Corel Draw X4 Suite
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Feature: Corel Draw X4 Suite Provides full Bitmap/PhotoPaint and Vector editing/Draw
Idea:These are very good, tested programs for graphics design and photo editing

Two years ago thePhotoFinishes.com did a review of Corel Draw's Sibling product Corel Designer Technical Suite. This, like Corel Draw at the time, was a package of five programs:
1)Corel Designer (or Draw) for vector graphics;
2)Corel PhotoPaint for bitmap and photo editing;
3)Corel Rave for Flash animations ;
4)Corel Trace for creating vector graphics from bitmaps;
5)Corel Capture for screen captures.
Corel Designer was targeted for business and engineering drawing users while Corel Draw fit graphic artists more closely. The only difference between the two programs was Corel Designer versus Draw and some of the Extras packaged with each suite. The review touted some of the innovations in Designer but bemoaned the fact that PhotoPaint had remained essentially static in features. The same could be said for Capture and Rave with some small but useful additions to Trace.

Fast forward two years and now Rave is gone from Corel Draw Suite, Trace has been folded into Draw (good move, its is much more convenient and enhanced as PowerTrace) and Capture has hardly changed. The balance of this review will be what is in Corel Draw and how PhotoPaint fits in the Corel Draw workflow.

Corel Draw IDE
The Corel Draw interface has stabilized around four components. First, in light blue shade along the left side of the screen is the Toolbar which has over 60 tools. Many, like the Fill and Shape tools are variations on a consistent feature; but nonetheless this underlines the complexity of modern graphics software (vector illustration but also bitmap photo editing as well).

Second, every time a user chooses a tool from the toolbox, the green tinted Property Bar also changes. This is the key to getting your work done quickly in Corel Draw - stop, and make sure all the settings in the Property Bar meet your current intentions. Now Property bar will remember for each tool and object what your last setting was. The Property bar also has default settings (which uses can customize) for each graphic object chosen for the first-time with that tool. But even with this I find myself checking the Property bar after I select a tool to get the exact changes I want.

Third, just like Adobe Panels and Eclipse's Dialogs, Corel has its tabbed Docker shown in yellow in the screenshot above. The Dockers are either overflows for the Property Bar (choose Artmedia Media brush and see what happens to the dockers ) or bring new options to users such as the Color and

Fourth, along the bottom of the screen is the footer which in Corel Draw packs a lot of the info about the tools being used, the image being drawn, and so forth- some tools like Photoshop and Illustrator have special dialogs for this type of active drawing info. But in the upcoming Fireworks and Xara reviews, users will see that this is a consistent and popular layout among all three of the best bitmap+vector drawing tools.

Vector Tools

Corel Draw has the usual vector creations tools like the line, circle/ellipse, square/rectangle and polygon/star vector drawing tools. But like Fireworks and Xara (with its powerful copy object as brush feature), Corel Draw provides a whole range of Arrow, Basic, Banner, Callout and Flowchart vector shapes as presets ready to drag and draw on the Corel canvas. The collection of shapes is well less than a tenth of the shapes that Visio provides; but nonetheless the Corel 50-60 plus Table, Spiral, and Graph feature is more than adequate for this vector draughtsman.

More important are the pen and line drawing tools and the shape editing features in Corel Draw. This is where illustrators really gain time. True like Fireworks and Xara, Corel Draw has the classic Bezier pen tool for drawing elegant lines and curves. And like the other two it has a more modern Art Media drawing tool that emulates calligraphy, mezzotint and other artistic pens and brush strokes. Fireworks has more types of brushes and textures; but all three programs provide ways to add to the brushes available to users with perhaps Corel Draw and Xara easiest and Fireworks with the most new pen/brush options.
But the critical advantages that Corel Draw has in vector drawing are fourfold.
First, whenever you draw close to another object, Corel Draw knows and informs users with little tiny blue hints: edge, node, midpoint, intersection, center and other features of the nearby curve or object (see screenshot above). This is very useful information when drawing and/or editing an existing shape. It is also one of the keys to the "snap-to" system as noted just below.

