Desktop Publishing Alternatives

I can’t even begin to count the number of times distressed customers have
called me because they’re having so much trouble designing a publication or even just
moving graphics around or configuring text the way they want it in Microsoft Word. I resist the temptation to be rude and gently point out to them that even though everyone on earth has a copy of Microsoft Word, that doesn’t make it the right program to use for publication design. Word is barely adequate for tasks like writing letters, but despite some poorly implemented features for working with graphics, Word really isn’t a desktop publishing or publication design program. Image positioning in Word is a nightmare, you can’t do any fine tuning of text and line positioning, and doing anything subtle like overlapping text and graphics is impractical. Telling people this causes immediate trauma from the prospect of having to spend over $300 for a state of the art desktop publishing program (Quark Express – $799 or Adobe InDesign – $349). So I decided to go looking for desktop publishing options which are better than Microsoft Word and offer the essential features of Quark and InDesign at a reasonable price.

My criteria in this quest were to find programs which would work on both MacOS and Windows (which OSX has made much more practical) and which could perform certain basic functions, including resizing images by percentages or by dragging, wrapping text around images, changing text spacing and line spacing, superimposing text on images, wrapping text from page to page and working with non-standard paper sizes. Ease of use, versatile menus and control pallettes and ability to work with different file formats were also considerations. Much to my surprise I discovered that despite the dominance of Quark and InDesign in the market there are some good alternatives available at remarkably reasonable prices. The two I ended up most pleased with were DesktopPublisher from Metis International and CreatorDesktop from MultiAd.

Of the two programs CreatorDesktop immeidately creates the impression of being a more professional, more comprehensive package for desktop publishing. It has nice Photoshop-style tool pallettes, and a text control bar similar to the one in Quark Express. Basic desirable features are immediately apparent, and it’s fairly easy to figure out how to use things like word wrap. It also offers both the Quark-like text box option and Pagemaker-style free text placement, which is somewhat easier to use. It also includes limited painting and drawing tools for enhancing and touching up documents. However, I did find one major flaw in the program. Although it does offer fairly powerful text scaling options, it doesn’t feature control over text tracking and spacing and its implementation of leading control and line spacing isn’t quite right. Specifically, when I went to insert a decorative initial of a larger size at the beginning of a paragraph of text, it adjusted the line spacing to fit the size of the initial and offered no option for tightening that spacing up to match the spacing of lines which did not have an initial. There were ways to work around this, but they were clunky and inconvenient. At $99 CreatorDesktop is pretty reasonably prices considering all the features. It pretty much offers everything you need in a DTO package at a fraction of the price of InDesign or Quark. MultiAd also offers a more powerful version of the same package called CreatorPro, but the price is much higher, the features are not all that much better and the bugs appear to be the same. There’s a nice working demo of CreatorDesktop available at: MULTIAD SITE

DesktopPublisher from Metis International creates a much less favorable first impression. It doesn’t look as good. It doesn’t have cute and versatile pallettes. It uses a Word-style header pallette and an old-fashioned Quark-style toolbar on the left. Some of the tool imeplementations are weird and non-standard. For example, at first it seems like it doesn’t let you select a font by typing the font name, but once you play around with it you realize that even though it doesn’t look like you’re doing it, you can type over the name listed and eventually get the one you want. Once I figured out how this works I actually liked it better than other implementations of this feature I’ve seen. One striking problem is that although it has selection boxes for vital text manipulation features, they left them unlabelled to save space. It’s hard to figure out where those features are or what those selection boxes are for, but once you play around with them you realize they handle leading and individual character spacing and do it quite neatly. It also offers drawing-style tools, but nothing like the more powerful paint tools in CreatorDesktop. Once you figure out where everything is, DesktopPublisher is actually remarkably easy to use. It’s like one of the older releases of Pagemaker. It does the stuff you need, is pretty efficient and isn’t junked up and overcomplicated the way that recent versions of Quark and InDesign are. DesktopPublisher also performed much better than CreatorPro when it came to manipulating text and the key test of putting a decorative initial in a box of text, which it handled perfectly. I was also impressed with the simplicity of the color tool. It doesn’t have a pallette, there’s just a button you click on that brings up a list of colors, with the option to go to a color wheel for more variety. It’s basically the same thing you find in Quark, but with the space efficiency of a button instead of a full pallette. The one area in which it failed was rather unexpected. For some reason when opening files, placing text and placing images there were weird pauses and delays while navigating the hard disk. The delay while using the text import feature was particularly bad, although cutting and pasting text had no such delay. At $19.95 DesktopPublisher is a real bargain. Metis also offers some nice companion programs like the really useful BarCoder program. You can download demos of any of their packages at: METIS SITE

Both of these desktop publishing applications offer most of the features you want with fairly good implementation at pretty reasonable prices. Both programs are available for MacOS and for Windows, which is very nice if you have people working with you on a different OS. What neither of these packages offers are the really advanced professional features which you may not need for most uses. They don’t have the Pantone color libraries built into them, for example, but you probably don’t need that unless you’re printing direct to a four-color press. Overall, DesktopPublisherPro wins out despite its minor problems because of ease of use and comprehensive features. It may seem to be less powerful, but it’s a much more practical program to use. Ironically, at $19.95 it’s also priced substantially lower than CreatorDesktop’s $99 pricetag, so it’s a much better investment – hard to beat at the price. And remember, both programs are indinfinitely better than Microsoft Word for anything more complex than writing a memo. As a side note, MultiAd has a much more professional website than Metis International. The Metis site is really crude and amateurish, but I suspect that with the great low prices of their products they can’t afford a full time web designer.

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3 comments on “Desktop Publishing Alternatives

  1. Brian S. Anderson

    You’ll probably get a lot of emails about not reviewing someone’s favorite DTP program, so here’s mine! 😉 Have you looked at Serif PagePlus?
    It has gotten very favorable comparisons to PageMaker at a fraction of the price. They also have DrawPlus, WebPlus, MoviePlus and PhotoPlus. I’ve used PagePlus since version 6 (I’m using version X3 [13] now) and have been extremely pleased with it. Version SE (which is version 9 with PDF editing removed) is available for free at:
    if you want to get a peek at an earlier version before upgrading.

    Legal disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with the company at all, except as a very satisfied customer. Your mileage may vary. This email composed of recycled electrons.

  2. Dave

    Brian, I’ll put it on the ‘to do’ list. I’m about to do a review of another graphics program so doing a DTP program afterwards would be a good change of pace.


  3. Zach

    Try Scribus. It is free and open source, and very powerful, but very well designed and easy to use. You should find yourself being nicer to it than you were to GIMP. I don’t know, however, if you need X11 to run it on the Mac. I’m a Linux gu

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