Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Affinity Publisher (beta) DTP software preview

Serious DTP (Desktop Publishing) packages tend to come with a hefty price tag. The venerable Quark XPress costs £725 (one-off purchase). Adobe’s InDesign costs around £20 per month. There are of course, much cheaper packages such as Microsoft Publisher (which is now bundled with Office for about £420, or £60 per year). But, frankly, while Publisher is fine for newsletters and flyers, I doubt if many professional designers would be tempted by it.

A forthcoming product - for both Windows and Mac - could plug the gap between the expensive professional-grade packages and the cheaper products aimed at amateurs. I’ve been taking a look at the beta release of Affinity Designer. And so far I am extremely impressed.

I don’t normally write about beta software but in this case I make an exception. Let me explain why. I have used graphics and DTP software from Serif (the company behind the Affinity range) for many years. I first used them way back in the 1990s when I was a reviewer and columnist for ‘PC Plus’ magazine and ‘Computer Shopper’. Even then they were good. In the years that followed they became much better. Their claim to fame was combing high-end features with a low-end price. Serif’s previous DTP package was PagePlus, but that product was quietly ‘retired’ a few years ago (though you can still buy it for just £19.99 here, ).

It’s not possible (or fair) to ‘review’ beta software which, by its nature, is unfinished and may have bugs or omissions that won’t be found in the final release. What I will say, though, is that in the couple of weeks that I’ve been using Affinity Publisher, I have quite simply decided that it is the DTP package that I would choose for my own projects. It is efficient, easy to use (by DTP standards, which means there may still be a 'learning curve'), well-featured and elegantly designed. It does most of what you’d expect in a pro-grade DTP package: importing text and images, designing simple or fancy layouts, columns, tables, text-wrap-around (with fine-tuned control) and so on. In the current version it doesn’t have a Microsoft Word importer. However, when I saved a big Word document to RTF it imported all 100-plus pages, auto-flowed the text into multiple frames and even preserved the styles I’d applied in Word, adding them by name to its own stylesheet.

I was curious to know what the two ‘persona’ icons at the top left of the screen are supposed to do. There is one called a Vector Persona and another called Photo Persona. I believe that these will be used to integrate Publisher with Affinity’s image processing and drawing packages, but this integration is not available in the beta. I asked Affinity for some more information. I was told that “The importance will become more apparent once we switch on the functionality for the three apps to integrate.” In other words, wait and see…

I was also curious to know why the old Serif range had been given the boot. From a technical point of view, I can understand why it might be preferable to start from the ground up now, rather than continue to add features to software that has been in development for such a long time. I suspect that, in addition, the ‘cheap and cheerful’ image of Serif-branded products might be seen as a disincentive for buyers looking for a really first rate application.

“The move away from the Plus range was inspired by our Head of Development – Tony Brightman,” John Atkin, Head of PR, told me, “who felt we had more to offer than cut-price versions of industry standard software – an opportunity to lead, not follow.

“The idea was to develop a whole new range of professional graphics software, initially for Mac. These apps would be special in their conception – built from the ground up with the workflow of creative professionals in mind. It meant throwing away all the code we had built up over the years, but he wanted to create something that would set a new, higher standard for creative design apps. The key criteria that this new range would have to fulfil:
  • Lightning fast - in particular taking advantage of all latest CPU and GPU chipsets
  • Cover the core disciplines of photo editing, vector drawing and desktop publishing
  • Use exactly the same file format between applications
  • Have no bloat - utilise a concept of personas to organise the UI into different use cases
  • Be unashamedly pro - core requirements like CMYK and 16 bit would be built in from the start and not allow wizards or anything else get in the way of a pro workflow.”
There is no word on the price at the moment. Affinity’s other products, Photo (image editing) and Designer (vector art) currently sell for around £40 to £50 – there are often ‘special offers’ so it’s worth checking to see if there are any good deals at the moment). I think it’s reasonable to suppose that Designer will be in broadly the same price range or, at any rate, nowhere near as expensive as the likes of Quark XPress.

I imported a substantial document in RTF format. Publisher created a multi-page project and auto-flowed all the text, retaining the original styles
Then again, while it may be inexpensive, Affinity Publisher certainly won’t be the cheapest DTP package available because the well-regarded open source DTP package, Scribus, is completely free. Many people love Scribus. In all honesty, I can’t say I am one of them. The user interface of Scribus is not only dull and old-fashioned but it is also (in my experience anyway) pretty hard to use. That’s subjective, of course. All I can say is that I found that I was constantly searching the Scribus documentation for help in getting stuff done whereas with Affinity Publisher I can, in most cases, figure it out for myself.

If you have no budget at all, then it may be worth your time and effort to get to grips with Scribus. Personally, though, I’d rather spend a bit more money and  save myself a whole lot of time and effort. So, assuming the final product lives up to the promise of the beta, Affinity Publisher would be my choice.