Review: SmartDraw 2013 Helps You Go With The Flow

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder SmartDraw 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the adage goes. Whether you need an Edward Tufte-type infographic, complex flowchart, or seating plan, the success of your graphics is often tied directly to your software. $300 SmartDraw 2013 aims to make visualization of data easy, even for users without a graphic design or drawing background.

When you run SmartDraw 2013, the program offers  you five very different options: Create a visual, document a process, hold a meeting, manage a project, or make a presentation.  Choosing to create a visual will allow you to choose from any of the many SmartDraw templates—from charts to seating plans to maps to SWOT analysis—which can be a little overwhelming. When you document a process, hold a meeting, or manage a project, SmartDraw will open a storyboard page and the typical items you need to create that type of project—process bubbles and arrows, for example—that you can drag and drop into position, or add using buttons. The option to make a presentation also opens a storyboard, in which you can plan out your slideshow. However, you will need to export to Microsoft PowerPoint to run the presentation.

You can automate many kinds of things with SmartDraw. For example, when you are creating a flow chart, the boxes will automatically line up unless you move them manually, and will connect with the arrows you choose. When you move a bar on a bar chart, the correct scale number will show and the scale will change with your chart. The canvas size also will change depending on the size of your graphic. All of these things make starting out with SmartDraw pretty easy. However, the number of graphics and chart types can be distracting, and some beginner users may notice the lack of a Wizard. For the over 40s set (and maybe some users under 40), the size and legibility of the type still is a problem. It can also be very difficult to create accurate technical drawings from scratch. When your graphic is complete, you can easily upload it to SmartDraw's free cloud storage site: SmartShare.

SmartDraw includes templates for pretty much any graphic you might ever need. However, the popup and hover menu items are extremely small and hard to read, regardless of your screen size. And there's no option for enlarging the size.

SmartDraw can import data from a database file and automatically create charts and other info graphics. However, SmartDraw's functionality in this regard is not much different from using the charting options built into Microsoft Excel or Apache OpenOffice Calc (free spreadsheet program.) If you have data that you want to crunch and display, SmartDraw may not be the best option: Tableau Public is free to download and will create stunning infographics using your raw data, without the need for you to do any additional math.

SmartDraw 2013 is a direct competitor to Microsoft Visio ($250); however, SmartDraw tries very hard to be fully compatible with Microsoft products. The Standard $297 version of SmartDraw 2013 includes all of the drawing tools, templates, and automation you need to create multiple graphics. That said, you will need to purchase the $397 Business license if you need Microsoft PowerPoint or Microsoft SharePoint integration. Unfortunately, SmartDraw files cannot be converted into Visio; and only the Enterprise license of SmartDraw ($597) can import Visio files (although the Enterprise version can also import and export Microsoft Project files).

If you are currently a Visio user, you may really enjoy the automation offered by SmartDraw, and fortunately there's a free trial so you can take SmartDraw for a spin. The trial lasts 7 calendar days or 5 runs (whichever comes sooner). In addition, SmartDraw watermarks printouts and exports during the trial period, so plan ahead accordingly, and be prepared to use the trial thoroughly at one to five sittings. Even if you're sure you want SmartDraw, it may be worth your time  to download the trial, as on expiration you are currently offered a $100 discount on purchasing SmartDraw 2013.

If you are already a SmartDraw VP user, you are probably not going to notice a lot of changes or improvements in SmartDraw 2013, unless you're really excited about the SmartShare online storage. If you are new to creating graphics, or a beginner Visio user, SmartDraw's automation and templates are a big plus. Unfortunately, you may not be able to get a full sense of the program within the limitations of the trial.

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At a Glance
  • SmartDraw can't be beat for automating many types of diagrams and graphics, but it can be frustrating to advanced users.


    • Many templates
    • Good automation
    • Integrates with Microsoft software


    • UI hard to read
    • No searchable help
    • Complex
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