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Serif PagePlus X2 - King of the SOHO Hill?

written by: Noel•edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•updated: 2/24/2009
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How does Serif's vaunted PagePlus X2 measure up to old reliables and industry heavyweights Quark Xpress and Adobe Pagemaker? On balance, PagePlus X2 seems designed to straddle the home-use and high-end desktop publishing markets, but may appeal to average users who have outgrown cheaper substitutes.

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    Introduction

    With PagePlus X2, Serif ups the ante on its freeware PagePlus SE, its shareware PagePlus (currently at version 9), and PagePlus 11. The question is whether Serif now has something that can go toe to toe against the giants of the corporate and professional desktop publishing world--Adobe's Pagemaker 7 and InDesign CS 3, QuarkXpress 7, or even lowly Corel Ventura.

    The stakes are huge. At one time, the professional page layout market was estimated to be in the neighborhood of $500 million in annual sales. That it remains an attractive market is exemplified by the efforts Adobe has put into matching the functionality of QuarkXpress with InDesign, as well as Microsoft reinforcing Publisher with the Home Publishing Suite.

    PagePlus X2 is undoubtedly feature-rich and takes aim, commendably enough, at the kind of varied output industry leaders offer. Beyond the “core business" of publishing flyers, newsletters, and longer publications, PagePlus X2 still loads and saves PDF files, long a preserve of the Pagemaker and Acrobat combo. In addition, the strengthened Serif entry targets PowerPoint and the presentation market with the ability to produce PDF slideshows with embedded sound and video. Serif also saw an opportunity in supporting HTML output, for the sake of professionals and small businesses staking a claim for eyeballs against the billions of web pages out there.

    Three factors suggest that Serif remains on the popular end of the market, intent perhaps on attacking the small-business market as well as page layout/graphic amateurs who may not trust their own aesthetic sense but have the fortitude to withstand the fairly steep learning curve typical for DTP programs. The first is popular pricing, down from $129 to $99 list and with a $30 rebate to boot--way lower than the $699 for Adobe InDesign CS 3 or $799 for QuarkXpress 7. The two other considerations are being able to output highly graphical email (for the increasing tribe of Internet marketeers) and Serif’s profuse use of “stunning" to describe the templates on the accompanying Resource CD. These plainly appeal to non-design professionals and entrepreneurs looking to make the occasional splash in different formats, not the kind of collaborative efforts that copy editors and art directors need to make on the large publishing projects that have been the forte of QuarkXpress.

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    Price to Value

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    Given the satisfying variety of graphic and layout features available, as well as immensely satisfying composition functionality (for great “all-in-one" value, see below), PagePlus X2 not only undercuts the leading brands but is decidedly great value. Even at the “standard" list price of $129.99 (rebate available, $89. at Amazon), PagePlus X2 is budget-friendly without being suspiciously dirt-cheap.

    By comparison, stand-alone Microsoft Publisher retailed in the $209.73- $265.00 range at the time of writing. QuarkXPress confidently holds the premium-price cachet, given a sophisticated and full feature set as well as category leadership, at $799.00 for version 7 and $95.00 for an upgrade from earlier versions. Adobe PageMaker parlays its established status and mass-market branding to make a retail price range of $489.00 to $599.00 stick, five times costlier than PagePlus X2.



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    Installation & Setup

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    Page Plus X2 has an online Program Manual in PDF format but the availability of the Resource CD makes this superfluous until much later, when one wants to explore the more intricate or less obvious tools and features. On start-up, one accesses an extremely helpful tutorial. There is also “Design Labs", which aids in teaching non-artistic users how to make a professional-looking publication. All these help shorten the learning curve, perhaps as much as it is possible to do with typically-feature-rich DTP programs, and more than make up for lengthier installation.

    Every PageMaker upgrade has always installed with a “What’s New" introduction but anyone looking to use the program for the first time is in for a world of hurt. In 16 years of making its presence felt in the DTP/page layout category, PageMaker never got any easier to learn.



