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Software Reviews

There are so many excellent software packages available today that not only take the pain out of mundane tasks, but that also allow you to create stunning material comparable to professional designers/companies. Here you'll find reviews of various software applications that can give you the edge of your competitors!

Review: Adobe Encore

Adobe Encore DVDWith DVD writers now being shipped as standard with many PCs many companies can now seriously consider producing DVD video content, however the software that usually ships with DV (firewire) interfaces tends to draw the line at basic video editing and output - if you're lucky you will have the option to output the file to DVD so that it will simply play on insertion. But what if you have either a series of clips or a lengthy piece of film, or you want to add a bit of polish to the CD to give that extra impression of professionalism? There are still only a handful of DVD menu authoring packages available, so Adobe were quite late in the day to release Encore DVD. Was it worth the wait?

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Encore could be described as a cross between PhotoShop and Premiere. Menus are created using Premiere's timeline-style interface, which can consist of video, audio, still images and text subtitle tracks. The Photoshop 'feel' comes in through the way Encore DVD uses layers for positioning and animating menus. Text manipulation is also extremely well catered for, although some functions are lacking, such as the ability to save a text style for re-use. Therefore, many users will have to create items first in Photoshop and then come back into Encore to use them. In reality this is not a major hardship, but for larger projects it might become cumbersome.


Like many of the other products in Adobe's video and graphics range, the beauty of Encore is its integration with its siblings. For example, adding a marker in Premiere Pro to a video will automatically create a chapter point within Encore (for use in your 'Scene Selection' menu). Once a video has been added to Encore you can still modify the file in Premiere, however you'll have to re-render it again in Encore - this can be time-consuming for larger clips but again in the real world you're likely to be using Encore once you've created all of your material in Premiere Pro or After Effects.


Where Encore leaves its competitors standing is in its more advanced features. You can region-code discs (so that, for example a Region 1 disc will only work with Region 1 players for the US market). You can also produce stereo AC-3 audio and add CSS protection to a disc. Content can be written either directly to DVD or DLT drive without even writing to the hard disc.

Conclusion
If you want a basic front end menu to accompany your DVD movie content, then Adobe Encore DVD is likely to be over-priced and overkill. But for those looking to create a comprehensive DVD product with slick menu transitions, high quality sound in a secure format then this is the product for you. The similarities between Premiere and Photoshop compliment the product well, making it relatively accessible to those new to DVD authoring. The 3-star rating therefore reflects the high-end price and the fact that DVD authoring is still a requirement for a relatively small number of companies.

Supplier's web site: www.adobe.com



Rating
Marketing your Business - 4 star award 


Pro's: Straightforward interface. Can create professional DVDs with a high level of data security (such as CSS, Region coding etc).


Con's: Maybe overkill for most requirements. Quite expensive in comparison to low-end products. Re-rendering after editing can be tiresome on slower machines.

Review: Adobe Premiere Pro

Adobe Premiere ProVideo editing used to conjure up mental images of reels of film being spliced together with razor blades and tape, but with the advent of Mini DV camcorders, high speed firewire interfaces and even higher speed PCs it is relatively easy to pull a few clips together and create a half-decent movie. Even Windows XP is supplied with Movie Maker, which can create web or DVD quality content. But if you're serious about video editing then you need to be looking at one of the higher-end packages that allow for additional effects and titling to be added.

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Adobe Premiere Pro is the latest incarnation of their video editing suite. It uses a simple timeline approach to lay out your final video. Content can be imported from a variety of sources - not just AVI video files. Adobe have integrated Premiere Pro with Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects. So, for example, if your company logo is designed in Illustrator and you already have artwork in Photoshop you can just drop them straight into Premiere. And as Premiere works with the live files you can still update the source, with changes being reflected in Premiere.


The latest version of Premiere shows several major advances over its predecessors. Firstly, Adobe are now taking advantage of higher speed processors, with Pentium 4 and OpenGl support being two major examples. This alone gives a substantial speed improvement over Premiere 6, for example, as OpenGL accelerates preview modes. The audio editor has also been tweaked, with support for 5.1 surround sound and a variety of filters. And an array of colour correction tools offer precision control over attributes such as hue, saturation, lightness, midtones and shadows.


