Designer Today 2006 Reviews

 

 

CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3

Tim Carden

June 2006

CorelDRAW X3 Graphics Suite

Corel has done well with this new version of their popular Graphics Suite. Corel is focusing on improving the suite for existing users and during development, staff were posted to watch users in their day-to-day environments. The result of this research is easy to see in the new features and enhancements selected for this X3 release. X3 promises to help you work better and faster, and this is mostly delivered in the form of numerous updates to core tools and operations. Users of previous versions are almost guaranteed to find something new that will increase their efficiency on a daily basis.

Letters seem all the rage in version numbering these days. Microsoft with their Windows XP, Adobe with their CS products and (what used to be) Macromedia releasing MX versions of their key studio products some time ago. It was only a matter of time before Corel followed suit, and whether it's to stay “cool” or just because the folks at Corel are superstitious, the new Graphics Suite replaces the unlucky 13 version with a half-Roman-numeral-style X3 . However this doesn't hide the fact that the suite, now in it's 13th version, is certainly becoming a veteran in the graphics world. And with Adobe likely to combine Freehand and Illustrator into a single product in the near future, illustration software alternatives are becoming increasingly hard to find.

DRAW

DRAW is Corel's flagship illustration program. DRAW has a seemingly difficult role to fill: Sell it to both novice office users and professional designers — potentially incompatible markets. However DRAW manages to deliver by providing a fast and easy-to-use interface coupled with a complete set of professional output tools under the hood. Start DRAW and you will see an elegant and rather simple looking interface, however play around with the export options, color tools and text formatting dockers and DRAW starts to prove its professional ability.


CorelDRAW includes a fully customizable interface with tabbed dockable palettes called "dockers"

DRAW provides the standard assortment of tools that your would expect from a vector illustration and layout program with 20 years of development heritage. There are extensive import tools, object creation tools, editing and effect tools and dozens of export filters and output tools. DRAW can do cool things like interpret a Postscript EPS or break apart a layered Photoshop PSD file, including the alpha transparency of each layer. There is a built-in PDF engine, advanced printing options and a preflight engine to warn of many common issues to ensure you should have no problems preparing your designs for professional output.

With recent versions, Corel has pushed DRAW as the fast and intuitive alternative. The focus is on reducing the hassle of mundane tasks. Look out for unique tools such as a Smart Drawing Tool that intelligently converts freehand lines into common shapes such as eclipses, arrows and smooth curves. This is great for quickly digitizing a printed diagram using a tablet, or creating a variety of different shapes without switching tools. There are also 9 different object snap points, and dynamic guides that can be pulled out of any object's snap point to help line up an object in relation to another.


The Smart Drawing Tool, Snap to Objects and Dynamic Guide features speedup common tasks

DRAW favors on-screen tools and effects over complicated dialogue boxes with tiny previews. Click on a curve with the text tool and start typing text that automatically flows along that curve, or right click on a misspelled word for a popup list of suggestions, just like in major word processors. Right-click drag one object onto another to instantly copy fill, line or font formatting between those objects. Drag and drop colors onto an interactive line to define a gradient fill on the object itself.


Spell-check-as-you type and Interactive Tools make DRAW a pleasure to use

DRAW also tends to be non-destructive which is great if you like to retain the editability of your original objects. Pull nodes in a polygon and watch the changes being reflected in real time on each side of the polygon — DRAW remembers it's a polygon even when you come back to change it again later. Twirl your mouse to distort an object with an interactive twister distortion, but clear the distortion at any time if you change your mind later. Set the roundness of a rectangle then set it again as many times as you like — DRAW maintains the rectangle as a special “control” object so it knows it's still a rectangle along the way.


DRAW tries to keep everything editable. Edit and re-edit a
control polygon or rectangle whenever you like

What's New

But these are all tricks DRAW has done before. DRAW X3 brings exciting changes of its own, both as new tools and numerous enhancements to the way existing features work. To make it easier to see what's new, there is even a helpful menu option Highlight What's New that places a subtle peach color behind new/enhanced buttons and menu items to ensure you don't miss everything X3 has to offer.

