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Free Desktop Publishing Software: The Three Best-Rated Packages



Many free "publishing" programs are actually one shot deals. They'll construct greeting cards or business cards, but they don't offer the user any degree of flexibility for more complex projects. Three programs are exceptions to this fact, however, supplying a range of control from professional level output to interfaces easily understood by anyone familiar with standard word processors. In order of complexity, the three best free desktop publishing programs are Scribus, Serif PagePlus SE, and OpenOffice.

Scribus

Of the available, free desktop publishing software packages, Scribus (www.scribus.net) offers the most well-developed and mature options on a par with products from Quark and Adobe. The open-source program can run on Linux/Unix, Mac OS X, and Windows systems (but does not yet offer a universal binary for Intel-based Macs.)

The authors of Scribus list some potential target usages as:

newsletter layouts
corporate stationery
posters
training manuals
technical documentation
business cards

Features and Functions

Scribus produces commercial grade output in PDF and Postscript formats. The software's features include (but are not limited to):

spot color support
CMYK color
ability to create color separations
transparency
support for rounded edges and corners for text and objects, rotatable and scalable
document wide layers
adjustable leading, kerning, tracking, baseline-shifting, and styling
object linking, grouping, moving, locking, resizing, and converting
encapsulated Postscript import and export
full support for Level 2 Postscript output
high grade PDF creation
full compliance with PDF/X-3, an ISO standard for "press ready" PDFs

The control interface uses pulldown menus and has a floating Properties palette that users of QuarkXpress (Version 4) and InDesign (Version 2) will instantly recognize.

Reviewers Point to Some Negatives

In various evaluations of the Scribus product reviewers took issue with some aspects of the program.

In order to output PDF/X, color management must be enabled. This setting did not, however, always work. Still PDFs 1.3 and 1.4 could be reliably created with a full range of controls.
Scribus recognizes clipping paths but the poor design of the interface in this one area makes the option difficult to spot.
Importing PSDs is slow but the software does allow access to the layers for showing, hiding, and adjusting the blending.
Zooming and panning were described as "touch and go."

Overall, however, reviewers agreed that such issues were symptomatic of a program still experiencing growing pains. These drawbacks did not stop reviewers from lauding the polished Scribus interface or speaking highly of the program's reliability once installed. All expected Scribus to only get better and stronger with each subsequent release.

Support

Like most open source applications, support for Scribus can be obtained through the software's sponsored forums and a wiki for documentation and advice. The program also features online help but the information is on a more introductory level. For specific functions and end-user style questions the forums and the wiki are better options.

Serif PagePlus SE

A free Windows program aimed at both novice and professional users, Serif PagePlus SE (www.freeserifsoftware.com) offers professional output options but not press ready PDFs. (Note that current versions of the software are not free but earlier versions can be downloaded at no charge.)

The software includes:

preset document layouts
automated templates
QuickShapes for ease of drawing
full table tools
artistic text effects
on-screen spell checker
graphics inline with text
professional designed color schemes
page manager for multiple page publications

Serif PagePlus SE has only limited business graphics, but the control interface is clear and intuitive. There are built-in word processing tools and the software will handle images in a range of formats including bmp, emf, gif, jpg, png, tif, and wmf. While the software lacks some of the professional polish of Scribus, Serif PagePlus SE is full-featured with a short learning-curve for novices.

Negative Points from Reviewers

All reviewers agree that Serif PagePlus SE is comparable to software like Microsoft Publisher. The company offers the program free of charge betting that users will like its functionality well enough to upgrade to Version 11. Download does require registering an email address but the software will function indefinitely. Some potential problem issues identified included:

no PCX graphic filter
crashes when importing PNG files
no direct support for drop caps

(The user forums at www.serif.com are a good place to post questions and get help with problems.)

OpenOffice

Now in version 2.0 (www.openoffice.org) OpenOffice is a free productivity suite offering high compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. There are five applications included to handle word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, and the editing of math equations. Versions are available for Windows, Linux, Solaris, and Mac OS X (including a universal binary for Intel based MacBooks.)

The fact that the suite offers export to PDF makes the word processing module (Writer) suitable for some desktop publishing projects. Certainly OpenOffice's word processor will handle layout on a par with Word's capabilities. Features the Writer handles with ease include:

tiled GIFs overlaid by markers
shaded boxes
a wide range of font and paragraph styles
embedded charts
Fontwork (an equivalent to WordArt) with superior 3D control including lighting from eight directions
image-editing tools including controls for transparency, sharpening, color channels, and noise removal

(The user forums at www.serif.com are a good place to post questions and get help with problems.)

In testing reviewers did find some potential issues:

rotated images do not always hold their position
text that should wrap an object is sometimes pushed down on the page
vector images can lose their coloring

Given the fact, however, that word processors are notoriously temperamental when used for desktop publishing projects, such problems are not wholly unexpected.

Support

OpenOffice.org offers a range of support options for the software including links to:

community forums

commercial support and training

operating system specific support

books and tutorials

Free Doesn't Mean Settling for Less

There may have been a time when free software meant settling for less but that is no longer the case. Each of these desktop publishing applications offers an impressive degree of functionality and they all have one major advantage over industry leading software; they won't cost you a cent to download and try or to use indefinitely.

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