The Pro version has several enhancements over the standard version, one of which is the inclusion of the Keylight filter. This technique was used to great effect in the Guinness 'Wild Horses' advert, which portrayed white horses leaping out of waves. In reality the horses were filmed leaping over a blue fence in front of a blue background - the Keylight filter allowed for this to be accurately masked out, replacing it with the wave background. Another useful feature is the Steadymove filter, which can produce startling results - imagine being able to remove all the camera-shake from all of your movies! This is what this little beauty will do - automatically. The Pro version also ships with several other filters that you simply drag onto clips, adjust the effect settings and render.


Creating a simple movie

Adobe Premiere Pro is nothing if not intuitive. The tool bar has only ten main icons for manipulating clips, and the timelines provide you with a visual indication of your audio and visual content. All of your movie, image and audio files are housed in the Project window, and the Monitor window allows you to preview results in real-time. To create a basic movie you simply import your clips, drag them onto the timeline, and then use the razor tool to make edits. You can have multiple timelines (useful, for example if you want to create cross-fades between video and/or audio). Adding a transition effect is just a case of placing two video clips on two separate timelines with an overlap, then dragging the transition effect between the two.

Outputting your finished product has been made much simpler since version 6. Adobe have dropped the external 'Cleaner' application in favour of several streamlined export routines, one of which is a DVD wizard. Here you can set the type of DVD format to make (e.g. PAL or DVD) with a variety of quality options - this allows you to squeeze more onto a standard 4.7GB single sided DVD.


The timeline at the bottom of this screen has a transition to slide the second film over the first, which is visible on the monitor.


Speed kills
If you need to edit video, before you rush out and buy this package, rush out and upgrade your PC. On a P4 2.4GHz with 512MB Ram and PC133 hard disc a lot of time was spent looking at the hourglass as Premiere Pro chewed its way through special effects, overlays and transitions. Granted, it's quicker than the previous version on like-for-like comparisons, but if you want to take advantage of some of the new features be prepared to kiss goodbye to few extra minutes (or even hours, depending on the length of your epic) of your life.


Conclusion

If you are serious about video editing then Adobe Premiere is a must. Its import and export capabilities make it extremely friendly with whatever media you wish to produce for. Its interface is not frightening, even for the beginner (the package even comes with a training DVD to get you started). And you can create a professional, polished piece of media with some pretty amazing special effects straight out of the box. Those that want to take their visual content a stage further should also consider Adobe After Effects, but for the majority of user Premiere Pro will do more than the job in hand. The only points that stop Premiere Pro receiving the 5 star award are that video editing is still quite a niche requirement, so not everyone will need it, and those that do need it will probably also need to splash out on some new hardware to really appreciate Premiere Pro in its entirety. But if video editing is your thing then you cannot do better for the price.


Supplier's web site:
www.adobe.com


The trial version of Adobe Premiere is included on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book Marketing your Business.



Rating
4 stars
Pro's: Industry standard. Easy user interface.

Con's: One of the more expensive packages. Medium learning curve. You'll need a powerful PC to run it.

Review: Adobe Creative Suite

Adobe Creative Suite BoxWhen it comes to professional graphics software for either the Mac or PC, Adobe pretty much has the lions share of the marketplace, with Adobe Photoshop pretty much the industry standard. In recent years Adobe has taken advantage of this stronghold and released suites, containing several applications. The Adobe Creative suite offers pretty much all the tools needed for creating any 'still' media, from brochures to web pages to electronic documents. The Premium suite, reviewed here consists of six main applications:


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Let's take a look at each application individually:

Adobe Photoshop CS
While there are many pretenders to the throne, every publishing house and print shop will have a copy of Photoshop, as it can take in (and also export) many different file formats. This latest release is not massively different from its predecessors, but continues to make the photo editor's life easier. New tools such as the shadow/highlight command offer a quick way to fix under or overexposed areas within an image - the first time you use this tool you cannot fail to be impressed. Red-eye removal is also a welcome inclusion - seasoned Photoshoppers know how to easily remove red-eye, but for novices this will make life a lot easier.

 

The file browser (pictured below) has also had a makeover since version 7, with the ability to edit image information as well as view images. Histogram palette improvements include colour and tone information, and a comparison with old/new histogram as changes are made.

Adobe Photoshop file browser

 

There are new file formats, both in terms of input and output. Camera buffs will be pleased to see the support for the Camera RAW format, and larger images (up to 300,000 pixels by 300,000 pixels) can be saved as the new PSB format.

 

Photoshop also comes with ImageReady, which has improvements in exporting animations to Flash and improvements to rollover graphics creation.