Second
, Corel Draw provides not only snap-to guideline and grids but also snap-to between object features in nearby and underlying objects, again as shown in the screenshot above. This is very useful when placing and aligning graphic objects. In addition, Corel Draw now has a connector tool that draws lines between objects' snap-to points. They then become connected sort of like a group. The difference is that when one of the connected objects is moved the other object does not, but the connecting line stretches to follow the moved object. This is very useful in flowcharts, comic callouts, and modeling diagrams.

Third, Corel Draw provides many more pens and shape modifying tools than either Fireworks (8 tools) or Xara(3 tools). Corel Draw has 7 pens including :
3 Point Curve - draws single curves with end points and then user clicked midpoint
Artmedia pen - uses calligraphy or symbol/icon brushes with user controlled color and texture
Bezier pen - sets down a series of Bezier curves until closed
Freehand pen - same as polyline except each click or draw stop ends the line at that point
Pen tool - draws like the Bezier but drag and drop operations use different skew points
Polyline pen - allows user to place lines with point and click, then drag and draw freehand lines
Smart Drawing tool - smooths drawing into the nearest rectangles, ellipses, triangle, etc
These tools range from the technical (3Point Curve, Bezier, and Polyline tools) to the artistic (Artmedia and Freehand pens). And with the Pen fills , it is possible to add calligraphy refinements similar to the rich Artmedia flourishes.

In addition, Corel Draw has 8 shape modifying tools including shape, knife, eraser, virtual segment, distort, smudge, roughen, and connector with the final four being being almost unique in features to Corel Draw. However, Corel Draw is not above drawing from its competitors - with its Interactive Blend, Contour, and Fill tools looking very similar to its Xara counterparts. These latter tools free Corel Draw from the tyranny of dialog driven vector drawing effects - and instead allow the user to just drag and draw the respective blend contour and fill effects.

One can see how Corel Draw gets top marks for ease of use. It starts with the many preset shapes and unique drawing tools, interactive Hints (see note below) to remind users how to get the most out of each tool, and then some innovative transformation commands - very similar to the Envelope and Perspective tools but including the Scale, Rotate, and Skew capabilities. Finally one can combine vector objects in ways similar to Fireworks and Xara - Combine, Group, Weld, Trim, Intersect, Simplify, Back Minus Front, Front minus Back. Corel Draw adds to these commands by controlling how the backgrounds combine in unique ways. But among the three tools, transformations and combining objects are quite similar with Corel Draw nearly matching Xara for ease of use. The image below shows a vector illustration in Corel Draw.

One of the keys to the above image is use of Corel's Power Trace command to render a small bitmap image of a country road in the Fall to a vector drawing. It is then scaled up by a factor of two and then color simplified. The whirling wind spirits are star vectors transformed and filled with bitmaps of another Fall forest scene. Bitmap+Vectors are integral to Corel Draw - but not as versatile as in Fireworks and Xara.

Bitmaps in Corel Draw

Actually pure bitmap commands are very strong in Corel Draw - as seen below the restrictions come when combining bitmap and vectors. Remember - Corel Draw has the power of a full bitmap editor, Photo Paint, at its command. Now this editor was until about 3-4 years ago, one of the easiest to use and most powerful photo editors. But then Corel bought Painter and PaintShop Pro and put its R&D bucks into those two products with minimal, cosmetic updates (the proverbial "interface improvements"). But consider that Corel had already scrapped another vaunted photo editor, Picture Publisher, which they acquired with Micrografx and that tells the story.

As seen in its own review, PhotoPaint is a powerful full photo editor with a complete set of brushes, color corrections, image transformations, masking, layering and filter/effects available to users. All the commands necessary to edit digital camera photos with ease are available. And all of this power is available to Corel Draw users when handling Bitmap objects - just select the Bitmaps | Edit Bitmaps command and PhotoPaint starts up with the bitmap ready to edit. When finished editing in PhotoPaint, return the transformed bitmap image using PhotoPaint's File | Finish Edit command. One annoying side effect - Corel starts up a new copy of PhotoPaint for each bitmap image edited in PhotoPaint(even if PhotoPaint is already started), so make sure you close down PhotoPaint after editing or you will have several copies of PhotoPaint using up memory.


