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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: Infacta GroupMail 3

Only ten years ago the words 'let's do a mailshot' would strike fear into the Office Junior, with images of mountains of letters, leaflets and envelopes, monotonous insertion and the inevitable paper-cuts. Email has simplified all of this and reduced many company's reliance on sending out literature by mail. But sending out hundreds or even thousands of emails still requires management. Enter Infacta Groupmail 3!

Although standard email clients such as Outlook will allow you to send out a message to multiple recipients, it does mean clogging up your address book with hundreds of contacts that may only be remote prospects, so using an external application for this keeps things a bit tidier. Infacta Groupmail comes in three versions, the one reviewed here being the free version.

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Setting up Groupmail is relatively straightforward. You'll need the same settings that you configured your email account with, namely your SMTP address (for sending outgoing mail), username and password. Once this has been pumped it it's simply a case of either manually entering names in or using the import facility. Importing works well, with standard CSV files being the accepted format, which is fine as most database systems will export in this format.

Infacta Groupmail review - screenshot

Email addresses can be separated into groups, useful if you want to send one email to prospects and another to customers, for example. One drawback is that you cannot specify one contact to be a member of several groups, so if an email address changes you have to manage this across all groups manually. For the majority of people this is not likely to be a problem though, and the import facility is so quick it's likely that many users will simply delete the Groupmail database after sending out an email and re-import it fresh for the next one as required.

Entering an email is similar to any email client - key in your subject line, then main body message, then add any attachments. The free version does not offer any text formatting as it does not allow for HTML editing, so you'll have to be creative with capital letters and non alpha-numerical characters! You can also merge in fields from the user database, such as name, address etc - useful for simple personalisation.

The free version does however have some limitations. You can only send to 100 recipients in one session, each email is sent individually, and a short delay is also applied every few emails. You also cannot create HTML emails with the free version - these are all incentives to make you purchase the full products.

But there are also other good reasons to crack open the wallet. Group Mail Pro ($99) allows unlimited recipients, sends mails directly (as opposed to using your ISP's mail server - ideal if your ISP does not provide this service, such as AOL) and importing address books directly from many popular email clients. The Plus version ($179) takes this further by including scheduling, XML support, a high-speed sending engine and the ability to send SMS messages to mobile phones. And a variety of plugins are available for 'paid for' versions, such as XML transformer, HTML editors, automatic subscription and email validation tools.

All-in-all the free version is a great product for managing relatively small (<100) mailing lists, such as press contacts. If your database is within these numbers, and you're not fussed about sending HTML emails, then the free version will suit you nicely. If you want speed and more customisation then raid the piggy bank.

Supplier's website: www.infacta.com


The free version of GroupMail is included on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book Marketing your Business.

Rating

5 star award

Pro's: It's free! Keeps your email address book clean

Con's: Free version is limited. Overuse can lead you to be blocked as a spammer.

Review: CorelDRAW! Graphics Suite 12

CorelDraw! 12CorelDraw! 12 BoxAs a user of CorelDraw since version 3 I felt very old when I realised that version 12 had hit the streets. The version I was running was 10 (and had previously been 7, 5, 4 and 3 before), so I was intrigued to see what they could do to improve on what was already pretty much the best DTP package for the PC.

For the uninitiated, DTP takes over from where word processors leave off. While MS Word and its competitors have some DTP capabilities, a full DTP suite will allow you to design professional print ready artwork for any project - no matter what size. Got to design artwork for a full pop-up display for a show - you're not doing that in Word, so crack open the DTP software!

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The Corel Suite consists of three main applications: CorelDraw, Corel Photo-Paint and Corel R.A.V.E. CorelDraw is the main DTP application, with Corel Photo-Paint competing squarely with the likes of Adobe PhotoShop. While Photo-Paint is a worthy competitor, it probably won't force many die-hard PhotoShoppers to drop it in favour of an integrated suite. Corel R.A.V.E. handles motion graphic creation. Some additional peripheral applications are included, such as CorelTrace and Corel Capture, together with a generous amount of fonts, cliparts and photos.

