QuickTime is present to help create them.

Reading the Tea Leaves — Canvas 7’s documentation is complete and compact, though I often find the verbiage confusing. An accompanying CD of narrated screen shot animations is very helpful. Online help is good, but balloon help or more copious tooltips would be better: many important options in palettes are represented only by uninformative icons.

Canvas 7 is definitely a better version of what Canvas 6 was, a pleasantly straightforward all-purpose draw/paint program, adequate to the needs of most users. As such, I enjoy it, I turn to it often, and I recommend it.

On the other hand, I feel that Canvas 7 doesn’t introduce new features so much as it cleans up and rationalizes Canvas 6; Canvas 7 feels good mostly just because there were places where Canvas 6 felt clumsy or inconvenient. It’s debatable, therefore, whether Canvas 7 really warrants either the whole-number version increment or the $100 upgrade fee – especially since Deneba has failed once again to attend to some of Canvas’s most basic features. The delay between clicking on a toolbox icon and the popping-up of its sub-palette is still too long. There’s still no keyboard navigation for moving from one bezier curve node to another. The program isn’t scriptable. Too many features are available only through modifier keys (Option-choose this menu, Tab-click this node), making the program hard to learn. And the painting tools are still crude; with Canvas, you could exhaust a whole day and all your patience before you’d achieve the painterly effects you can get with a single stroke in Corel PHOTO-PAINT, with its options for brush and edge texture, bleed and sustain, dab spacing, stroke smoothing, color shifting, and so forth.

This raises the larger question of what an all-in-one program should be. Canvas ranges wide but is spread rather thin. It lags behind the individual competition in every department it has chosen to enter: in painting, page layout, Web images, Web pages, and GIF animations – even in certain aspects of drawing – other specialized applications are ahead, sometimes far ahead. Canvas 7 now seems to be playing copycat, trying to catch up in every area at once, with results that are sometimes inadequate (like the GIF animation) and sometimes inappropriate (like the new FTP capability). Deneba might profitably refocus Canvas on achieving greatness in a few well-defined areas, rather than risk mediocrity in many. Canvas isn’t QuarkXPress, GoLive, WebPainter, or Anarchie, so why pretend? In my view, Deneba should return its attention to achieving its basic mission with Canvas, excellent drawing excellently combined with excellent painting.

Whether Deneba can afford not to do this is really a question of whether users will continue to find that the convenience of a single general application outweighs the inability to accomplish what’s perfectly possible with several individual dedicated ones. This is the common quandary of "Swiss Army knife" applications. If users become so frustrated by Canvas’s inability to play its own GIF animations, or to export text objects as HTML text that browsers can actually render, or if they find themselves repeatedly turning to other paint programs to achieve the fine control that Canvas denies them, they may wonder what real advantage Canvas offers. There is also, to be sure, the matter of price; and Deneba’s new aggressive policy of offering Canvas as a download for just $130 is commendable. But even this policy could backfire, since it could cause long-time Canvas users to feel understandably enraged at being asked to pay almost as much ($100) to upgrade. Also, Corel is fighting back by offering the CorelDRAW and Corel PHOTO-PAINT package, in a slightly crippled form but without time limitations, absolutely free.

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Canvas 7 requires a PowerPC-based Mac with Mac OS 8.5 or later and 32 MB of RAM with a monitor running at 16-bit color and with at least 800 by 600 resolution. A standard installation requires about 80 MB of disk space. Canvas 7 costs $375 with CD-ROMs, printed manuals, font and clip art collections, $130 without, and Deneba makes a free 15-day trial version available.

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