 

It's difficult to find anything negative in Photoshop. As a user from the days when Aldus PhotoStyler was a major player Adobe has continued to exceed graphics designer's expectations and rightly maintained their pole position with this product. While there are much cheaper products (such as Paint Shop Pro) available, the support, add-in and development network for Photoshop is phenomenal. It is the best application available today for image editing, but low end users might wish to consider Photoshop Elements.

 

Adobe InDesign
CS
This could almost be called InDesign 2.5 rather than a whole new version, as the 100+ improvements simply adds to what was a larger version upgrade the first time around. While the interface is more complex than before there have been many minor improvements that add up to greater than the sum of their parts. The nested styles is the most notable improvement. You can set one style for, say, a drop cap, then apply another style to the rest of the paragraph. This could also apply to bullets and their text content. InDesign's PDF support has been beefed up, now supporting rich media such as sounds, buttons and movie clips. The separations preview palette is a welcome edition, allowing you to view each of the four colour seps before printing.

 

There have been several minor improvements to InDesign's text handling. Text pasted from other applications can retain (or indeed lose) its format - while this does not sound like much it can save a considerable amount of time on a project, for example taking content out of a word processor or web design software. Text realigning has also been tweaked, with paragraph styles automatically aligning with the baseline grid.

 

One minor downside is that files cannot be down saved to work with InDesign 2, although this will only really affect users that need to collaborate.

 

Adobe Illustrator
CS
The lines have been blurred between Illustrator and InDesign a little in this latest release, as Illustrator has now inherited InDesign's superior text engine. Clarification has been made for when using OpenType fonts (versus TrueType). As OpenType can support up to 65,000 characters in a single font, the ability to control these through a single palette is very useful. Tasks such as activation/deactivation of categories of characters, activating swash alternatives, ligatures, ordinals and fractions can all be done using the same palette. Adobe supply 100 OpenType fonts in the package to get you started. Lastly, Adobe as integrated InDesign's Every-Line composer, which adjusts word and character spacing, returning a much cleaner looking block of text than previously.

 

3D features are a new and welcome inclusion in Illustrator. CorelDraw has had these features for over a decade, so it's about time! 2D components can be drawn and quickly extruded and rotated. Further effects, such as lighting, bevels and perspective can be applied. This feature is not going to worry true 3D rendering packages, but it can be very handy for knocking out a quick logo.

 

One area that Adobe has paid attention to is printing, with the initial dialog box now combining many of the options previous split over Print and Print setup screens. Information that is applied to output, such as marks and colour keys have a greater level of control and, as with InDesign PDF support has been improved.

 

Adobe GoLive
CS
Macromedia Dreamweaver has enjoyed the position of 'Leader of the Pack' when it came to web design, but GoLive may be an increasing threat to its throne - soon but not quite yet. GoLive offers a 'drag and drop' approach to web design, with the usual web items such as tables and forms included in a slightly overpowering array of buttons and floating palettes (28 palettes in all).

 

GoLive's main strength is its integration with other apps in the suite. Create a smart object in Photoshop, place it as an optimised graphic in a web page and the optimised file will be updated when you next change the source file - no other web development application can do this. Many PDF creation features have been built directly into the software, plus a new PDF smart object tool, which makes web images from a PDF file, with the ability to add comments and links within the PDF directly from GoLive.

 

Previous versions of GoLive came with dynamic content technology, but Adobe has chosen to remove this feature from CS, which makes Dreamweaver the more attractive option for developers coding in ASP, PHP or Cold Fusion, but for many users of 'static' sites this will not be an issue.

Macromedia used to have a monopoly on collaborative design with its Contribute product, however this version of GoLive has a sibling - Co Author (purchased separately for around £50). Setup is cumbersome and requires separate templates. Although the product is easy to use its functionality is limited in comparison to Macromedia's offering.

 

One major flaw in GoLive is the code that it produces - it is not always W3C compliant, although GoLive is at least courteous enough to provide you with an error report showing the code that is not compliant, so you can dig into the code to edit it. CSS support is also weaker than implementations in competing products, although there are improvements from previous versions.

For basic to intermediate sites GoLive does offer a good solution, if you're prepared to tweak your code for W3C compliance and don't need to integrate to a database (you can do it, but you'd have to code it manually, which many coders do anyway). The integration between the other apps is very useful, and may outweigh the drawbacks for many.

 

Adobe Acrobat
Professional
If all you ever want to do is create a PDF version of an existing document, then Acrobat Pro will be the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut, but once you've installed it and played with it for a while you'll find yourself coming back to it more and more. For example, if someone emails you a PDF order form you could now open the form and 'fill' it electronically, then save the output. You can also add comments to a PDF document, or send items for review either by email or web.

