First Look CorelDraw X4: Still the one to beat
Review - Corel is about to release a new version of its “Draw” graphics suite, which is one of the very few remaining complete graphics suites on the market. Now in its 14th generation, it hasn’t lost its original look and feel and remains the most convincing PC graphics product for ambitious consumers and graphic artists.
Sometimes at the beginning of this decade, just when Corel went through a tough time, the company’s core product somehow lost its appeal. It was Draw that had made Corel famous in the early 90s and it was pretty much Draw that carried the Ottawa-based firm through that decade. But, beginning with version 6, Draw became visibly bloated and Corel looked like it had lost its focus. I personally felt the reasons for an upgrade to a new version were fading and that is why my most current Draw package in use is still v10 (released in 2000).
Version 14, in Corel language “X4”, has made its way to the Gold Master disc a few weeks ago and I had a chance to take a first look over the past week. Here’s my impression.
What you get
Besides the core product of the graphics suite, the CorelDraw vector graphics software, there’s a new version of the photo editing application Photo Paint, an updated version of the screenshot tool Capture, a new Bitstream font manager (Draw now integrates the font identification tool WhatTheFont), Trace (which converts bitmaps into vector graphics), the Service Bureau Profiler to prepare graphics for professional prints, a Duplexing wizard and a new online collaboration software called ConceptShare. Included are also a font collection and 10,000 clipart images.
If you aren’t familiar with CorelDraw, this package basically delivers a professional vector graphics software that is comparable to Adobe’s Illustrator and comes with basic desktop publishing (DTP) capabilities as well as a consumer-oriented bitmap editing application (Photo Paint) that is not quite as flexible and powerful as Adobe’s Photoshop. I’ll be focusing mostly on CorelDraw in this article, since it is the main reason why users - Corel says that its customer base ranges from design professionals in print and advertising to “occasional graphics users” - will buy this package.
The full version of CorelDraw Graphics Suite X4 sells for $429 MSRP.
What you don’t get
Up until version 4 (released in 1993), the suite included a fantastic Chart creation application called “CorelChart”; it is somewhat surprising to me that this software has never been brought back to life since then. A presentation component called “Show” was also part until version 4 and has been integrated more or less in Draw since then. Draw is an excellent software to create presentations, but interestingly, the new X4 can only import PowerPoint files, but not export into this format.
Also noteworthy is that the DTP software Ventura, which was part of CorelDraw 5, is still sold by Corel as a separate program for $599 (full version). So, if you are interested in creating simple newsletters, Draw is a sufficient solution, but if you are looking for multipage newsletters and more, Ventura or a competing software such as Adobe’s InDesign is what you should be looking for.
Read on the next page: Look and feel of CorelDraw X4, New features
Look and feel
If you have used CorelDraw before, you will feel comfortable using X4 almost immediately. All the buttons and controls are still in the same places and should look familiar. The good news here is that no matter from which version you are upgrading, you can start using the software immediately. Under the “Help” menu, Corel included a neat “What’s New”, which doesn’t end up in a lengthy help file, but simply highlights the changes and new features right in the GUI. You can choose from which version you are upgrading from (back to version 9) and you’ll see the new features immediately and can start playing with them, rather than searching for them.
If you are new to CorelDraw, this of course also means that exploiting the full capability of this software is still difficult, as Draw never has been known as a software that is particularly easy to use without proper training. To use the software efficiently, you still will need to study the manual carefully, practice many hours or you are simply lucky enough to have someone who teaches you the tricks of Draw.
I always got a kick out of people preaching the advantages of Adobe’s Illustrator over CorelDraw (and vice versa). The bottom line is that both are pretty powerful tools and there is very little you can’t accomplish with either one of them in vector graphics design. The fact of the matter, however, is that Illustrator feels more comfortable to Mac than to PC users. An example: The right mouse button is as essential to Draw users as is the Apple key to Illustrator users. This hasn’t changed in the latest version of Illustrator (version 13 or CS3), but there’s a slight new twist in Draw: The development team apparently wants X4 to look more appealing to Illustrator users by making the GUI much more flexible than before. In fact, the GUI can be modified so it looks just like the Illustrator GUI (read more on that below). That of course, does not eliminate the fact that both applications have very different philosophies of creating and editing objects and if you have ever become familiar with either one, I’ll bet you’ll stick with that product.
So, what is new in CorelDraw X4 over version X3?
1. A new user interface.
Well, the description “new” may sound like an exaggeration when you first see the new X4, even if you are coming, like me, from version 10. Buttons and menus have been redesigned to resemble the feel of Windows Vista, and a new “hints” section is available in the dock. But, what is more interesting is that there are customizable “workspaces”. Customizable in X4 means not only that you can add or remove certain buttons or menus from the GUI. You can redesign the complete layout of the menu and even choose layouts from preset menus, for example an “Illustrator” version. Workspaces can be saved, exported and important – and shared with other users. By far, this is the most significant improvement in the usability category for CorelDraw in years.
Other than your average menu or toolbar customization, these customizable workspaces have very few limits when you are creating your GUI. For example, the Gold Master of Draw X4 came with a preset Illustrator workspace as a configuration option – and while this workspace does not look like it Illustrator CS3, it adapts key layout features and the Adobe menu structure. Compared to the normal X4 GUI, no single item is left on its original place: For example the workspace configuration moves from the menu Tools/Customization/Workspace to a newly created menu Edit/Preferences/Workspace.