Rather than trying to justify the money for the upgrade by tweaking the interface, Corel has actually put a great deal of thought into the product, and has obviously listened to users. Repositioning items has been made much easier, with temporary guides popping up to tell you what you are snapping to, and how, for example. This alone makes it much easier to move and resize items, especially when not zoomed in at a high resolution and relying on guide rails. The dynamic guides (pictured) appear as you resize objects to show their position and angle in relation to other objects - a really useful addition.

Smart drawing is a new addition, with Corel automatically converting rough shapes into real geometrical figures. It'll automatically turn a roughly sketched circle into a 'proper' one. Again this can rapidly reduce drawing time.

Symbols are improved from the previous version. They act as a way of saving space, which is useful when designing websites. Symbols are only stored once, with a minimal overhead if you repeat the same object. You can now build up libraries of symbols and re-use them within different files. Symbols also have blue handles so you can easily distinguish them from regular CorelDraw objects.

Manipulation of graphics has also been improved, with the eyedropper now handling the copying and pasting of transparency information in addition to colour.

Corel Photo-Paint has not undergone such a radical transition, although there are some new features worth mentioning. These include the touch-up brush, similar to the heal effect in PhotoShop, more than 70 photo filters and instant red-eye reduction.

A noteworthy inclusion is the Corel training CD, providing dozens of video tutorials from respected training site Lynda.com. This is something that every software company should consider including, as users are never going to get the best out of the software unless they know how to use it. By including this Corel are increasing their users' competence level, which will potentially also reduce their support requirements/overheads.

The ability to get data in and out of the applications has always been a particularly strong feature of Corel applications, and this suite is no exception. With no less than 100 file formats supported, including new Office filters and Export to PDF built straight into the 'File' menu, providing others with your masterpieces in a format they'll be able to read normally take less than 4 clicks of the mouse.

Since I started using CorelDraw version 3 way back in 1992 I've also used all of the major competing products, but have always found myself double-clicking back on that multi-coloured balloon icon soon after (although they've now changed it to a pencil, which I suppose is more relevant). Early versions sometimes proved unstable, but this is probably because they were ahead of their time and did not have the hardware to support them (try editing a full A4 bitmap in Corel with only 32MB of RAM, then waiting 20 minutes while Windows makes ample use of its swap file every time the system autosaves). Thankfully, with today's systems sporting at least 512MB of RAM and plenty of hard disc space, CorelDraw 12 zips along, even when throwing around poster-sized artwork. A good example of this was a 2.4m x 800mm banner I was working on recently - applying complex filters still only took seconds to run.

Conclusion: Power DTP users will tell you to get an Apple Mac, but if you must use a PC then Corel is absolutely the way to go. While there are other packages out there from the likes of Microsoft and Adobe, most design houses will have the latest version of Corel, making it easy to get your electronic files to print. If this is your first foray into professional DTP then you can't do much better - if you're upgrading from a previous version then the new features and training videos will make you pleased you forked out the cash! CorelDraw only loses out on the full five stars as many businesses could use MS Word (or MS Publisher, if they purchased the full MS Office suite) to produce most of their basic material, such as newsletters. Therefore, while it is the best in its class, for some businesses it might be seen as overkill. I would, however recommend that you download the trial and make your own mind up - try designing a newsletter in Word, then try the same thing in Corel (after you've been trained up!) - you'll never go back to a word processor for DTP again! For companies that only have an office suite and are looking to upgrade their graphics capabilities, then this all in one package offers a painless, hand-held introduction into the world of digital graphics manipulation.

Supplier's web site: www.corel.com - a full trial is available to download.



Rating
Corel Graphics Suite 12 - 4 stars
Pro's: Best in class. Both DTP and photo editing in one package. Many new features speed up general design work. Excellent training material.

 

Con's: At £300+ it may be overpriced and overkill for some. Full versions of MS Office have Publisher, which will cover the DTP aspect of users' requirements.