 

While other programs claim to have PDF output I've experienced some compatibility problems, especially when downloading off the web - outputting the same file in Acrobat Professional does not recreate the same problem. Its output for print bureaus is also superior - important if you are creating professional material for printing.

 

Total integration
The main reason to purchase a suite is the compatibility and crossover between applications, together with common interfaces. Despite minor glitches in commonality, for the most part it is easy to switch between applications. Version Cue is an additional app that offers Explorer style functions with thumbnail images of all files. File formats are interchangeable e.g. pull Photoshop files straight into GoLive - something you could not do within most other web design applications.

 

Conclusion
At almost £1000 for the Premium version Adobe Creative Suite is pricey, but you get a lot for your money. In addition to arguably the best photo editing application you get complete vector drawing and page layout software, a respectable web editing application and professional PDF creation and editing capabilities. The box also includes a training CD, 100+ OpenType fonts, clipart and stock photos, and various other goodies. It's light on documentation though, with all manuals being in electronic format within the software, so if you prefer to sit down away from the PC to read a manual you better pay a visit to Amazon and order one of the many training books.

On their own the applications range from good to best in class. If I were choosing applications separately I'd probably cherry pick PhotoShop and Acrobat from this suite, and stick with the competing apps I'm used to. If I was starting out I'd probably be comparing this to the CorelDraw Graphics Suite, which can create PDFs but has no web design software. Corel has R.A.V.E., which handles animations, however I'd suspect that this its use is limited to a small subset of users. While InDesign and Illustrator are good programs, it takes two applications in this suite to provide functionality that CorelDraw often does in one, although it could be argued that some of the features are more powerful in the Adobe applications.

 

Although the Adobe Creative Suite is around three times the price of CorelDraw Graphics Suite it does cover a wider spectrum of general needs. If I had to rate these apps separately this is how they would fare.

 

  • Adobe Photoshop - 5 stars
  • Adobe InDesign - 3 stars
  • Adobe Illustrator 3 stars
  • Adobe GoLive - 3 stars
  • Adobe Acrobat Professional - 4 stars

If you already have DTP and web design software, then at least opt for Photoshop CS on its own, but if this is your first step into the world of graphics then the Adobe Creative Suite can aptly be described as 'the Office suite for design'.

Supplier's web site:
www.adobe.com 

Rating

4 stars - Adobe Creativity Suite 


Pro's: Integrated package. Best graphics package on the market, with excellent PDF creation/editing. Complete solution for both printed and digital media creation. Training videos included.


Con's: Expensive. GoLive weak for higher end web sites. InDesign and Illustrator provide in two apps what CorelDraw does in one.

Review: Adobe After Effects

For many users, video editing suites such as Adobe Premiere will be more than sufficient, but for those looking to push the envelope of design and visual effects further still, then After Effects promises a variety of 2D and 3D manipulation tools and special effects that can really add a professional polish to your multimedia content.

After Effects is available in two versions - Standard and Pro. After Effects 6.0 Standard provides core 2D and 3D compositing, animation, and visual effects tools. After Effects 6.0 Professional adds motion tracking and stabilization, advanced keying and warping tools, more than 30 additional visual effects, a particle system, render automation and network rendering, 16-bit-per-channel color, 3D channel effects, and additional audio effects.

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Now in its 6th incarnation, Adobe After Effects could be described as 'Photoshop for video'. It allows you to produce video content not only by adding special effects to video, but also by importing and animating Photoshop or Illustrator files. This is not just a case of sliding a graphic around the screen: Imagine having a Photoshop image that consists of several layers. Now imagine being able to animate and add effects to EACH layer separately! Adobe After Effects is supplied with over 100 filters, including new ones such as Liquify, Warp and Scribble.

As with Premiere, After Effects now enjoys enhanced performance through OpenGL support, allowing special effects to be rendered virtually in real-time. It also includes the Keylight plug-in, useful for removing solid blue/green screen backgrounds so that an alternative background can be placed behind objects. The now-common timeline makes another appearance, allowing you to quickly drill down to each control for each layer within your composition.


Text manipulation is probably one of the most exciting new features within After Effects, with an interface very similar to that of PhotoShop. Text can be animated along a path and you can even specify different animators for different sets of letters.

