QuarkXPress 8

QuarkXPress 8 is a brave release. It marks a major change to the user interface of the venerable page-layout and design program for the Mac. The familiar interface that QuarkXPress has held to for 21 years is now more similar in style to that of Adobe's design applications. At the same time, version 8 offers very little in the way of new features, thus making the interface change its hallmark.

Much of what is "new" in XPress 8 comes from a free XTension to QuarkXPress 7 and the previously separate Quark Interactive Designer. If you've installed the free Quark XPert Tools Pro XTension, you already have several of XPress 8's new print- and Web-oriented features, such as item styles and item find/change. And if you have already purchased the US$49 Quark Interactive Designer, you have its new Flash-creation features as well. Obviously, if you never updated from XPress 6.5 to XPress 7, these features will all be truly new to you if you purchase version 8.

Given how much of what's new to XPress 8 is a roll-up of existing Quark applications, it's easy to see XPress 8 as old wine in new bottles. And it essentially is just that. There are a few truly unique functional additions, including a sophisticated set of controls for optical margin alignment (what QuarkXPress calls hanging characters), the ability to create grid styles, and the ability to specify the way characters align vertically as part of a paragraph style.

Simplified user interface

Changing the user interface of an established application is very risky for software companies. Quark has certainly evolved the interface of XPress over its 21-year history, but essentially, the program has stayed fairly close to its original look-and-feel for the last 18 years. XPress 8 goes beyond previous versions' approach of enhancing tools (such as the versatile Measurements palette) by actually changing how the basic interface works.

The new interface is simpler, cleaner, and easier to work with, and because of that streamlining, feels a bit faster too. Quark has avoided Adobe's tendency to overcomplicate the interface, and instead has made its capabilities easily accessible without getting in your way. It's done this by displaying far fewer tools: eight, versus 16 (in the Web layout) in XPress 7.3. Plus, these tools are now more flexible. For example, XPress 8 lets you rotate an object with the Item and Picture Content tools that you frequently use rather than forcing you switch to the Rotate tool--there is no longer a Rotate tool. You can now resize an object or its contents the same way.

Ironically, XPress 8 accomplishes this by adopting the approach of Adobe's Free Transform tool, which lets you do several things to an object. But Quark one-ups Adobe by not segregating the Free Transform functions to a separate tool; instead it marries them to the Item and Picture Content tools you use so often in XPress. Plus, XPress 8 provides a live preview of your changes as you make them.

XPress 8's simplified user interface reduces the number of tools and simplifies palettes, and on the Mac, provides previews of pages for navigation. But the software's dialog boxes and menus are essentially unchanged.

Quark has also changed the behavior of its Bézier drawing tool to work more like those of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. The changes are subtle but make it easier to switch among all three programs.

The new version's simplified tool set nicely complements the Measurements palette, something XPress has used effectively for several versions to bring many relevant functions to a selected object without getting in the way. Competitor InDesign CS3 uses a similar mechanism, the Control panel, but it crams too many controls in at any one time and thus quickly becomes overwhelming.

Quark has made XPress's Measurements palette more capable, but not more confusing, with several new panes that provide additional functionality without having to use dialog boxes and palettes. There are also new quick-access options to switch to a document's master page and to export it to PDF, EPS, HTML, or Flash files. This bolsters a key XPress interface strength: not having to hunt for options in layout-obscuring panels and dialog boxes.

XPress 8 also seems simpler than InDesign when it comes to the palettes (called panels in InDesign) that offer specialty controls for editing and applying style sheets or managing colors. And InDesign makes almost every feature available via panels, while XPress splits features between palettes and menu-invoked dialog boxes, which can make it hard to remember that some of those unseen dialog boxes, and their features, actually exist. After all, the Measurements palette doesn't provide access to everything.

The new XPress also adopts several functions InDesign has had for years, but that nonetheless will make a layout artist's day-to-day work much easier. For example, you no longer need to draw a box before importing text or graphics. Instead, you can now directly import or drag text and images into your layout, from any drag-and-drop-enabled application or the Finder, and XPress 8 will create the appropriate box to hold it.

XPress 8 lets you define precisely how various characters overhang the left and right edges of text boxes, a common advertising technique.

A related interface enhancement that designers will welcome is the ability to drag text and graphics from XPress 8 to the desktop or to other drag-and-drop--enabled applications such as Photoshop and Adobe Bridge CS3.

In XPress 8, you can quickly update a style sheet based on formatting changes you made to text that had the style sheet applied, using the Update button in the style sheet palettes--old news to InDesign users, but much easier than writing the changes down and then manually updating the style sheet. Other small but welcome interface enhancements include the ability to change the pasteboard size and color and the ability to choose which application you want to edit original graphics in. Moreover, in the Mac version only, XPress 8 shows resizable preview thumbnails of your pages in the Page menu, which can make it easier to jump to the desired page. XPress's Page Layout panel continues to show just page icons with no previews, however.

Overall, XPress 8 has done a good job of reworking its front-and-center user interface to be simpler and easier to use, even for experienced XPress users. On the other hand, Quark hasn't done much with the rest of the interface: menus and dialog boxes are essentially unchanged, and they, too, could have stood some streamlining.

How does all this streamlining affect speed? Some tasks feel faster given their better controls--such as updating styles and going to the correct master page. On the other hand, XPress 8 was slower to launch and load pages than version 7.31 on three test machines. Disk intensive tasks such as importing a Word file or importing a 200MB TIFF were comparable to the previous version. Computer intensive tasks such as replacing and reflowing page elements and applying transparencies were comparable between versions, though applying an irregular wrap was notably faster (1.6 seconds for the new version versus 2.3 seconds for the previous version).