The big news with DRAW X3 is PowerTRACE. Existing users will know that a bitmap to vector tool has shipped with the suite for many versions, but Corel have essentially rebuilt this tool from the ground up and thought it better to rename the program to avoid any confusion. PowerTRACE is no longer a standalone tool — it is integrated as a “lab” available within DRAW. PowerTRACE is primarily designed to make it easy to create workable vector graphics from bitmap logos and emblems. Major changes from previous versions of TRACE are:

  • Streamlined options. The only type of tracing method now available is outline . Trace settings are reduced to two sliders — smoothing and detail — and a drop down that specifies the type of graphic you are tracing.
  • Intelligent smoothing. The smoothing slider focuses more on the curve portions leaving sharp corners in place.
  • Color manipulation. You can choose how many colors in the traced result and whether they should be set to their nearest PANTONE color. You can also merge colors together to reduce the complexity of the resulting objects.


PowerTRACE, now integrated into DRAW, is X3's killer feature

DRAW includes a new tool called the Smart Fill tool. This automatically finds the nearest virtual boundaries based on where you click on your drawing. DRAW creates a new shape with those boundaries and fills it with the color you select. A similar tool, the boundary tool, traces the perimeter of the selected objects to create silhouette from the selected objects, with any holes removed. There is a new crop tool that can be applied to an entire document or just a selection of objects. It crops vectors like you would photos in a bitmap editor. All these tools offer an instant way of intuitively creating/editing objects that previously would have required Boolean shape operations and extensive node editing.


The Smart Fill Tool lets you automatically create
a new object based on virtual boundaries

DRAW X3 introduces a number of new docker windows. Dockers are tabbed palettes that stay open while you work on your drawing. You can dock them on the left or right of your drawing area, or float them and roll them up when not in use. The new dockers in X3 include:

  • Fillet/Scallop/Chamfer for editing the corners of objects
  • Step and Repeat for duplicating and transforming multiple copies of an object
  • Hints for context-sensitive tips and instructions
  • Bevel for apply basic embossing and bevelling to an object


DRAW's new bevel docker is a welcome addition, but is
missing alternative edge shapes or other advanced options

There are literally dozens of enhancements to existing features including updates to many of the import/export filters. This includes major revisions of the PDF filter. Password protected PDFs are now supported (both import and export) and a lot of development resources have been allocated to fixing spot color support both when printing and when creating PDFs. Previous versions rendered effects such as transparency using process colors, but X3 attempts to keep transparency effects as spot color if the original object is filled with a spot color.

Text has also received a lot of attention. There are new column and frame break characters, and the character and paragraph formatting dialogue boxes have been moved into dockers. Text on a curve is also more intuitive with added support for multiple text objects on a single curve, and snap points for easily centering text on the curve.

Other enhancements come in the way of minor tweaks. There are too many of these to list here but here are some of my favorites:

  • Importing EPS files gives the option of interpreting the postscript. Strictly speaking, EPS files are designed to be self-contained for delivery directly to an output device, but many users like to load the vectors from the EPS for editing and repositioning in DRAW. In previous releases, this is achieved through interpretation of the postscript via a special filter. X3 offers to place or interpret the EPS during import.


DRAW offers to interpret EPS files on import

  • The “smooth curve” slider in DRAW benefits from the new code in PowerTRACE. Smoothing now focusses more on the curve portions – leaving sharp corners in place.
  • When applying bullets in DRAW, a new bullets dialogue opens showing only bullet settings. This is better designed with easy-to-understand labeling of the options available.
  • The main application icons are different colors. At version 12 each application icon was dark blue. You had to identify DRAW from PHOTO-PAINT via the stylized graphic for each. The icons are now clearly distinguishable from each other.

