REVIEW: DrawPlus X3 Does Some Catching Up

drawplusThe UK-based developer Serif has released DrawPlus X3, the latest version of their drawing application that most closely resembles Adobe’s Illustrator and the defunct Freehand. Unlike those programs, DrawPlus X3 has also taken after Photoshop Elements and other applications that help users along with wizards, visual aids and step-by-step instructions built into the application, making this product a good selection for amateur and prosumer users who do not need the Adobe standard.

Working with EPS and other formats

The new version of DrawPlus X3 works with more image formats including Microsoft’s HD Photo format, EPS and Illustrator (AI). I have never used the HD Photo format and it surprises me given that DrawPlus X3 is a drawing application. The additions of EPS and AI are much more pleasing, since they are two of three of Adobe’s major vector image formats (the other being PDF). I imported an Illustrator CS3, Illustrator CS3 EPS, and PDF saved with the Illustrator Default preset and DrawPlus X3 did not have a problem importing the data. I was able to work with points (called “nodes” in DrawPlus X3) but one shape using a compound path could not be edited in any of the three formats. It’s handy to import Illustrator and EPS artwork but illustrators who want to import complex artwork should expect difficulties.

AutoTrace = Live Trace

DrawPlus X3 introduces AutoTrace, a module that will trace bitmap graphics and convert them to vectors. This technology has been in Illustrator for a few years, dubbed Live Trace; before that, Adobe produced an application called Streamline for this purpose. Converting bitmaps to vectors is a very helpful feature, so AutoTrace is a great addition to DrawPlus. The interface is straightforward and presets can be saved in one of three modes: logo, black/white and color.

autotrace
AutoTrace is similar to Illustrator's Live Trace and produces good results, but offers less control.

AutoTrace offers fewer controls than Live Trace and it seems harder to get great results. I missed the presets that ship with Illustrator and Live Trace: I often use them as a starting point and fine-tune the controls to perfect the trace, but with AutoTrace I was searching for the right sliders to achieve good results. Part of the problem might be the sliders’ labels and icons, which I didn’t always understand. I also wished AutoTrace would preview the trace on the full-sized image rather than a small preview thumbnail. Quick tip: you can preview on the large image by clicking the Trace button, though you have to click to re-render every time settings are changed.

Head to the Image Cutout Studio

Another major addition to DrawPlus X3 is the Image Cutout Studio, which most closely resembles Photoshop‘s Extract filter, which was actually retired when Photoshop CS4 was released. Image Cutout Studio is a simplified version of Extract that doesn’t require tedious highlighting of edges, but that is what made Extract such a precise extracting filter. Instead, Image Cutout Studio employs Keep and Discard Brush tools that are more like Photoshop’s Magic Eraser tool—click a background with the Discard Brush tool and it goes away. A Tolerance setting controls its sensitivity. Once everything is extracted, you can preview the results, fine-tune the edges with more brush tools and output as an alpha mask or vector mask.

cutout
Photoshop CS4 no longer has the Extract filter, but DrawPlus X3 offers a very similar feature that performs well.

I found that, even though previews within Image Cutout Studio suggest less than perfect results, extracted images look great in DrawPlus X3. Image Cutout Studio did have difficulty with images with fine details, such as hair, and subjects whose color was close to the background. However, Photoshop CS4’s eraser tools have the same problems. The old Extract filter is the only tool I’ve used that could handle such images well, other than third-party plug-ins such as Corel’s KnockOut 2.

DrawPlus.com

An interesting new addition is not in the application itself but online: DrawPlus.com has become a “community website” where DrawPlus users can upload their artwork, rate their and others’ art, make comments and search in various ways. I’m disappointed the website is built with Silverlight—it’s definitely not as ubiquitous as Flash, especially in the Macintosh market—but it doesn’t surprise me since DrawPlus uses several Microsoft technologies such as the Windows Metafile and HD Photo formats.

drawpluscom
This elephant was created with DrawPlus X3 and uploaded to DrawPlus.com, an online community for DrawPlus users.

If anyone doubts that professional results can be created with DrawPlus, visit DrawPlus.com and see the artwork that’s been posted: some of the artwork could be better, but there are also some excellent photorealistic illustrations and creative artwork!

New design additions

Serif has added some nice new spray brush strokes to DrawPlus X3, including airbrush, grungy and special effect strokes that look really good. I think the best application of these is to create textures with the Grunge family of brushes: a swirl of paint with these strokes will make a very nice texture for use in other applications or within DrawPlus. The Special Effects family is also fun to play with but the presets aren’t particularly useful for my daily work.

You can see the Grunge brushes creating a painterly effect on the edges of these shapes.
You can see the Grunge brushes creating a painterly effect on the edges of these shapes.

Some new overlays have also been added in order to aid the designer: a Rule of Thirds grid, which creates a simple 3×3 grid, and a Divine Proportions grid that creates a Fibonacci spiral, considered a harmonious basis for many designs and layouts. Experienced designers may not find these particularly useful but novices could find them very useful.

There are a variety of other new features for the designer, including:

  • A Crop Tool that allows position, rotation and shape changes in the middle of the cropping procedure. It even can apply a Rule of Thirds grid to the crop window so it’s easy to know the most harmonious places to crop.
  • Brush outlines can be stroked or textured.
  • New 2D and 3D filters that can apply blur, reflection maps and lighting effects. These have been around in Photoshop for many years.
  • Specific areas in a document can be exported with the Export Optimizer. Photoshop and Fireworks have better bitmap image optimizing interfaces but DrawPlus X3 has all the basic functions and the option of exporting a section of an image is appealing to me.
  • The new Arrange tab allows for basic arranging, rotation and reflection of elements. Again, this has been available in Adobe products for several years.

Conclusion

I keep coming back again and again to the fact that DrawPlus X3 has added features that are already familiar to Photoshop and Illustrator users. One could chide Serif for basically playing catch-up, but improvement is not a bad thing. DrawPlus is borrowing ideas from good products and has matured into a solid application for prosumers.

DrawPlus X3
Serif
US$99.99
Rating: 8/10