PagePlus Starter Edition
At a Glance
PagePlus Starter Edition is a desktop publishing/layout program that offers a wide range of features at an excellent price: free. It meets many of my expectations for high-quality software, including the ability to intuitively perform some complex tasks (at least if you're familiar with the general interface guidelines of Windows and have used any similar programs in the past). An awful lot of free programs that have commercial "big brothers" are more akin to demos or trials than truly useful, if less feature-laden, programs in their own right. PagePlus Starter Edition dances perfectly on the edge between "teaserware" and "independent program."
If you've ever tried to take full advantage of Microsoft Word's very advanced formatting and layout features, you'll know they're anything but intuitive, and your carefully laid-out document can suddenly become a chaotic mess. PagePlus Starter Edition, as a genuine page layout/desktop publishing program, is infinitely easier to use for fancy designs with embedded images, flowing text frames, sidebars, and so on. Simply playing with the menus and options reveals a host of features, and they're easy enough to use that experimentation is encouraged; you want to see what everything does and you don't end up frustrated when things don't work as you expect them to.
Throughout this mass of nifty features, which includes such things as different types of picture frames, freeform text paths, nicely functional tools to insert tables or calendars into text, and more, you will notice a lot of menu items crossed out, hinting at the features accessible in the full version. For example, hyperlinks, PDF publishing, and artistic filter effects are all to be found only in the most recent full version of the software, PagePlus X5. While having "dead" items in menus and toolbars can be a bit irksome, I understand that this style of starter program exists to help sell a commercial product and I much prefer greyed-out items to seemingly-functional items that then pop up an error message or advertisement. However, there's one limit on the Starter Edition that really bugs me, and that is the five-page maximum document size. This pretty much limits any use of Starter Edition to brochures, very short newsletters, posters, and so on. In some ways, I would have preferred slightly less total functionality in exchange for unlimited, or at least much longer, documents. Your mileage may vary.
If your needs are for a lot of control and flexibility within the confines of short documents (and I can think of many valid cases where this is so), PagePlus Starter Edition is excellent for the task, and if your needs expand, upgrading to PagePlus X5 should be an easy decision.