An example of some of the above features might be if you were interviewing a person and wanted to jazz up the film a little. You might film them in front of a solid background which can then be made transparent, with another movie being inserted behind them to add interest. Their name and title could then be animated to introduce them.

Conclusion
So, is all this too good to be true? For beginners, the answer is possibly yes. After Effects has somewhat of a steep learning curve - if you've never used it before don't expect to be able to create much until you've sat down and read a good tutorial book on it. Although many of the interface elements will appear familiar to users of Photoshop and Premiere, they sometimes work in very different ways. Having said that, if you're this serious about quality video production then splashing out on a book costing less than 10% of the software's cost and locking yourself away for a few hours would be a small price to pay for some of the rewards you could reap. After Effects does come with a tutorial DVD covering all of the video products, but don't expect it to go in-depth.

The 4-star rating reflects that After Effects is only likely to appeal to the hardcore video editors, and Premiere is likely to fulfill the majority of user's needs, but for visual effects it's the best in its class.


Supplier's web site:
www.adobe.com



Rating
Marketing your Business - 4 star award
Pro's: Can create stunning effects

Con's: Steep learning curve for the uninitiated

Review: Dynamic Submission 7

Dynamic Submission box'If you build it, they will come' may have worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but it won't necessarily work for your web site. You can't open up a shop without promoting it in some way, and that's exactly what you need to do with your online presence. Of course, the quickest way to get traffic to your site is by advertising, but this is a costly business and banner advert click-throughs are at an all-time-low, with many users even using ad filtering software to block banners before they even load. The best way to get long-term exposure on the Internet is via search engines.

There are many companies that report they can get you top ranking in search engines, but it's very unlikely that they can guarantee this - someone has to be first and someone has to be 51,581,213rd - the trick is to get search engines to recognise your site as an important one for your industry, and there is one such product that can help - Dynamic Submission.

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The product is available in three versions - Standard, Professional and Enterprise. Standard is limited to 5 domains, while Professional is limited to 10, with Enterprise being unlimited. Professional and Enterprise also have additional features over the Standard edition. Unless you're a web designer working for several companies you'll only need to opt for one of the first two. All versions come with the ability to download the latest lists of search engines, so the software is never out of date.

Startup is a little fiddly, with users required to register each domain they wish to submit into a Domain Manager in addition to entering it in the standard settings screen. This relates more to the company's software protection more than anything else, but is confusing until you understand what the software is trying to do. This is, however, a minor niggle.

Dynamic Submission screenshotIn the main window the user is greeted with several tabs where information such as keywords, address details and the selected search engines to submit to are selected. If you already have a site live you can populate fields such as keywords, description by loading the information automatically from the site. Once you have populated all of the fields and selected your search engines (which will generally be all of them), clicking on Submit will cast your details to the far reaches of the web in a couple of minutes. Sites that require manual submission (such as DMOZ and Altavista) are also catered for.

What really sets this product apart is the site tweaking tools that it offers. The Meta tag generator offers the uninitiated an easy way to build the code required to help search engines correctly rank your pages, although most web design packages such as Dreamweaver have this already.


(Tip: keep an eye on your web site statistics - you should be able to get a list of the keywords people are using to find your site, which is useful when trying to establish what words are important and words that are lacking).

The Web Optimiser, however is an excellent tool by which to see how effective your use of keywords across your page is. It will automatically check your site against any given keyword and confirm the number of times it appears in important places (e.g. meta description, keywords, site title, main body, hyperlinks and ALT image tags). You can also use the Page Ranker to see where your site ranks in popular search engines using specific keywords, thereby showing how effective the product has been in increasing your rankings.

Conclusion
Whether you choose Dynamic Submission or another package, no company should be without a website submission and ranking program. There are packages that reportedly will submit to ten times the number of engines that Dynamic Submission will, but in truth 99% of them will be so obscure that it will be completely irrelevant - as long as your site is optimised for the main engines you need not worry about the rest of them.

By continually reviewing your site you can optimise its content to your target audience. Dynamic Submission gets 5 stars due to its engine update and site optimiser facilities that will help to keep your site in tip-top condition. What's more, they offer a free trial download from their website (listed below). If you spend your money on Dynamic Submission you won't be disappointed.

Supplier's web site: www.dynamicsubmission.com

The trial version of Dynamic Submission is included on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book Marketing your Business.



Rating
5 stars

Pro's: Excellent web page optimiser. Free engine updates for life.

Con's: Domain Manager a little fiddly. Duplicates some web design package features.