Entry level DTP showdown

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First published in Our Computer Player, July 16, 1993

Publish It! v.3.0 (DOS)
Publish It! (Windows)

from TimeWorks
625 Academy Drive
Northbrook IL
60062 USA
800-323-7744/ 708-559-1300

price: $149 (US list), $49.95 (US) upgrade

Express Publisher v.2.0 (DOS)
Express Publisher 1.0 (Windows)

from Power Up Software
2929 CampusDrive
San Mateo, CA
94403 USA

price: $159 (US list) or $69 upgrade or $99 trade-up from competitor's product.

Publish It! (DOS)

Publish It! (Windows)

Express Publisher (DOS):
XT/AT/PS2 or compatible
640k RAM
any graphics adapter
additional extended or expanded memory recommended

Express Publisher (Windows):
80286 or better
2 meg RAM, 4 meg recommended
8 meg hard drive space

When most people think of desktop publishing, they tend to think of the Big Names: PageMaker or Ventura on the PC, PageMaker or Quark on the Mac. Maybe FrameMaker on either as well as Unix. Big Names. Big Programs. Big Prices. Big Learning Curve. Big Hardware Requirements. Quark has just been ported over to Windows on a PC... recommended minimum platform? Your average 486.

Not all of us have a 486 or can justify spending $500-600 on a desktop publishing program. If that's what you're doing for a living, it may make sense, but many people want the ability to put a newsletter or brochure together from time to time, without needing the power for a price that the Big Names represent.

For a long time, the casual dtp users were poorly served, especially if they used PCs rather than Macs. Sure, you could do multiple columns and insert graphics with a DOS word processor like Word Perfect or MS Word. But switching back and forth from text mode to a non-editable page preview was not exactly intuitive. Low end DOS dtp programs like First Publisher were, well, low end. And lack of system-wide font support made it difficult to get sophisticated designs.

Windows promised a graphical interface and consistency between programs. For a long time, though, PageMaker was the only DTP program to make use of that environment.

A few years ago, TimeWorks released Publish It!. This program used the GEM graphical interface, like Big Name Ventura Publisher. But it traded some of Ventura's power for ease of use. It consistently won magazine 'Best of...' awards, but was hampered by a lack of scalable fonts, and never had a big impact on the marketplace.

Last year, Microsoft ("We are the World") released MS-Publisher, a dtp program that ran under Windows, and sold for about $150. Suddenly, affordable dtp became respectable. Established products like Publish It! and Express Publisher came out with Windows-based competition for MS-Publisher, while sprucing up their DOS versions. We'll take a look at four of the dozen or so dtp packages available for PCs and selling for under $200.

Why Bother? I've got a Word Processor already

You may wonder what's the point. You can use fonts and columns and insert graphics with your word processor. If you're running a Windows word processor, you can even see what you're doing. What advantage is there in getting a dedicated dtp program?

The answer is that in some cases, there is no advantage. Companies like PageMaker's Aldus have been losing ground, as their market shrinks. Even for casual newsletters, however, there are a number of things that can't be done (at least easily) in even the best of this season's word processors. For instance:

-- Linking text frames. Your story starts in column one, page one, but rather than continuing into column two, you want the overflow to appear in column three, page four. You want text to flow from the first column to the last if you edit your text.

-- Word wrap around the outline of the picture, not around a rectangular frame. Even some dtp programs, like MS-Publisher, can't do this.

-- Fine tuning of text attributes such as kerning characters in headlines (put that capital A and W close together) or the leading, the space between lines.

-- Rotate text and graphics.

If you want to do any of these things with your word processor, even if only once in a while, you'll find yourself wishing for a real page layout program. (You can hammer a nail with a screwdriver handle, but you probably don't want to).

Publish It! ver 3.0 for DOS

TimeWorks makes versions of Publish It! for DOS, for the Mac, and now for Windows. The DOS version is the oldest of this family, and while it was a long-time award winner, its age was showing. The new version brings it new features and a new look, but at a price. While ver 2.0 ran on pretty much any PC, the new version won't even start on any machine with less than 2 megs of memory. This is just one more sign that the venerable XT may need to be put out to pasture. As well, the program needs as much of your standard 640k free as possible. They suggest booting without most of your favorite TSRs if it refuses to start.

And as pretty much any machine sporting 2 meg or more of memory could be running Windows, should anyone bother with a DOS program to do as graphical a task as dtp anyways?

