Quark Xpress Passport Edition

April 1st, 2004 Pixelmag, Software, Tech

There was a time when Quark owned the whole industry. On the back of technologies like postscript, they stepped in with a simple but industrial-strength page layout application and bought desktop publishing for themselves.

They charged a fortune, had shocking technical support, constantly ignored cries for desperately needed improvements and rolled in money behind the protective curtain of 90% ownership of the page layout market.

The trouble now is that they’re the only ones who haven’t changed. Refusal to issue any real updates (sometimes for years at a time) and smug, longtime ignorance of Mac OSX made them an international pariah no matter how many millions of designers still relied on their software.

They didn’t even buckle in the face of increasing pressure from the only serious competitor they’ve ever had — Adobe InDesign — and have slipped back in the race (some say deservedly so); almost every large magazine publishing group in Australia has dumped them for Adobe’s cheaper, more flexible upstart.

Quark Xpress 6.0 is the best attempt Quark has made since the mid 1990s to regain lost respect and unseat any rivals. Whether it’s good enough remains to be seen.

The OSX Factor

One thing Xpress has going for it is a strong comfort factor. Like driving a car, it’s something many of us have been doing for years (and can do on autopilot). And a new program or way of working (no matter how simple) will take up time, concentration and effort not many of us want to spare.

So the real question is whether Quark have come up to the standard they need to get users back — standards many people are already enjoying in InDesign.

To start with, it’s a big plus being Mac OSX native. Although Apple denied keeping any figures (or even making any assumptions) the success of their now three year old-UNIX based platform depends in large part on Quark Xpress users who’ve had no reason to upgrade so far. Some people who held back from Mac OSX will presumably now take the plunge.

The first problem you encounter with the OSX version however is that a lot of the keyboard shortcuts you’re used to get in the way of new system shortcuts. You’ll have to get used to using the mouse or re-assign some of the OSX shortcuts you’ve spent a while getting to know. An extremely irritating one is the change to the control key to bring up the zoom tool — if you constantly zoom in and out of layouts, start getting used to shift+control. And F10 through F12 (previously page layout, style sheets and colours) are all now used by Expose in Panther.

A New Usability

Thankfully, Quark have also made some sweeping changes within Xpress, some better than others.

They’ve tried to embrace the new world of having a single design across multiple media, and one example of it is being able to save several layouts within the one project (file) by use of differently named tabs at the bottom of a single window. Layouts can be for your brochure, website and business card and — being in the same document — automatically share colour attributes, style sheets etc.

Taking a leaf out of the books of Adobe, Macromedia and others, Xpress 6 features unlimited undos, and also contains a nifty feature called synchronised text. Text that appears in more than one place is simply copied into a palette, assigned as synchronised, and placed in other areas of the project. Updating the text once in the palette updates every instance of it wherever it appears.

The biggest bane of most Xpress users’ lives was the shortcomings of the Collect for Output function. Firstly, it didn’t preflight a job, and more infuriatingly, it never collected fonts.

Now, even though Quark seems to have finally listened and included the ability to save fonts with a collected job, there’s still no preflighting function, so no threat to the Preflight Pros and Markzware Flightchecks of the world (considering InDesign has had full preflighting since the word go, it’s still unforgivable).

Quark’s Web Presence

In Xpress 5, Quark included what they believed was the future of their product — the ability for designers to move effortlessly between print and online projects.

Most of the people who’ve moved from print to web design know the basics of HTML and are comfortable in a basic WYSIWIG web editor. To compete, Quark needed a web page design feature that was as good or better.

Unfortunately, they’ve fallen far short. They’ve either delved into the web design business without knowing anything about it or they’ve tried to make it so simple for us slow-witted print designers that all the major web functionality has been taken away.

Besides simplistic (and inadequate) page setup options, it turns a lot of the protocols and indisputable laws on their heads. You don’t create a site folder and clearly mark out your site hierarchy, you just start putting together pages and whack them wherever you like. Quark then exports them in a highly simplified structure when you’ve finished — one you might not want to use.

There’s also none of the normal text limitations any good HTML editor will impose based on browser standards, so you could spend hours designing pretty pages with a multitude of fonts and have no idea 99% of browsers will display them as Times New Roman.

The theory in Xpress 6’s web design aspirations is sound, but none of it’s serious enough for site management. Even if you constructed a basic page you’d have to troubleshoot it in another HTML Editor anyway.

A New Sensation

Further future-proofing was included in version 5 as avenue.quark, the Xtensions to export and create XML data that’s now included.

Again, it’s a good idea, but mostly irrelevant. For starters, how many of us work in an environment where the designer is responsible for content? Even if we do, are we likely to do away with word processors and manage all our content within our page layout application? Probably not in many cases — especially if you decide the HTML editor isn’t for you.

Furthermore, even print designers who are competent in web design know their terms, but understanding how to work with XML takes a working knowledge of it, and Quark’s PDF explaining the basics is over a hundred pages of dry code terminology. Most graphic designers would turn their nose up in disgust and email it to the tech nerds.

Hit or Miss?

Long an essential in the designers toolkit, Quark is in danger of losing more ground. And while the clean, familiar interface looks beautiful in OSX and feels like returning home, they need to do more than ever now to offer designers something to go back to — OSX isn’t enough. Dropping the low-rent additions that aren’t their forte would be a start, and finally pricing their products within reach would be a help too.


Web: www.quark.com
Distributor: Modulo Systems
Phone: 02 9387 5300
Quark XPress 6 — $3,495
Quark XPress 6 Upgrade from 5 — $715
Quark XPress 6 Upgrade from 4 — $1,440
Quark XPress 6 Upgrade from 3 — $1,850

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