New features appeal to a few

When it comes to actual new design capabilities, XPress 8's few additions will appeal to just a fraction of users. The most widely applicable is the ability to create grid styles, so you can set up separate grids for text alignment and then associate them to as many text boxes as desired to ensure consistent grid use. You can also have separate grids on each master page.

The new grid styles featured in XPress 8 let you define separate grids for text boxes and master pages, so you can more easily control alignment. The ability to import settings from fonts and styles makes baseline grids even more precise.

But this feature is not well implemented: Chances are that if you're applying grids to individual text boxes, you're applying other attributes (such as margins and fills) to those boxes consistently as well. You would use the item-styles feature--which was previously available through the free XPert Tools Pro XTension--to apply those styles, so it would make sense for the item style to let you also specify the desired grid style. But there is no connection, so you'll have to apply grid styles separately from item styles.

Also, XPress 8's grid-style feature can read in the leading, baseline settings, or other attributes from a paragraph style sheet or font, so it can figure out the right baseline grids for a particular font. That makes for more precise grid locations. Getting the grid based on a font is easy, but getting it based on a paragraph style is unintuitive; you have to first select a paragraph style (or master page or grid style), using the Load Settings button in the Edit Grid Style dialog box, and then check a box in the Edit Grid Style dialog box. What's particularly confusing is that if you don't know to first load the paragraph style, the dialog box makes it appear as if your only choice is to use the settings from the Normal paragraph style.

XPress 8 also introduces styles for hanging characters. With hanging characters, you can specify precisely how text aligns at the left or right edge of a column. This is useful in ads, posters, and other typographically oriented publications, as it can create a more visually pleasant edge by adjusting the parts of characters that could overhang, such as the bar in an uppercase T, the serif in a lowercase m,and various punctuation characters. Although most users won't need this level of control, typographic fine artists will appreciate it.

The third truly new feature in XPress 8 is the ability to set characters' vertical alignment. This setting is important only if you have text (or inline graphics) whose size differs from the rest of the text in your paragraph. Normally, all characters align to the baseline of each line, no matter their size. Now, XPress 8 lets you change how the characters align, such as to the top of each line or to the middle. This, too, is a feature that typographic fine artists will appreciate but that most users will likely never have reason to take advantage of.

XPress 8 gets rid of the distinction between the regular, Passport, and CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) editions, ending compatibility problems of sharing files between language-based versions. Now, XPress 8 can create, edit, hyphenate, spell-check, and output in some 30 languages, including Asian ones, ending the former linguistic divide. (A separate Asian Plus edition provides extra Asian-language typographic controls and also uses the newly unified XPress file format.) This global unification does not extend to the Middle Eastern and Indic versions of XPress that other companies produced under license from Quark.

XPress 8 adds support for Illustrator file import, a critical feature to designers. But smaller, less important issues have yet to be resolved. For example, while XPress lets you drag multiple graphics into your layout at the same time, you cannot import them all at once via the Get Text or Get Pictures dialog boxes, as you can in InDesign's Place dialog box. XPress 8 also does not correct the longstanding unintuitive, convoluted approach to importing Excel files.

XPress's frequently used Item and Picture Content tools now let you rotate, resize, and scale items directly--no more switching to other tools. And you now get a live preview of your changes as you make them.

Key additions rolled in

Of the features rolled into XPress 8 from previous Quark add-ons, the most significant is the interactive set from Quark Interactive Designer, which lets you create basic Flash animations within XPress, such as buttons, rollovers, and objects that move along a path. This capability has no equal in InDesign, but be aware that because XPress 8 exports SWF files instead of Flash project files, you cannot edit these files in Flash CS3 Professional.

Item styles and item find/change (derived from XPert Tools Pro) are also a key addition in XPress 8, making it easier to ensure consistent formatting of objects, such as their color, margins, and text wrap. But InDesign's long-available object styles are much more capable than XPress's item styles, so it's really just a basic catch-up capability for Quark --and available for free for XPress 7.3 users. And a few useful XPert Tools Pro features--multiple-page paste, group scaling, and saved layout settings--did not find their way into XPress 8, but should have.

Macworld's buying advice

QuarkXPress 8 poses somewhat of a dilemma. Because it offers very few new functions--and none that have broad utility--it's hard to make the economic case to upgrade from the previous version. The most significant new capabilities--those derived from Quark Interactive Designer and the free XPert Tools--can be had for just $49 if you stick with XPress 7.3.

Quark touts the benefits of XPress 8's new user interface for the legions of designers who also use Adobe Creative Suite. These same legions, of course, have long used both, so they've already come to terms with the interface differences. Quark has done a very good job in making the new interface work more like Creative Suite while not being a difficult switch for long-time XPress users. That's mainly due to the fact that the interface changes don't extend throughout the software, so much of the old XPress still survives. Without significant new functionality to go with the new interface, it's hard to imagine why those who already live in both the XPress and Creative Suite worlds wouldn't continue to do so, avoiding the cost of an upgrade.

XPress 8 should have been a significant leap forward in both functionality and user interface, but Quark unfortunately decided to do just half the job, though it is certainly a half-job well done.

[Galen Gruman is a freelance writer in San Francisco and a long-time Macworld contributor on publishing tools.]

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