capsule review

MLayout 2.1

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It’s been a long time since Mac users have had a desktop publishing program targeted to the broad range of business, nonprofessional, and semiprofessional publications such as newsletters, journals, and simple brochures. The last significant product in that class was PageMaker 7 (   ; November 2001 ). So it was intriguing to see Softmagic’s MLayout 2.1, a sort of QuarkXPress Lite, created by a South Korean company that has helped QuarkXPress (   ; March 2005 ) newspaper publishing clients develop custom workflows and tools.

MLayout uses templates, called DesignModels, to help you quickly lay out common types of publications. (When using the sample templates that come with the program, be sure to pick ones that begin with “E_”; otherwise all the placeholder labels on the documents will be in Korean.) You can create your own templates by choosing from options in a dialog box. While QuarkXPress forces you to create documents and then save them as template files, MLayout’s templates are more convenient to create and use because they include design comments that make it easier to understand the template’s components.

MLayout’s main interface is very similar to QuarkXPress, though less complex because of its focus on just core print publishing. That means you don’t have to wade through Web-publishing tools and menu items or more esoteric functions such as editing font-tracking tables or indexing. Its common palettes feature a good balance of clarity, simplicity, and usability.

MLayout even one-ups Quark in several areas. For example, you can define special formatting for each column in a text box, something QuarkXPress cannot do, plus show overset text (text that does not fit in the layout). And you can associate a caption box with a picture, so the two move together in the layout. There’s also a basic mathematical-equation editor not available in either QuarkXPress or InDesign (   ; August 2005 ), and a set of editing tools that let you easily create boxes with curved and angled sides. MLayout handles drop caps better than QuarkXPress—and InDesign—by letting you specify the letter’s font, not just its size. Finally, you can have MLayout automatically insert items such as the date and time in documents.

The rest of MLayout offers features that any mid-level publisher would need, including the ability to create boxes for text and images; link text among boxes; and create and apply styles (as well as override styles with local formatting). You can also add tables, basic shapes, and lines, and rotate or flow text around them. You get almost all the key page design functions such as master pages, style sheets, object management, and graphics tools.

Interface and performance issues

It doesn’t take long to realize that MLayout has some very awkward interface and functional problems. For example, the pull-down menu in the Measurements palette shows only those fonts you’ve added to a Favorites list via another dialog box. Plus, you can only use fonts available via Apple’s Font Book application, so users of programs like Extensis’s Font Reserve (   ; February 2003 ) and Suitcase (   ; February 2005 ) are out of luck. Text-file import is limited to text-only and Rich Text Format files—there’s no support for the Microsoft Word format.

It’s easy to miss the function for creating reusable color swatches, and the program doesn’t permit the use of spot-color inks such as Pantone and Trumatch, though MLayout can convert such colors to CMYK and RGB if you import them from an EPS color-swatch library. Another issue: MLayout sometimes lets you select unavailable options for objects, even though nothing happens when you select them. Softmagic says it plans to fix this.

The interface for creating templates and something called a GIM (Grouped Image Management) is very confusing. GIM lets you place similar images in one master picture box, such as for a catalog but, I still felt puzzled, even after spending time with the program’s 288-page PDF documentation, which you must download separately. There is no online help because the company says its help files aren’t compatible with the Apple Safari browser used by the Mac OS X Help system. (It hopes to fix that problem soon.)

XML implementation

MLayout’s templates and GIMs use the XML language, making them perfect for automated workflows. Yet the complexity of XML is one reason that setting up these templates, and the underlying XML links, is difficult. That’s not MLayout’s fault—the process is exacting and laborious, and XML is hard to use in QuarkXPress and InDesign, too. In fact, I find MLayout to be more straightforward in its approach to XML than either of those apps. There are also special box tools (Special, Title, and Image) that let you set up and tag boxes that won’t hold the body text flowing through your document. These tagged boxes let an XML-aware program know where to place, for example, titles from a content database into the layout. These functions show Softimage’s background as a newspaper-production customization company, but they don’t fit the intended MLayout audience.

Fortunately, you can ignore the GIM and special box functions. Content developers and production staff experienced with XML-based publishing should have no problem using these tools, but they’ll need to ask why they would base their production on such an obscure product.

MLayout uses its own file format and can import only the 12-year-old QuarkXPress 3.2 or 3.3 format. Chances are very high you’ll need to create all documents from scratch.

Macworld’s buying advice

MLayout 2.1 is a good start, but its developers need to think through what a nonprofessional, non-technical user needs, as well as work the kinks out of the program’s interface. As intriguing as MLayout 2.1 is, it’s not quite ready for mass adoption. I hope Softimage can achieve a better result with a future version.

[ Former Macworld Editor and veteran technology writer Galen Gruman has written 20 books on desktop publishing, including QuarkXPress to InDesign: Face to Face (Wiley Publishing; 2005). ]

MLayout 2.1 lets you easily create straightforward documents, such as newsletters, using its simplified QuarkXPress-like interface.Although MLayout is aimed at mid-level publishers, it includes several sophisticated tools. One lets you apply curved and angled sides to text boxes.An unexpected bonus in MLayout is its basic equation editor, which is a great complement for academic publishers who need just a mid-level publishing tool.
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