Well, Publish It makes a good attempt at keeping you in DOS. They've updated the GEM interface, including fashionable 3-D buttons, and colourful dialogue boxes. It looks a lot like a GeoWorks program. (This means it will no longer run under the standard GEM-3 environment). They've (finally) added scalable fonts. There's a toolbar underneath the menus (just like those trendy Windows programs). While it looks like a Windows program, it doesn't have the overhead involved in running Windows, and so runs quite a bit faster, especially on 286s or 386SXs. Still, the addition of all this cuteness makes it run somewhat slower than version 2 did.

Publish It ships with 20 fonts, that are scalable from 3 to 250 points. As well, it ships with over 100 templates-- sample documents for a wide range of business and personal uses. These are easily modified, to fit your needs. The DOS version includes a Template Manager. This lets you see a thumbnail version of a template before you open it (it works with your own files as well).

The program has always had simple to use paragraph styles, which are still listed in an on-screen library when you select the Paragraph Tool-- click anywhere in a paragraph, click on the bullet style, poof! instant bulleted text. Master pages, including separate left and right master pages, are well-supported. Other nice touches include text wrap around irregular graphics, a pixel editor for bit-mapped pictures, and a set of draw tools (though not a full-featured draw module). Text can be kerned to 0.1 pt. accuracy.

A new feature, common to the DOS and Windows version is PowerText. This lets you create special effects with text-- wrap a sentence around a circle, for example. This feature seems to be a requirement for dtp in this price range these days... all four of the programs reviewed, as well as Microsoft Publisher have a module that does this. None of the Big Name programs support this sort of feature, however.

One added plus for this program is that it does a superb job of printing on dot-matrix printers... even the old 9-pin Roland that I used for testing. Of course, this prints slower than using the default fonts that come with your printer.

By the way, this program claims to work without a mouse, and it will, but the keyboard controls are even harder to use than Windows'... don't even bother trying to use it that way.

New to the DOS and Windows versions is an 80,000 word spell checker, and about 150 pieces of clipart. Unfortunately, the installation program only installs some of the fonts, art, and templates along with the program. To install the rest, you have to run the install program again. Despite this, if you don't want to work in Windows, and if you have the 2 megs of memory required, this will meet many of your publishing needs. If you can live without scalable fonts or PowerText, an older edition of this program is available under another name, as SoftKey Publisher. Available in many outlets for around $29, this is one of biggest secret bargains around.

Publish It for Windows

Not wanting to be left out of the Windows onslaught, TimeWorks released the first Windows version for their program at the same time that they upgraded the DOS version. And as much as possible, the two versions share the same look. Both sport button bars along the top, for example.

The Windows version takes advantage of many of Windows' features, however, giving it some extra power to make up for what it loses in speed. The toolbar is context sensitive... selecting the frame, text, paragraph, or drawing tools changes the rest of the icons to reflect what you can do in each mode.

While lacking the DOS version's Template Manager (in fact, even lacking a catalogue of templates in the manual), the Windows version does include a similar PowerText module. This resembles the WordArt module included with MS-Publisher and Word for Windows. Like WordArt, it lets you rotate text, skew it at different angles (accurate to 1 degree), or wrap it around a half or full circle. As well, PowerText characters can be filled with colours or patterns. Unlike the Microsoft feature, PowerText works with any font installed under Windows, including TrueType or ATM fonts. Microsoft's WordArt only can use a collection of crudely-drawn bitmapped fonts that ship with it. Unfortunately, PowerText, and Publish It in general does not support OLE, and thus, can't be used in other Windows programs, except through the clipboard. (Similarly, Publish It can't use OLE to import from other Windows programs).

Both versions of the program share the same spell checker, and collections of templates and clipart (a mix of TIF and CGM formats), along with most other assorted goodies (except for the Template Manager from the DOS version, and the Windows' version's PowerText). As well, the Windows edition ships with Adobe Type Manager, v.2.0, and 25 postscript type 1 fonts. These include a nive selection of 'real' Adobe fonts, and type 1 equivalents of the fonts included with the DOS version. As a final bonus, upon registration, you can choose to receive Key Draw for Windows, an illustration and graphing program, for a $10 shipping charge. There is also a CD-ROM version of the program available with additional fonts and templates and 3000 additional clipart images. Of course, copying all that onto your hard disk would take up more than the 5 1/4 megs of the disk-based version.