Review: Macromedia Captivate

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when trying to learn software this is certainly true. Lotus kicked off the screen capture software genre with its ScreenCam product, which was quickly taken over by the superior Camtasia suite. So I was interested to see Macromedia's offering - Captivate. Products such as Captivate are great for producing software demos, training programs or general help desk assistance files.

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This product, formerly known as eHelp's RoboDemo, works in a slightly different way to other screen capture programs in that it does not dump every movement on the screen into a video file. Instead it stores information on mouse movements and keystrokes in what I'd describe as 'vector' format. Once captured the video/audio is broken up into a series of slides, which can then be edited. It can then be output into a Flash-based format, which is cross-platform compatible.

One nice feature that makes itself apparent after recording your first video is the automatic appending of speech bubbles to recorded movies. For example, if you made a short movie demonstrating how to perform a function within a piece of software, as you click around the screen a bubble is overlayed over the recording. You can then amend the text, colour or size of this bubble as required.

One of the drawbacks of other screen capture programs was that it used to be difficult to correct mistakes in either the video or audio after you had recorded it. With Captivate this is made easier because of the way it records and breaks down content. For example, if you needed to move a mouse click from one area to another, expand or contract the length of one 'slide', or re-record some narrative, all are easier to do in Captivate than they would be in, say, TechSmiths Camtasia. The timeline breaks down all actions, such as keyboard clicks, mouse clicks, voice and captions, so each can be manipulated until you are satisfied with the end result.

Although Captivate is cited as a tool for creating online interactive learning it does tend to get a bit flumoxed when you are trying to program for multiple choice answers, due to the wizard's default templates. No doubt a little fiddling could get round this if you have the time and inclination.


This apps biggest strength is its output formats. Not only can various aspects be configured for best compression, but you can also choose a variety of platforms to output to. In addition to standard SWF Flash format (which means you could embed a movie into a website), you export for Macromedia Breeze, standard executable files (for Windows, Mac or Linux), email or even ftp straight to a server. The only downside was that the compilation time seemed lengthy in comparison to project size, however the resulting filesize is extremely impressive - with several minutes per megabyte quite achievable with the right audio compression.

Captivate vs Camtasia
So which should you opt for? Both can be used to create a quick tutorial video, however Captivate has some strengths over Camtasia. If your output is for the web Captivate's Flash output can be embedded into a web page without problems, whereas Camtasia movies need the Techsmith's codec (if the best compression is to be achieved). Both will produce EXE files, but Captivate will also output for other operating systems. The only shortcoming of a Captivate movie versus a Camtasia movie is that Camtasia records the 'actual' screen, whereas Captivate translates mouse movement to a vector-based pattern - if your narration includes references to something you are pointing on this will not be displayed, as only clicks are recorded and the mouse movement is animated between them. For the most part this will not be an issue though.

Captivate is much more than a simple screen capture program. In fact, if you are purely looking for capturing your screen exactly as the application runs, then Captivate may not be the best product, as it does not capture the screen in realtime as other product do. But if you need an app to create demo and training videos then Captivate is pretty much all things to all men.

Supplier's web site: www.macromedia.com.

Rating
4 star award

Pro's: Excellent wizard to output files into a variety of formats. Timeline-based editing allows easy modification after recording. Users can be made to interact, following a specific training pattern. You can build interactive movies that test users' skills after watching the content.

Con's: Can be time-consuming to process larger files. Expensive in comparison to Techsmiths Camtasia. Not a true screen capture program.

Review: Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004

Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004In days of old when the web was young, web developers used editors that were little more that jumped up versions of Notepad. Microsoft hit the market hard with Frontpage, and designers were blown away with the ability to create reasonably complex sites using an interface that was little more than a word processor. This was, however when the most complex area of writing the majority of sites was table layout and perhaps some Javascript.

Then Macromedia hit back with Dreamweaver in the late 1990's and the tables were turned. Overnight hardcore developers switched over, not only because it was an easier product to use, but also that it generated cleaner code.