    What's Not: 

    With RAM at the minimum Serif recommends, installation runs to about a quarter-hour, distinctly longer than PageMaker takes. This breaks down into 5 to 7 minutes for the Program install proper and around 9 minutes for the Resources CD. Clearly, it is the Resources installation that makes PagePlus X2 slower than PageMaker (~5 minutes).

    The difference in hard disk acreage is even more significant. At 496 MB for the recommended Program install, PagePlus X2 takes up two-and-a-half times the space PageMaker does (200 MB) and three times the 146 MB footprint of InDesign 2.0.  QuarkXpress itself requires a modest 52 MB.


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    User Interface

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    The appearance of the program is congenial, very welcoming to one with professional design and artistic inclinations. [INSERT OPENING SCREEN.JPG]At startup, PagePlus X2 has the look and feel of its heavyweight rivals. Most of the available tools and options are visible, on both sides of the workspace, in different colour palettes, transparency options, tools, schemes and shortcuts.

    What's Not: 

    And yet, the profusion of toolbars masks the fact that many tools and shortcuts one is used to seeing onscreen in QuarkXpress, PageMaker or Photoshop are tucked away, not in plain sight. It becomes a little tedious because one needs to study the tutorial, toggle through the different menus and right click options in order to find the tools one needs. Nonetheless, one concedes that the Tutorial material is of course very graphical and well-illustrated, reminiscent of an online, e-learning course.

    [INSERT TUTORIAL-1.JPG, TUTORIAL-2 and PAGE_PLUS_X2_TUTORIAL_PAGE.JPG]

    Clearly, PagePlus X2 is for the casual user upgrading to a more fully functional DTP program rather than an experienced user of PageMaker or QuarkXpress casting around for an equally capable, more intuitive replacement.


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    Product Features

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    Serif relies greatly on that PDF-formatted, 256-page User Manual to level out the learning curve somewhat although there really is no getting around the sheer complexity of any page layout and design program. The signal achievement of PagePlus, however, lies in affording SOHO businessmen and even accomplished design professionals multiple functionality: creating impressive reports, newsletters, posters, collaterals, business cards, web pages, PDF files and email.

    One concedes that all-in-one functionality just never matches all the sophisticated features of discrete software. This is a pipedream that has been trotted out repeatedly and led to not much beyond dashed hopes in the two decades since end-user computing became a reality. Nonetheless, it is also true that ordinary office workers employ less than 50% of functionality in programs that are upgraded with much fanfare so often. So a specialist whose whole day is filled making the company look good in all popular forms of printed, electronic and Web-based communication may no longer need to alt-tab constantly to Word, Dreamweaver, Acrobat, Outlook, Paint, Corel Draw and the like but stay quite content within the confines of PagePlus.

    One great advantage of PagePlus X2 is guided startup and ease of use once you have gotten over the tutorials. Depending on level of expertise, users have two options.

    A. Users who are not artistically inclined can opt for a ready-made template based on the end-result or type of publication desired. From newsletters to column-type magazine articles, business cards, seasonal greeting cards, PDF’s, CD labels, catalogues and ticket booklets, there is a wide variety of designs available.

    INSERT NEWSLETTER_TEMPLATE.JPG, TEMPLATE_NEWSLETTER_INITIAL_SETUP.JPG AND TEMPLATE_NEWSLETTER_EDIT.JPG

    B. More creative users with a bit of design talent may forego the templates and simply start from scratch. There is virtually no limit to what imagination and PagePlus X2 combined can produce.

    Adventurous novices can also do a project from the ground up with handholding from the tutorials or the Design Lab. Going this route brings up PDF files that orient the user on making scrapbooks, newsletters and a variety of publications on their own. These shorten the learning curve considerably, giving would-be publishers polished, professional-looking results even in the absence of Fine Arts or Computer Science training. The tutorials even reveal shortcuts to achieving certain effects that one would have thought required many painstaking steps. All in all, the tack in tutorial is demonstrating the simplest way to make a publication not only presentable but, as Serif is wont to say, “stunning".


    Going on to the base functionality of the program, Serif pulled off a neat hat trick in making PagePlus a standalone composition, design and layout program. Users can actually draft, format, spell- and grammar-check body text within the program rather than prepare material first in Word or Wordperfect. Similarly, one can take advantage of the drawing and diagramming features, do special effects and 3D graphics and touch up photographs in the image editor. On the latter, the power of PagePlus is evident in the fact that features are more comprehensive than those on some dedicated picture editors.



    What's Not: 

    On the other hand, one does need considerable patience traversing the learning curve. The templates may indeed look marvelous but editing them takes time, not least because a new user must first scrutinize each of the menu options, shortcuts and tools to find out what is needed.

    This task is made more arduous by the number of toolbars and shortcuts that clutter the screen much the same way they do in PageMaker and QuarkXpress. This is the trade-off for easy access to frequently-used commands and context menus, once a user has learned the power of the program.

    INSERT PAGEPLUSSTARTFROMSCRATCH01.JPG AND PAGEMAKERSTARTFROMSCRATCH01.JPG


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    Performance

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    Serif has found a way to load files with all text blocks and graphics already embedded. This makes for speedier file access and editing work. In contrast, PageMaker follows the tack of loading the base layer first and then bringing in content one by one.

    What's Not: 
    The trade-off is that PagePlus takes about twice or thrice as long as PageMaker or Photoshop to load. The lag time is not appreciably awkward, however, on systems with 512Mb of RAM or greater.
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    Help & Support

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    The program is user friendly. Whether one is starting from scratch or looking up the different functions that PagePlus has in store, online help and tutorials are abundant, albeit static PDF pages.

    What's Not: 

    Do not look for Customer Support on weekends.

    A patch became available within the last week to fix, among others, incompatibility with two or more printers listed under Vista.


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    Images

    Opening ScreenThe project-based Tutorial indexExample of process-based Tutorial indexTutorial page for overlapping text, picture, diagonal cropping on gridsStep 1: Select newsletter templateStep 2: Select newsletter project settingsStep 3: Edit away!The PagePlus new newsletter startup screenThe PageMaker new project starting screen
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    Suggested Features

    Given the standalone nature of PagePlus, it stands to reason that more text-focused tools and menus be ready to hand as one edits or composes a publication. As it is, the program falls prey to the common bias of DTP and page layout suites for letting graphic manipulation tools dominate.

    The learning curve could really be foreshortened by developing wizards. It does not take too long, after all, for the novelty of page after page of tutorial PDFs to pall.

    Resurrecting the Gallery as a Media Bar clipboard exclusively for pictures appears a half-baked idea. One would obviously prefer that the full-blown Gallery return to enable swapping graphics and text with other Serif programs like DrawPlus or PhotoPlus.

    The challenge to Dreamweaver and other website creation tools would be more credible if body copy (in fact, all text from page titles down) were rendered not as graphic blocks but as text that search-engine spiders could read and index for SEO purposes.

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    Conclusion

    For a twenty-year-old entry in the economy end of the desktop publishing market, Serif PagePlus remains king of the hill with Vista compatibility, extensive templates for the non-professional user, and more output formats added. In particular, the ability to load, edit, and save PDF formats with embedded sound and video makes PagePlus well worth considering.

    Ultimately, PagePlus packs a powerful one-two punch of attractive price and feature sets so extensive they are comparable to those of its better-known, premium-priced rivals. The competition in the medium- and budget-price segments of the market just does not bear mentioning. Granted that both Adobe and Quark enjoy a distinct cachet with graphics professionals and mainstream publishers, Serif had best do its marketing homework to address the middle market of SOHO businessmen and document specialists who wear other hats.

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    Related Products

    Adobe PageMaker, QuarkXpress, Microsoft Publisher, Microsoft Home Publishing Suite, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign Creative Suite, Scribus, Corel Ventura, Print Shop Deluxe, Adobe Illustrator CS3, Print Shop, Printmaster