This program lacks MS-Publisher's cuteness-- its PageWizards and tongue in cheek messages ("Printing your masterpiece"), but through its paragraph styles and templates, and through PowerText's use of your system fonts, it has it beat in functionality. Choose between this and the DOS version according to your taste for DOS speed vs. Windows system integration.

Express Publisher v.2.0 for DOS

Power Up offered to let us test a beta copy of version 3.0 for DOS, but we opted for the shipping version-- the version of the program that you can actually go out and buy today.

This program sports a lot of power and features, but is among the slowest of DOS programs. (One user said it made him feel like he was running Windows). It doesn't, however, make the memory demands of the new Publish It DOS version. While Publish It has a new '90's look, Express Publisher has a crude resolution screen, resembling a program from the bad-old pre-VGA days. As well, mouse use seems slow and imprecise.

Like Publish It, it is frame based; a frame has to be created before any text or graphics can be imported, or even any words typed. Frames can be linked before text is imported, so that overflow will move into the selected frames.

Express Publisher has a big bonus... its special effects module, TextEffects. Accessed from EP's main menu, TextEffects opens up, and creates and saves its own file. When you exit TextEffects, you are returned to your publication, with your special effects file linked into your document. Unfortunately, resizing a TextEffects graphic can result in banding, similar to changing the size of other bit-mapped graphics. Another problem is that this module can be quite slow.

While this program makes it easy to position and re-size graphics, (you can even flip or rotate graphics by 90 degrees), it has severe limitations in its graphics handling. It only imports black and white graphics, and it forces you to convert CGM vector files (from Harvard Graphics, for example) to TIF. Printouts tend to look coarse.

The program does a good job of supporting style sheets, for consistent publications, and includes automatic kerning and hypenation. These last features, however, help slow the program down. They can be, however, turned off until just prior to printing.

Eight scalable fonts are included, in Intellifont format. These can be used in sizes ranging from 6 to 144 points. These print out with very good quality, even on a dot matrix printer. 100 TIF clipart images are included. Additional font and clipart packages are available. A selection of templates are also included.

A nice feature, unique to the two Express Publisher programs is Automatic Alignment. Here, after selecting two frames, you get a choice of 15 ways to align them. I've wished for a feature like that using other programs, including high-priced PageMaker. Another nice touch is the Object Specifications. You can view and change a frame's position, and can choose to lock it in place. (This precision is in contrast to the program's clumsy mouse support of object placement). Text wrap around graphics is also nicely handled.

Despite these strengths, this program is slow, and suffers from a clumsy-looking interface. Its poor graphics handling make it come in second to DOS Publish It. Even on a 640k machine, it would be a toss-up whether to go for Express Publisher's scalable fonts and TextEffects or Publish It ver 2 (the old version) with its more usable interface. Better off waiting to see what the upcoming upgrade will bring.

Express Publisher 1.0 for Windows

This Windows version has been out for several months, and has been aiming at MS-Publisher in their ads. These ads show the first page of a newsletter, and point out the features that you couldn't do with the Microsoft package.

And they're right. Like the more recent Publish It for Windows, Express Publisher for Windows include more power features than the Microsoft sales leader. Many of these features are carried over from the DOS version, but with the advantage of an interface that lets Windows manage fonts and graphics.

The real winner with this program is TextAppeal. Unlike the special effects module included with the DOS version, this is a separate program. Like Publish It's PowerText module (and unlike Microsoft's), it uses all your Windows fonts. Unlike either of its competitors, it can integrate graphics and text together, to create some very sophisticated effects or logos. It lacks some  of the power of a dedicated program like Bitstream's MakeUp (such as gradient fills), but is about equal to Adobe's Type Align, marketed as a stand-alone program. Like Publish It's PowerText, it lacks OLE support, and must be used with the clipboard. Unlike PowerText, you even have to use the clipboard to bring your logo back into the parent program.

The program builds on the strengths of the DOS version. Like its predecessor, it lets you link frames for text flow, and lets you numerically adjust placement of a frame. It duplicates the excellent alignment features of the DOS version. It supports spell checking, and a hypenation dictionary. Like the DOS version, it ships with 100 pieces of clipart, and 15 templates. Files created in the DOS version can be used here, though not the other way around.