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In keeping with many other software vendors, Macromedia chose to adopt a two letter suffix to the end of the product - MX - and have now bolted on the year of release, no doubt to coax developers to upgrade to the latest four digit version per year. I was one such 'coaxee'...

Dreamweaver MX2004 screenshot

As with many new products, Dreamweaver MX 2004 (hereafter referred to as MX2004) requires activation upon installation, however one very welcome change is to the licensing. It is now licensed per USER, not per PC. This means you can have it on your main PC and laptop, but you can't use them at the same time. This is enforced physically as well as legally - the software will check over your network to see if any instances of the same serial number are running, and the most recently opened will close automatically. This is a much fairer way of licensing software, and Macromedia should be commended for this - let's hope that others follow.

The interface is not too much of a departure from the previous MX release - a bit of polishing of graphics and moving a few buttons around (which through me for a while - the close button for open windows moved!). On startup users are greeted to a quick links panel, to either open recent documents or to quickly create new ones.

MX 2004 style sheet handlingAnother major improvement within MX2004 is the handling of CSS (cascading style sheets). In previous versions handling of CSS, whether they were embedded or held in a separate file, was messy. MX2004 has actually gone full swing the other way in some respects. For example, previously you might set a font to 'size=2'. Now you would set it to a pixel size. Not only that, MX2004 will create a style sheet entry (storing information such as font style, size, colour etc) either at the HEAD of the document or in the linked style sheet. This ensures that you can modify the entire look of your site by modifying one or two lines of code.

The way that tables are displayed has also been tweaked. Green dimension lines can now be displayed, giving exact pixel measurements of the table as content is added. While for some this may appear as a visual hindrance (although it can be disabled), for designers working on a graphical site where pixel precision is important this addition will come in useful.

MX2004 table handling

Different types of users will gain different benefits out of MX2004. Advanced developers will probably use the code or split view more, allowing to tinker with the code easily. New designers will most likely use it in design mode, which is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Since the last version of MX, application developers are now also favouring MX for developing ASP, PHP and Cold Fusion sites.

There are many other updates in MX 2004, but the purpose of this review is to gauge the software's usefulness for general business. The features above are the ones that are more likely to ease and accelerate the web design process within most companies.

Conclusion:
For any business wanting to bring web development in-house Macromedia Dreamweaver is an absolute must. There is a but, however! Macromedia have blurred the edges somewhat with the release of Contribute. This could be referred to as a dumbed-down version, although in truth it is much more than that. If you currently outsource your web design to another company, you could spend around £70/$120 on Contribute and update some of the more basic elements of your site without even looking at any HTML code. MX2004 integrates more tightly with Contribute, allowing developers to 'check in' files to the website once they have finished with them, so that Contribute users can 'check them out' to add more content.

If you want to do anything other than basic amendments to an existing site, then MX2004 should be your weapon of choice. It is not too intimidating for new users, but offers all the tools that a power user could need. Plus it is being constantly expanded with free and commercial add-ins through Macromedia's Exchange website. For those with very basic requirements, or those who turn white at the thought of going anywhere near a line of code, Macromedia Contribute might be worth investigating.

Supplier's web site: www.macromedia.com

The trial version of Macromedia Dreamweaver is included on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book Marketing your Business, along with advice on building a site in Dreamweaver.


Rating
5 stars
Pro's: Industry standard. Easy user interface. Excellent style sheet handling for ensuring the look and feel of a site remains constant through every page.

Con's: One of the more expensive packages. May be overkill for very basic sites. Contribute might do the job if you don't want to get too involved.

Review: Macromedia RoboHelp X5

First the application was born. Then, as no-one knew how to use it, the help file was born... Robohelp is one of many products available that allow you to create the type of help file you find with most applications. Some years back help files went over from the .hlp format to the html-based .chm format. I'd used Robohelp in a previous incarnation, so was interested to see how the new version might differ since being acquired by Macromedia, authors of the market- leading Dreamweaver product.

