Quark Xpress 8

Quark XpressQuark has been in the wilderness for a long time, ignoring the InDesign threat to its peril and then flubbing most subsequent releases when the company should have been making the sort of splash it has with Quark 8.

Gone is the Passport edition — now Xpress comes with support for all languages and editions in one box, and version 8 can read and open files made in older, regional versions. There’s strong support for East Asian text and it now contains universal spell check and H&J facilities for all languages covered.

So it’s wider-reaching, but is it better? Taking a leaf out of Adobe’s book, Quark has focused on a few cool features to pique your interest and entice you to learn about the dozens more under the hood. It’s plain they’ve looked carefully at the competition and their users and some features are actually more advanced than those of InDesign, a state of affairs that didn’t look likely just a few years ago.

The first thing you’ll notice (perhaps after a long delay, that is — each time we launch the program on a G5 PowerPC with 2.25GB of RAM there’s almost a three-minute wait) is that the interface is quite different. It adopts the muted greys and shading of Dreamweaver in the usual palettes, and the tool palette is a lot shorter.

The first big change is that Xpress no longer distinguishes as much between picture and text contents but the content and the box. Even though there’s now a picture content tool, Xpress automatically switches tools according to the content in the box you select.

That’s a big deal because when you’re dealing with a picture box Xpress behaves in a whole new way that trumps InDesign’s ‘black/white arrow’ conundrum. Prior to Xpress 8 — in both Quark and Adobe’s programs — you’d have to specify if you wanted to work with the box or the contents. Now you can action both with the picture content tool.

Click on a picture box with the picture content tool and you’ll see two sets of handles, one for the box and one for the content. If the content’s cropped, the rest of the image outside the box is a little shaded so you can judge exactly where you want it and how much of it you want to appear. But if you want to move the edge of the box itself to accommodate more of the image, you don’t have to change tools to do so — just grab the other set of handles. Even handier, you don’t have to grab the handles themselves, anywhere around the outline of either the box of the content will do.

There’s another reason the one-tool-for-two-jobs approach is so handy. Quark recognises an important part of design Adobe doesn’t regard as prominently. When you want to rotate a picture, it’s often the content you want to adjust, not the box. If so, just move a little off one of the handles surrounding the content, and when it turns into the familiar rotate icon, spin it to your hearts content. If you want to rotate the box instead, just move in so you’re near one of the box edges rather than the content edges and rotate the whole thing. You can do it all without having to click back and forth in different tools, and the usual proportion constraint keyboard shortcuts still apply.

It’s often the simplest things that are the best, and here’s one Desktop found beautiful beyond its immediately-apparent value. The most annoying thing about typing text in InDesign is when you realise you need another tool, right? Hitting the keyboard shortcut won’t select it, it’ll just type more text. Only designers can understand the irritation and time sacrificed in that microsecond to move the mouse to the tool palette instead of using a keyboard shortcut, so now — no matter what tool you’re in — just hold down the command key and you instantly switch to the Item tool to move the object across your layout.

Quark has also taken some leaves out of Adobe’s book, perhaps mindful of making the transition easy for customers they hope to steal back. You can now put any kind of content into any kind of box, and both pictures and text files are fully drag-and-droppable from the Finder as well as Adobe Bridge and the Bezier pen tool now behaves much the same as you find it in Illustrator, Indesign and Photoshop.

Although support for native .ai files is new, .psd file support has been around for a few versions. Obviously you don’t have all Photoshop’s manipulation tools at your disposal, but you can isolate layers, channels and paths to work with. Several large PSD files we tried crashed Xpress entirely — evidently it spat the dummy trying to identify the Photoshop features it supported, but a simple montage with shaded areas worked fine. A lot of the shortcut key commands have also been bought into line with Creative Suite, and Quark also lets you drag and drop content direct from Adobe Bridge.

The Measurements palette is a very different beast. It looks the same at first glance, and that’s because it is, containing the usual suspects like item height and width, X and Y co-ordinates, font and font size, alignment and leading controls, etc. But roll over it and watch it realise its potential. Each time you move the mouse to the Measurements palette, a little menu of five new icons appears above it. Select one and you’ll be given different options to adjust even more text controls, the frame, runaround, character, paragraph, space/alignment, tabs and drop shadow attributes.

If you’re a long-time Quark user you’ll be able to action most of the tools in the Measurements palette with keyboard shortcuts, but there are some welcome additions to its new profile. One is the effective resolution of an image as you scale it, an important tool Desktop noticed was missing even from the very first version of InDesign.

Another welcome change in the Measurements Palette is that fonts finally appear in a WYSIWIG menu (remember all the money you spent on Adobe Type Reunion about ten years ago?). If it takes too long to render and display all the fonts you have activated, just toggle the shift key when you hit the font menu button and WYSIWIG mode is disabled.

If you’re in newspaper or magazine publishing you’re probably used to dealing with a lot of grids. Using grids for several for different elements used to get messy — often you’d have to simply use the main grid for body text and ignore it when it came time to lay out smaller elements like captions and breakouts. Xpress 8 now offers a page grid but as many box-level grids as you need as well, and deeply customisable hanging character controls keep your hyphenation rules from making your text look awful.

Once you’ve worked through the major changes, you’ll start to reveal the many lesser ones and be pleasantly surprised by many of them. The initial splash screen has a short list of recent documents, a first for Quark in making it so easy to retrace your steps. Exporting a layout as a PDF is also lightning fast — much faster than in previous versions.

But in such a fully-featured application, there are niggles. Every time you open an older document, Xpress 8 wants to resave it as a version 8 document, which means manually overwriting old files the first time you save. An override that automatically overwrites the original file for the new version would be handy. Also, there’s no means to append item styles between documents like you’ve previously done with text or paragraph styles, but Quark promises it’s coming in a future version.

And so to the traditional Achilles Heel of Quark’s offering — online design. Quark is making a lot of noise about the Flash export functionality, and during products demos it looked deceptively easy. You do however need a working knowledge of Flash terminology — even though the palette to assign behaviours and attributes to objects is clutter-free and simple, the terms in it aren’t second nature to layout artists.

Xpress also appears – after a few casual tests – not to have improved much on previous HTML export functionality either. Past iterations of its web layout system produced barely workable code, and version 8 proved little different. Dropping the elements of a simple stationery form into a web layout produced a HTML page that contained tables (bad) and was full of spacer gifs (worse).

But it’s a safe bet very few copies of Quark Xpress have been purchased for their HTML export functionality, and the field already belongs to too many competitors who’ve had it covered for too long. It’s a print page layout program, and a good one. For a long time it was second fiddle, but version 8 is the best chance Quark’s had in a long time to take back the top spot.