Dramatic GUI changes are possible and there’s a lot of potential in this feature. I would not be surprised, if we saw similar capabilities popping in up in other applications in the future.
2. An improved PowerTrace
Trace helps to convert bitmaps into vector graphics. This application is particularly useful, for example, if you have to work on existing floor plans, but don’t have the vector graphics file anymore, if you improve company logos from scans, or if you simply want to convert bitmaps into cliparts. X4 comes with a new “Centerline” trace method, which eliminates ugly double-lines, which typically require lots of patience to correct or delete. Trace now offers three different ways to convert bitmaps and especially the new Centerline method delivered impressive results in vectorizing drawings.
3. Noteworthy new features
- Interactive tables: Creating tables always has been a painful task in CorelDraw and required users to carefully align guidelines and construct tables line by line. Now there’s a table tool, in Corel-language called an “interactive tables” tool. “Interactive” is a bit of an overstatement as this tool feels like the table creation tools that were available in early WYSIWIG HTML editors. You can now create tables easier in Draw by defining the number of columns and rows, but the handling of these tables is inconvenient. Comprehensive global formatting (appearance of cells as well as text formatting) cannot be applied, fountain fills cannot reach across multiple cells and the resizing of cells and rows is everything but easy. I understand that this is a new feature and it may evolve over time, but it is certainly not a reason why I would purchase X4: Yes, simple tables are now created much easier, just don’t expect the ease of use and flexibility of Excel (Wouldn’t Chart be a nice extension for these interactive tables?)
- Independent page layers: You may wonder why there is a need for page layers that are separate for each page you edit, but especially in lengthy presentations, this approach dramatically reduces the need of layers on each page. Once you have dealt with more than 50 layers in a document, this is a very useful new feature.
- Live text formatting: Adobe and Corel have been playing with live text formatting features for some time and it appears that we will be seeing this trend to continue for some time. X4 introduces a new feature that actually changes the font of all marked text while you scroll down the font box and hover over fonts, at least this is how this should work. My Gold copy, however, did not play along well. The feature worked ok for the first two fonts that were changed. But once I scrolled to the third font, the text marking (over multiple lines of text) disappeared – a particularly annoying situation, since you’ll have to mark your text again and try to choose the font you are looking for rather quickly. Corel did not respond to my inquiry whether this was a known bug or an isolated problem.
On a positive note, the text tool now comes with a “WhatTheFont” feature from MyFonts.com, which helps users identify fonts in bitmap images.
- ConceptShare: ConceptShare joins the Draw dock and acts as an online collaboration interface. According to Corel, this new tool lets users share design ideas with other users and colleagues in real time. I did not have a chance to try this for myself, so I will have to believe Corel that ConceptShare allows users to do just that.
- Also … : Yes, there are new supported file formats, including Adobe’s CS3 suite of applications, Microsoft Publisher, Word 2007, PDF comments, DXF and DWG R2.5 to 2007 and Painter X. I mentioned it before, I find it a bit surprising that X4 can import PowerPoint slides, but can’t export into that format. CorelDraw is a fantastic tool to create static presentations or the foundation of a more elaborate animated presentation tool (another hint for the Draw developer team) and bi-directional PowerPoint support would be nice. As of now, if you are using Draw to create presentations, X4 requires a backroad to PowerPoint. Noteworthy other new features in X4 are also a new print merge, improved support for VBA 6.4 and support for Adobe’s Color Management Module.
Read on the next page: Conclusion
After one week with the new Corel Draw and several fun (and not so fun) graphics projects, I am left with mixed feelings about X4.
On the positive side, X4 is a solid improvement over X3. It is not a revolutionary departure or improvement over previous versions, but a rather evolutionary change. It still feels like CorelDraw (and that can be a good thing for many users), which means it is still the benchmark for vector graphics on the PC. Illustrator may have the creative edge, but Draw certainly enables users to create everything from postcards or invitations, to basic technical drawings and maps, business cards and logos, flyers, digital art, newsletters or even professional advertisements and newsletters in a very professional way. Its menu interface feels mature and well thought through.
But while X4 is an evolutionary improvement, I doubt you will find enough reasons to upgrade if you are currently using X3 – especially if you haven’t been waiting in particular for ConceptShare and depend on the best trace feature available. I can’t help but feel that the CorelDraw product manager and developers are stuck in a constant dilemma what feature to add next to an existing GUI. It’s already a bloated application at an installed size of 1.41 GB (including all other standard X4 applications) and the new features aren’t dramatic or innovative enough to blow your socks off. X4 in fact feels like CorelDraw is ready for a radical change, similar to what Microsoft did with Office 2007. It seems that Corel will have to make a choice between expanding the software into new territories, such as presentation or charting, or streamlining the GUI substantially without jeopardizing the functionality of the software.
The other possibility, of course, is that CorelDraw will stay more or less the same in the future, which I don’t hope will be the case. There ought to be a few new ideas how creating and editing vector graphics can be improved.
But I admit that, in today’s shape, CorelDraw has few weaknesses, which include the handling of the desktop (which is a bit awkward and misses a “hand” feature), certain text formatting issues (see above) and file export (TIFF export failed in this X4 Gold version with certain drawings). But there is no doubt that, as of now, CorelDraw is still the one to beat on the PC. The developers just have to make sure that CorelDraw does not lose this status in the near future.