But within Corel Draw itself there are a full range of PhotoPaint-like commands for resizing, straightening, cropping, color correcting and filter effect finishing of any imported bitmap image. This is the strength of Corel Draw's bitmap processing. - its steps ahead of both Fireworks and Xara.

For example, the Image Adjustment Lab is a mini Lightroom for color and brightness/contrast corrections to a bitmap image. There is a similar dialog for making Straightening corrections. And the range of blur, sharpening, and smoothing commands at a user's disposal are equal to what is available in PhotoPaint - because its the same code. Finally a full range of 40 plus Effects from Cubism to Vertex Twirl are available if the user wants to add Painterly effects to the bitmap image. In sum, Corel Draw is replete with powerful bitmap editing tools


Bitmap+Vector

However, this bitmap manipulation advantage has to tempered against the relative weakness of the bitmap+vector operations in Corel Draw. True one can add bitmaps as fills to just about any object - Text, Vector Object and and of the multiple grouped and combined objects. But there are missing features like a)the inability to have a single tile or inverted multiple tile as a fill or b)to see the resizing and rotation of the fills interactively or c)most importantly, to be able to adjust the bitmap fill for color or other corrections as required(you must adjust the bitmap outside the fill and then re-apply it).

This can be frustrating because Corel Draw has all those nifty PhotoPaint effects at its disposal but they cannot be applied to a bitmap once it is used as a fill. However, one can still manipulate the filled bitmap as seen in the screenshot at the left where the image has had text cutout and then the same cutout text is manipulated (the dagger "P" of Place, for example). However, the full power of Corel Draw's many vector drawing and manipulation capabilities (think Knife, Blend, Distort, etc) are available to use on just about any bitmap fill.

The problem arises when users a)want to filter/alter the bitmap fill(requiring a two step operation as noted above) or b)apply effects to the bitmap and its vector container (including any groupings, combines, and/or transformations). Corel Draw cannot apply effects to the vector container. In contrast, both Fireworks and Xara allow users to apply both their own plus just about any 3rd party plugin effect to bitmap+vector. And the changes are made non-destructively - so that it is easy to remove one effect and try another. Finally, the effect does not change the editability of the bitmap+vector object- resize, rotate, add a new fill, bevel or whatever - and the bitmap+vector object changes accordingly. This is particularly useful with a composite object in which a bitmap is deeply embedded in an object with several groupings and combines applied. Thus for photo composition work, Corel Draw is still very competent; just not as adept as its competitors.

Text Manipulations
Corel Draw has a complete set of DTP-Desktop Publishing features with paragraph blocks that can flow text between them(4)in the screen shot above, graphic curves and objects that can text flow on the outside(1), and vector object can be filled with text(3), vector objects that repel text(2) for wrapping text around any object plus a master layout system for guidelines and text block control.

This latter feature puts Corel Draw well ahead of Xara whose claim to fame is much easier text flow system and simpler text flow on a curve while Fireworks has only suggestions of DTP features with text on a curve but no flow between text blocks nor text wrapping around graphic objects. However, there are a myriad of unique additional features in Corel Draw that simplify DTP tasks like creating top notch brochures and graphics rich documents.

First, Corel Draw has a spell checker, dictionary, thesaurus, quick grammar checker plus script settings for nearly 30 languages. Next Corel Draw has settings for auto-hyphenation of text including user customization. This is critical in DTP settings where text wrap adjustments constantly force new hyphenations. In addition users can add columns easily to a text block with sizable gutters, tabs, drop caps, and special spacing and character settings. In general Corel Draw makes many page layout tasks easy to do right in the a graphics program

However, there are some downsides. Some of the command or mouse manipulations are clumsy or just downright obscure. Take for example increasing the between line spacing using the mouse. It sometimes takes infinite patience. Likewise changing the block flows - an obscure double click mouse operation. Likewise kerning is not in the text property bar but must be tracked down in the character formatting docker. But Corel Draw also rewards typographers with special Font extras and a font finder plus Table feature providing another quick layout option. The result is that Corel Draw is one of the most DTP and text adept of the bitmap+vector drawing programs.