  • A new non-destructive reduce nodes button has been added to the shape toolbar. One click removes all unnecessary nodes from a curve, without modifying the shape of the curve itself.
  • DRAW X3 opens PDFs that version 12 was unable to and even opens some Illustrator CS2 files that Illustrator CS1 refuses to open.
  • DRAW X3 optionally previews overprints onscreen while you edit

PHOTO-PAINT

PHOTO-PAINT is Corel’s photo and image editor. PHOTO-PAINT is not your usual bonus bundled application and there was a time when some would have considered it as important to the suite as DRAW itself. Unfortunately the popularity of DRAW has meant PHOTO-PAINT is always given a minor portion of the development resources allocated to the suite and has therefore lagged behind some competing image editors.


PHOTO-PAINT is a powerful photo and image editor

That said, there is a lot PHOTO-PAINT can do and in typical Corel style you will find features with surprising depth. PHOTO-PAINT, as the name suggests, includes both powerful photo enhancement features and a plethora of painting tools. There is a menu of 18 photo adjustment filters (such as tone curve, contrast enhancement and channel mixer) and the brush settings docker includes literally dozens of options. You can do cools things like spin brushes around your main brush, or apply mirrored symmetry. PHOTO-PAINT also has frame-by-frame editing of movies (including QuickTime and animated GIFs).

PHOTO-PAINT has all the expected features like support for layers (referred to as objects), channels (including custom alpha channels) and editing/creation tools. You can play with layer merge modes, add text (that remains editable) and apply dozens of quality effects. PHOTO-PAINT borrows several interactive tools from DRAW, allowing you to drag and drop shadows, gradient transparencies and a variety of fill types. PHOTO-PAINT also retains layers and paths when reading to and from Photoshop files.

The new X3 version delivers a number of improvements across the board. Like DRAW X3, existing users are bound to find something to be very pleased with. From a professional point of view, there are two important enhancements.

The first of these comes in the way of fixes to basic object manipulation. Previously, PHOTO-PAINT antialiased objects as you transformed them meaning a series of slow delays if you were working on a layered high resolution image. With X3, Corel have set antialiasing to be applied at the end (once you have finished that batch of transformations). What’s more, the un-antialiased transformations to an object are applied in real-time thanks to speed boosts under the hood.

The second is enhanced spot color support. You can now create a custom spot color channel and PHOTO-PAINT will retain that spot color channel when saving to a format that supports spot colors such as PDF. This is a vital option when creating two color jobs or working with a client’s “special” spot color in combination with a process graphic.

For novice users, and to speed up common adjustments for professionals, PHOTO-PAINT boosts an easy “Image Adjustment Lab”. The lab provides common correction tools like warming a photograph, or increasing saturation. Although most of the tools here are available separately, the lab maintains thumbnail “snapshots” allowing you to stack up a series of adjustments and easily switch between them and the original to see if you have pushed one slider too far.

The Cutout lab, which helps users remove complex objects from their background has new add and remove detail brushes for correcting areas the lab missed. The cutout can also be applied as a clipmask for non-destructive editing of objects.

PHOTO-PAINT benefits from numerous other minor tweaks and fixes. These include:

  • Pressing ENTER on the fill dialogue in PHOTO-PAINT applies the fill — previously it closed the dialogue box
  • The main menu has undergone re-organization. The most popular color modes are placed under the main menu rather than a separate flyout menu, and the adjustment filters are moved into their own new menu. Of course the suite's extensive customization features mean you could have done this yourself in previous versions, but it's nice to see improvements in the default interface.

PHOTO-PAINT has certainly undergone some worthwhile updates. It just needed more of them.

The Suite

The suite includes several useful inclusions that arguably justify the purchase price by themselves. Users of previous versions will notice some major changes to the standard lineup of extras. R.A.V.E. (Corel's animation package) has been removed from the suite. Although R.A.V.E. had potential for greatness, sadly Corel was unable to achieve a functioning product even after 3 versions. It is probably best that they allocate those resources to what they do best. CorelTRACE has also been discontinued, and replaced with the integrated PowerTRACE as noted previously.

