REVIEW: Serif Jumps The Pond With Four Creative Pro Apps

Back in May it was announced that Serif, a UK company known for its publishing and design applications, would start offering its software for purchase in the United States. It was exciting news because their four main products align closely with Adobe’s Creative Suite applications and could serve as a low-cost substitute (Serif’s apps cost only $80–100 each while Adobe’s comparable apps cost anywhere from $400–700, if purchased separately). The news was exciting enough for me to jump into the world of Windows and try these applications out for myself.

It’s hard to compare software like this to Adobe’s, since applications like Photoshop and Illustrator practically created the desktop publishing and digital imaging industries. Rather than strictly compare the two product families, I approached the task as a working designer would and tested the Serif products to see if they could work well in an ad agency or design firm. This includes working well with standard graphics and text formats, supporting standard spot color libraries such as the PANTONE Matching System, being easy to use and robust for standard design work, and exporting files that will work well with printers.

Serif’s four products include:

  • DrawPlus X2, a graphics program similar to Illustrator,
  • PhotoPlus X2, a digital studio similar to Photoshop,
  • PagePlus X3 Publisher Professional, similar to InDesign, and
  • WebPlus X2, similar to Dreamweaver.

DrawPlus X2: A lot of toys and plays well with others


DrawPlus

DrawPlus X2 is a lot of fun to use and has some cool tricks that are either new to me or are similar to what I’ve seen in Illustrator and Freehand. It can open Illustrator and PDF files and import a variety of other formats including Photoshop and EPS files, though when I threw some complex Illustrator files at it, I learned it couldn’t process opacity masks. But as long as you are not migrating a library of Illustrator files to DrawPlus, you should be all right in your daily work.

Working with the application is fairly easy to do and there’s some powerful tools available to users. There’s a library of brushes that are easy to use and look very natural—charcoal, paint, pastel, pencil, pen and waterpaint strokes are all available, and they are good enough to remind me of Corel Painter. While DrawPlus doesn’t have many color libraries, it does have the PANTONE® libraries which is good. Unfortunately, you can only access them within the Color Selector dialog box, and I don’t like how the Color Selector handles—you can change the color mode within the dialog box but it doesn’t seem to affect what color goes into the Color panel.


DrawPlus

DrawPlus X2 is perfect for making simple graphics such as those shown here. Click the image for a larger view.

There are a few other oddities that really bothered me:

  • You can’t swap the foreground and background color in the Color panel.
  • The Zoom tool is in the lower-right corner of the interface and is easy to miss.
  • Autotracing bitmap graphics is an important part of any illustration application, and DrawPlus does have an autotracing feature but it is inferior to Illustrator. You can only preview your work in a very small window, and there are only a couple settings to handle (smoothness and tolerance). Also note that autotracing a complex image will likely crash the application—the dialog box even warns the user about this.

But there’s some things I haven’t seen in other drawing applications that I like:

  • A Pressure panel allows you to fine-tune how your drawing tablet’s pen pressure is interpreted and applied to brushstrokes.
  • Along with the usual effects like drop shadow and glows, there are some nice 3D filter effects such as bump maps, pattern maps and lighting effects. They make for some really nice effects. I should also note that I’m somewhat disappointed there aren’t more effects and filters, like in Illustrator, but some missing effects (like Roughen) can be found in the toolbar.
  • Instant 3D can make a line, shape or image into a 3D object. For an image this means superimposing it on a three-dimensional image box. It creates some really cool graphics quickly.
  • The Transparency tool allows you to click and apply transparency effects to any element, and you can apply these in a variety of ways (radial, conical, three points, plasma and more).


DrawPlus

DrawPlus X2 also comes equipped with an impressive array of wet and dry brushes. Click the image for a larger view.

You can’t output a DrawPlus graphic as a Photoshop or Illustrator graphic but you can make a variety of bitmap and vector formats including PDF. The PDF export dialog box only allows compatibility up to Acrobat 6 (the application just went up to version 9). You can produce PDF/X-1a files but since the the dialog box seems to be outdated it doesn’t include any other specs like PDF/X-3 or PDF/X-4. Also, in my testing it took awhile to export from complex documents and the resulting files were large.

I would feel comfortable using DrawPlus for my daily work, though I’m not sure I would want to work with complex documents that need to go to PDF or files that need to be converted from Illustrator. I think Illustrator and DrawPlus are a little too different, though Draw Plus really does do a decent job of getting most of it right. The best customer for DrawPlus may be those who are currently drawing with a bottom-dollar application but don’t want to tackle something like Illustrator. DrawPlus gives you some of Illustrator’s power at a fraction of the cost, and it has some fun toys to play with.


DrawPlus

I didn’t cover it in this review, but DrawPlus X2 also has some animation features including the ability to export to Flash. Click the image for a larger view.