As well as supporting text in frames, there is a 'free text' option. Text can be added directly to the page, and then manipulated. Graphics are handled much better than in the DOS version, or than in Microsoft Publisher. For example, a graphic can be rotated to any angle (accurate to 0.01 degree), as long as this feature is supported by your printer.  Text can be wrapped around any shape graphics. There are reported problems with importing EPS graphics, which PowerUp attributes to the Microsoft Windows postscript driver.

The program adds a polygon tool to the collection of drawing tools already available in the DOS version. For me, though, I found the 16 icons in the ToolBox a little confusing. I would have been just as happy to leave half of these options buried in the menus, in exchange for a simpler screen.

There is  a nice Shrink to Fit option for printing large pages on smaller paper. Alternately, you can choose to tile a large page onto several smaller pages. These are useful, as the program lets you create a document up to 5 feet to a side. On the other hand, you are limited to a maximum of 48 letter-sized pages per publication; the larger you page size, the fewer pages you can include.

Like Publish It, this program ships with Adobe Type Manager. Thirteen fonts are included. It supports the right mouse button-- right clicking on text shows the font information; right clicking on a frame shows its size and position, and whether it holds an imported object. Full installation takes almost 10 megs, plsu an additional meg or so for Text Appeal.

While this program doesn't support the range of page views common to many Windows programs, it has an unusual thumbnail view. This allows you to view all your pages, then move in on a particular selection. As well, the Free Zoom feature lets you focus on specific portion of a page.

The program is slow, due to frequent screen redraws. Adding the directory to your Autoexec.bat PATH statement (as installation suggests) produces some improvement.

Express Publisher for Windows uses the Windows environment to clean up most of the complaints I had with the DOS version. As well, it adds some nice enhancements. I particularly like the Text Appeal module.

Envision Publisher-- the shareware alternative

Whenever I think I've finished one of these reviews, I get something that just has to be added. In this case, it's Envision Publisher. This is a new, shareware program, that's trying to compete with the others in this category.

As shareware, it's available on many local BBS's (look for EVP101A.ZIP and EVP101B.ZIP), and can be tried freely for 30 days. After that, if you want to keep using it, you should register it. If you're not sure whether you really need DTP at all, this is one way to find out.

The shareware version takes 1.7 megs of drive space, and features a slick, DOS-based WYSIWYG page layout screen-- clearly better looking than Express Publisher v.2.0 for DOS, for instance. It supports scalable fonts, but only includes three (when you register, you get 40 fonts, along with your printed manual). Where it falls down is in its text and graphics import capabilities. It looks like it supports a number of text formats, until you look closely. They turn out to be ASCII text, WordStar(!), and several shareware word processors (PC-Write, Galaxy, etc.) Admirable as shareware solidarity, but less useful for most of us trying to get work done.

Even worse is the graphics importing. You can bring in pretty well any picture you want... as long as its black and white and in PCX format.

It comes with a 30-page tutorial, and a 110-page manual, as well as a nice help system, all included in the two shareware files.

Despite its limitations, it's worth taking a look at this shareware program... looking's free, and you may find that it meets your needs. It is a major piece of work, that took a few people a reported 5 years to create (they've proudly put their picture in the startup screen). Registration is $69 for the basic version, and $169 for the Pro version (80 fonts, more templates and clipart, etc). For more information, contact:
Software Vision Corp., at POBox 1734, Pinellas Park, FL, 34664-1734 USA, tel: 1-800-388-8474 or 1-813-545-4354.

The Envelope, Please...

Comparing these programs, along with Microsoft Publisher, doesn't produce a clear outcome. MS-Publisher wins hands-down on cute. It's the only program that will automatically make paper airplanes for you, or walk you through designing a card or a calendar. On that level, it's the PrintShop of dtp programs. It's the clear loser, however, in terms of features, including some basic dtp features like style sheets, or irregular text wrap. Microsoft's WordArt is also less useful than the similar modules included with all of the other commercial programs.

If you're limited to a DOS program (or if you just don't want to work in Windows), get Publish It 3.0 unless you've got an XT-level machine. Alternately, wait and see how much Express Publisher 3.0 ups the ante on these programs.

If you want a Windows program (if only for the wide range of fonts available), it's more of a toss-up. I generally preferred working with Publish It, but Express Publisher's TextAppeal may make Express Publisher the best value if you want to integrate logos or text special effects in your publications.

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1993, as a review. A decade and more later, I've gotten a series of emails from DTP fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at OldSoftware.com.If you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan