CorelDraw Graphics Suite has spent the past few years overshadowed by more fashionable alternatives. But the design landscape changes quickly.
With Adobe swallowing Macromedia, the oddly named Graphics Suite X3 has suddenly become the only serious alternative to Adobe's Creative Suite 2.0. The good news is that X3 more than lives up to its new responsibilities.
Its main components remain the venerable CorelDraw, a line-drawing application, and Photo-Paint, a bitmap editor. Surprisingly, a third application, CorelRave, which created Flash-compatible animations in version 12.0, has vanished completely.
Both Draw and Photo-Paint are simple enough for inexperienced users to get to grips with, thanks in part to a logical, uncluttered interface. Easily accessible palettes, called 'dockers', populate a thin bar at the side of the screen, using the space intelligently. Corel's selection of bundled clip art, templates and fonts is equally useful in helping designers with limited experience quickly create professional-looking illustrations.
Ease of use is further enhanced in X3 through a contextual Hints docker that displays information about the currently selected tool. For example, if you have Draw's Pick tool active, the Hints pane explains how to move, scale and stretch objects. It's both unobtrusive and helpful.
The program – which is now 20 years old – has long featured powerful but unheralded functions, among them a criminally underrated barcode-creation tool. X3 adds capabilities that address some of the program's weak points.
The biggest of these is a much-improved bitmap-to-vector conversion tool (see Tracing Draw's future, below), which is at least on a par with the equivalent feature in rival program Illustrator. Other missing features make a welcome appearance: at long last Draw has a rudimentary bevel tool, while a Fillet/Scalpel/Chamfer tool that rounds and adjusts corners will appeal to technical illustrators.
There's also a handy docker that allows you to create multiple instances of an object, while changing its horizontal and vertical offset. Dockers are an efficient way of storing palettes, but they have one weakness: no real-time preview of their effects. As it stands, you have to click Apply to see changes, which is awkward if you're repeating changes.
It's a fair crop
Draw X3 doesn't just play catch-up. It introduces a rarity in vector editing: cropping. The Crop tool works as it would in a bitmap program. When you drag it across a portion of the vector image, it removes the section outside that boundary. While you could obtain a similar effect less drastically with a vector mask, this is undoubtedly simpler and more elegant.
Another, clever arrival is Smart Fill, which lets you apply colour fills directly to overlapping areas of objects. Draw detects the edges and creates a closed path so that it treats the overlap as a single object.
Although Corel owns the capable Ventura, it doesn't include a page-layout program with this suite. But Draw and Photo-Paint have both vastly improved the way they work with text. Some are simple enhancements, including better handling of text on paths and the ability to add formatting code, such as a non-breaking space, to text.
More significant is the way the Paragraph Formatting docker allows you to align and add drop-caps to text, while the Character Formatting tool, available in both programs, lets you kern and add character effects, such as uppercase and underline. Hopefully the next version will combine these two dockers, but at least Draw – which, unlike Illustrator, supports multiple-page layouts – now offers a feasible way to create text-heavy documents.
Perhaps the most critical improvement is the program's revamped adoption of PDF. Not only can you add security protection to exported PDFs – restricting, for example, who can open and print a document – but you can also preserve transparency and spot colours. Usefully, spot colours are kept when printing and exchanging files with Adobe applications, in a move that should delight designers who work with both firms' apps.
The new version of Photo-Paint feels a little less like the suite's poor relation. An improved Cutout Lab makes it easier to extract objects from backgrounds by drawing around borders with a highlighter tool. It almost exactly matches the features of Adobe Photoshop's Extract command. In testing, the results were just as good.
The Image Adjustment Lab, also available in CorelDraw, looks less impressive to begin with. Its main window provides a single place to correct colour and tone. What sets it apart is the way you can create snapshots of adjustments and store them as thumbnails at the bottom of the window, then switch between them for comparison purposes.
Aside from clip-art and fonts, the suite's bundled extras are of variable quality. Capture X3 is a workmanlike but no longer cutting-edge screen-capture utility. The welcome inclusion of Pixmantec RawShooter Essentials, an application to import and process RAW images, is tempered by one question: why isn't the ability to open RAW files better integrated?
Tracing Draw's future, from bitmap to vector
Changing bitmap images to resolution-independent vectors is never easy. A new arrival to the suite, the PowerTrace X3 converter, is probably the most accurate way we've seen.
PowerTrace, which replaces the standalone Corel Trace which appeared in version 12.0 of the Graphics Suite, works inside CorelDraw. It's fast, customisable and capable of producing markedly better results than its predecessor.
From the Trace Bitmap menu option you can choose a variety of conversion options, from a low-accuracy quick scan to a high-quality image if the source material is good enough.
As the bitmap is traced, the application builds a colour palette for the resulting vector illustration. Because PowerTrace makes it easy to reduce the number of colours in the palette or change those colours, you can produce dramatic vector images from otherwise ordinary bitmaps.
Fortunately, PowerTrace's features don't come at the expense of speed. Scanning and converting a high-res image took only a few seconds on a mid-range PC, yet produced results that at first glance lost nothing of the original's detail.