The major changes carry through to the clipart and fonts as well. Corel have changed the clipart collection to include thousands of new images, hand picked for their value to professional users. For example, sign writers and small business owners will find vehicle templates to make it easy to mock up vehicle signage and wraps. Also clipart with fewer nodes were favoured meaning easier output and optimised resource use. The font collection includes 35 WGL 4 fonts, which include additional international character sets.

The suite includes:

  • DRAW for illustration and graphics-rich page layout (with an integrated tracing lab called PowerTRACE)
  • PHOTO-PAINT for image editing
  • CAPTURE for screen captures
  • 10,000 Clipart Images
  • 1,000 Fonts
  • 100 Templates
  • Pixmantec® RawShooter™ essentials

The suite presents excellent value. The recommended retail price is significantly lower than a single Adobe product, or even purchasing the fonts alone.

Not Quite Perfect...

X3 is quietly bursting with new and enhanced features, but there are still a number of missing features you would expect to find in a suite that makes the claims that this one does. Although not originally a layout program, Corel are marketing layout as one of the suites big uses. Consequently DRAW really needs some sort of dynamic fields such as page numbering. Users have also been requesting table features and basic graphing tools for sometime. Illustrator and Freehand can easily create basic graphs – a vital inclusion for any designer working with numeric data. The lack of graphing features seems particularly unusual given Corel's ownership of a complete spreadsheet and the powerful CorelCHART that used to ship as a core component of the suite many years ago.

Web developers will also have to look outside the suite for their web graphics needs. Corel tried Flash development with their R.A.V.E. product and gave up. They also tried building HTML generation directly from DRAW, but these features were never useful or well implemented. The slicing tools in PHOTO-PAINT are clumsy, and there are none in DRAW. The roll-over tools in both PHOTO-PAINT and DRAW are best avoided altogether and DRAW doesn't even attempt the likes of Illustrator's pixel preview. The new bevel effect in DRAW provides few options and gives very simple results. PHOTO-PAINT's bevel effects are rendered, not editable, and there are a number of mismatched bevel tools with none really that well implemented. Finally, it is a shame that PSD support is still far below the likes of Fireworks with no attempt to import or export layer effects or editable text. Simply importing separate layers is something that was exciting 5 years ago.

Finally it is embarrassing that PHOTO-PAINT still can’t size an object while maintaining the aspect ratio. You cannot, for example, enter a height of 100 pixels and have PHOTO-PAINT calculate the width. To do this a user has to calculate the percentage change, copy and paste via DRAW, or drag the sizing handles until the desired size is reached.

In Conclusion...

For existing users the X3 upgrade seems essential, and users of competing applications should feel more confident moving to DRAW. The suite boasts substantial enhancements to core import/export filters including PDF, and the new spot color features will prove indispensable for professional designers. Users that frequently convert bitmap to vector graphics with find PowerTRACE a significant improvement over previous versions of TRACE. In addition, enhancements to text, and new tools such as crop, smart fill, boundary, the image adjustment lab and fillet/scallop/chamfer docker streamline otherwise complex operations.

With this new version Corel have proven their active interest in making wise and professional improvements to their flagship graphics package. Although there are no show stopping whiz-bang new features, there is also no shortage of tweaks and clever new tools that will speedup everyday tasks and alleviate some frustration. X3 is not the sort of release you get excited about — it's the sort that impresses you gradually, and that you are likely to appreciate everyday.

More information including a detailed review guide and the trial version is available at Corel's website.


Pricing: $US399 Full Version, $US170 Upgrade Version

Company Website or URL: www.corel.com

Requirements:

  • Windows® 2000, Windows® XP Tablet PC, Windows® XP
  • 256 MB of RAM, 200 MB of hard disk space
  • Pentium® III, 600MHz processor
  • 1,024 × 768 or better monitor resolution
  • CD-ROM

Copyright (c) 2006, Tim Carden, All Rights Reserved








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