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Robohelp table of contents viewIn use Robohelp X5 is virtually identical to previous versions - in fact on initially firing up the program I was hard-pushed to see any differences. Once you start using the product, however, the tweaks start appearing. I had hoped to see much of Dreamweaver's HTML source editing features ported over, so was initially disappointed that, when switching to code view none of the hardcore HTML programming features I know and love were not there. Also, although Robohelp claims to support JavaScript, it's a little patchy - be prepared to hack around with any code you want to use. In truth this is only going to affect a minority of users looking to add high-level web functionality into a help file.

Robohelp right clickUsing Robohelp is very easy and requires very little in the way of a learning curve. The left pane is tabbed, giving you quick access to Project info, Table of Contents (TOC), Index, Glossary and Tools. Initially you'll spend most of your time in the first two sections - tweaking the look and feel of your output and creating your content. You create the help system as you would navigate it - through a hierarchical tree. Right click over an empty space in the left pane and select new, followed by the content you want to create. Once you have a collection of pages you can drag and drop them into the position you want them to appear in. Style sheets can be applied to one or multiple pages instantly - useful for those upgrading older projects.

The right-hand pane is also tabbed, providing quick access to WYSIWYG display, True code (HTML), Link View and Topics. A cursory glance at the code view shows comments and embedded styles throughout the page - not the leanest code, however it does have the option to generate both W3C and Section 508 compliant output, so while web-based help systems may take a couple of seconds extra to download, they should display correctly in any web browser. Ironically one of the new features strips out the bloated code that is normally associated with imported Microsoft Word files.

Conditional build tags are a new addition. These allow you to specify elements of pages that can be included/excluded for a build. For example, if you want to build a help file for an end user, plus a help file that has additional content for a dealer/distributor, conditional build tags will allow you to do this. Just specify what elements are for which release and they will be added or excluded accordingly when you generate your file.

Version rollback is one of many new collaborative features that will be a welcome inclusion for anyone who has had that sinking feeling when they've just overwritten a lengthy piece of content only to find that they shouldn't have. File history, time/date stamping and comparisons are also included. Some features common to Dreamweaver/Contribute have made their way across to RoboHelp, including the 'Check in/Check out' facility and access rights management. Other notable additions include better PDF and XML input/output and a global spell checker (rather than simply page-based).

As you would expect from a product of this ilk, most of Robohelp's help is in electronic format, although it does come with a 124 page authoring guide. The in-built help also has about a dozen short video tutorials which cover the basics.

Robohelp single source layoutsThe biggest plus in this version is the type of content that can be generated. In addition to the standard Microsoft HTML Help (CHM files), RoboHelp supports Webhelp and Webhelp Pro, Flash Help, Printed and XML formats. Coupled with a batch generator and the conditional build functions this provides a powerful way to generate multiple formats with a single command - very impressive! So, for example, you could produce a standard Windows .CHM help file, a Flash-help file for a CD-ROM, webHelp for your website/Intranet and a printed version - all with specific content depending on the conditional build settings. I would suggest however, that if you wanted to use RoboHelp to produce printed documentation you may have to do some additional formatting to the end document to get it in your desired format, as the structure is dictated by your table of contents.

Conclusion
At over £500 for a single license (£269 for upgrades), Robohelp is not cheap, especially when there are help file building applications out there for less than half the price. But then again Robohelp is not aimed at the lower end of the market. If you need to build a comprehensive resource of information in multiple formats then there is little available that can compete with RoboHelp's breadth of features. Creating help files is quite a niche requirement, hence the 3-star rating, but don't let that dissuade you from what is the market leading product in its field.

 
Supplier's web site: www.macromedia.com - 15 day trial available.

Rating
3 star award

Pro's: Powerful tool for creating high quality multi-help formats. Improved stylesheet handling. Cross browser/cross platform output.

Con's: Hasn't benefited much from Dreamweaver. Expensive for basic projects. Limited Javascript support. Bloated HTML code.

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