Why I like Hints
Hints (seen in the screenshot at left)is one of the Corel Docker tools I like best. Why. Because printed documentation is becoming minimal from all the major vendors - Adobe, Apple, Corel, Microsoft, Xara, etc. Most of the documentation for a system resides in Help files, PDFs , and maybe a view movies on the distribution disks. But the most up-to-date Help files and extensive documentation and how-to movies are up on the vendors website - effectively out of reach when you are on the road or even at a client's site.

But keeping up with the latest in photofinishing software is a demanding task as editing software becomes more complex, you use many of program features and tools less often or intermittently, and you simply get older with memory loss matching or exceeding hair loss. Finally, there are a constant stream of updates and changes to popular photofinishing programs.

What Corel has done has put Hints in the dockers panel so it is easy to see and view. Every time you choose a new tool from Corel Draw's (or PhotoPaint's )tool box, the Hints change. And these are not elaborate 2-3 page reading exercises - but rather quick summaries of what is essential to getting that tool used effectively. I now use the Hints first, Help or the tutorials if I need to dig into the details. Two bonuses to Corel Hints - with program updates come updates to Hints as well. And users also have local Corel Tutors and Insights from the Experts. Kudos to Corel for making their documentation more effective.

Now this use of Hints is also being forced on Corel by the 3rdparty book and CD marketplace. After searches at both Amazon and Barnes+Noble I could find no books covering Corel Draw X4, only one or two for Corel Draw X3, and a slightly improved availability of CDROM material, 3-5 tutorial CDs for both editions. In contrast, Adobe Illustrator had well over 100 books available of which more than 20 covered either CS2 or the new CS3 versions. The stark reality is that Hints help to cover the 3rd party documentation and support gap for Corel Draw.

Why I Watch for Bugs in All Graphics Software

I have been using Corel Draw and particularly PhotoPaint since the early 1990's. And one of the things I have learned with Corel is that bugs, like mosquitoes, never get eliminated (and are starting to infest some Adobe products as well). So reactions like this blog entry erupt from time to time. But read all the comments, because I have found that Corel does manage to eradicate most of the bugs especially in new features. But you have to be careful and save at key points. For example, in this review over about 32-40 hours of work, PhotoPaint crashed twice and Corel Draw twice.

So now with all my graphics software I am watching for bugs. Graphics software like Adobe Photoshop, Corel Draw, ToonBoom and others are at the edge of complexity in interfaces, computational intensity, printing and rendering rigor, inherent graphic design sophistication, and now need to interface with other tools and databases. Its the interfacing tasks with a)other devices and printers and b)with other graphic objects and/or databases - where the code and graphic objects cross boundaries, these are the places I am extra cautious and tend to save my work.

But Corel has added A.R.M. - Advanced Recovery Manager which takes control when a crashing fault occurs - and allows the user to save files and workspaces before the program aborts.Over 6 days of testing there were 3 crashes. In those crashes, ARM came to the rescue 2 of 4 times. ARM is one of those features you don't want to use; but when required is highly useful.

Summary

Corel Draw is actually a graphic artist's bounty. For $300 street one gets a top notch vector draw and then a very good bitmap photo editor in PhotoPaint. For vector drawings and practical DTP layout work, Corel Draw is fast and one of the easiest to use. Yes, there is a learning curve but a)so too for Adobe Illustrator and Fireworks or Xara Xtreme and b)none of these has the convenience of Corel Draw's Hints docker that changes as soon as you choose a new tool. In addition Corel Draw has configurable keyboard shortcuts plus scripting to create fast short cut operations. And Corel Draw has good if not top notch bitmap+vector operations. The combination of skills puts Corel Draw at the top of the graphics price performance heap.




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