The idea behind RagTime 5.6.5 is very appealing: business publishing software that provides midlevel page-layout capabilities, à la Adobe PageMaker, as well as word processing, charting, and spreadsheet tools. But the reality of RagTime 5.6.5 falls far short of its promise. While the program has several great features, it also has some incomplete ones, as well as some curious gaps and an awkward interface.
RagTime’s most powerful feature is its object-oriented approach. Documents can contain all sorts of objects: text, spreadsheets, images, and drawings. Unlike in Microsoft Office or AppleWorks, all of a document’s components are dynamic and can be changed and edited as needed. For example, a sales proposal could contain a live spreadsheet with editable formulas and data. Compare that with Microsoft Word, which can import a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, essentially as an image, but doesn’t let you edit spreadsheet data directly (you must use Excel to edit, and then refresh the Word file).
RagTime’s word processing and spreadsheet features are comparable to AppleWorks’ but not as capable as Office’s. For example, there’s no way to automate bulleted lists in RagTime, nor are there spreadsheet formulas for transactions such as mortgage payments and several other financial calculations.
RagTime can import Word and Excel documents, and it can export to Word, RTF, Excel, PDF, EPS, PICT, SYLK (an old spreadsheet format), and dBase formats. But during import, it ignores Word’s page breaks and converts embedded pictures to in-line graphics, which flow with text and can’t be kept in a static location, even if they were set to do so in Word. You must delete embedded images and reimport them in RagTime to place them precisely. Like Office, RagTime is cross-platform (as is its file format).
RagTime also integrates some desktop publishing capabilities into its text- and picture-handling functions, going beyond typical word processors. You can place pictures precisely, set automated text wrap and hyphenation, and draw with Bézier and freehand tools. The typographic features are also quite sophisticated; they let you use word spacing, drop caps, and custom-size small caps.
The program also gives you access to CMYK four-color separations, so you can create documents that print on an imagesetter or another high-resolution output device. Finally, you can place images as independent objects, modify them, and wrap text around them far more easily than you can in Word. But due to RagTime’s cumbersome, unintuitive interface, the process is not as easy as it is in QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign.
Some Serious Flaws
Despite its conceptual strengths, more is wrong than is right in RagTime. First, there’s the confusing interface. A whole slew of functions is dumped into the Extras menu rather than being organized in a meaningful way — for example, page-oriented functions in a Page menu and spelling functions in an Edit or a Text menu. The name Extras is also misleading, since its tools are essential to the program, not add-ons. Similarly, an Auxiliaries label masks dialog boxes for important features such as style sheets; this may cause users to overlook important capabilities. And instead of a Zoom command, you have to find the Display Scale command.
RagTime uses palettes for basic functions but leaves much of the layout-oriented formatting and preferences to menus and multiple dialog boxes. The result is that finding features is difficult and requires using different interface approaches. The one bit of good news is that many of the dialog boxes provide visual guides that show how the features look when they’re in use, so you can see what they actually do. They’re much like the guides XPress and InDesign provide, but with larger, more readable images.
The program also lacks some basic capabilities. For example, you can’t create multiple text boxes on a page and link text between them — text can link across pages but not within a page.
In addition, some features are poorly implemented. For instance, columns are an attribute of paragraphs, so if a paragraph’s length changes, your layout also changes. Columns should be independent containers, not paragraph attributes. Similarly, hyphenation is treated as a character attribute, affecting text selections, not entire paragraphs as it should. And the tools for making layouts double-sided are practically impossible to find — I had to search the PDF documentation that comes with the program. This basic capability should not be hidden.
The on-screen refresh was inconsistent, with graphics often not redrawing until I moved off the page and then went back to it. And how I wished there had been a keyboard shortcut for importing text and images.
Finally, there’s no printed documentation. RagTime comes with a PDF manual, but it’s slow to search and navigate; a paper copy with a good index would be much more useful.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Even if RagTime 5.6.5 were a brand-new program — which it isn’t — it shouldn’t be such an unintegrated, unevenly implemented, and overpriced hodgepodge. The concept is solid; business users need an integrated word processing and page-layout program that makes it easy to create documents for presentations, price sheets, reports, and so on.
But until RagTime rethinks the program’s interface, streamlines its operations, and fixes its many deficits, business users should stick with Office or AppleWorks, despite those programs’ primitive layout capabilities, and should rely on InDesign or XPress for documents that need professional-level layout tools. I’d love to sing RagTime 5.6.5’s praises, since there’s a real need for this kind of program. Instead, I have to sing the blues.