MLayout 2.0 beta full review

At one time, QuarkXPress was synonymous with high-end design. If you were a graphic designer or were working on a newspaper or magazine, XPress was central to your workflow. These days many publications such as Macworld have switched to Adobe InDesign while others, such as the Guardian, are in the process of switching.

While Quark and Adobe have been battling it out for the top spot, one lesser-known effort has made significant strides in the area: Softmagic MLayout.

On first loading the program, users will immediately feel at ease. As MLayout is a Cocoa application with its roots in a NeXTSTEP layout app called Newsman, it follows Apple’s human-interface guidelines almost perfectly. One curiosity is that double-clicking on a document’s title-bar shades the window à la Mac OS 9, rather than docking it. Softmagic explains that this was a feature requested by many users who found it more useful. Classic Mac loyalists will feel their critique of the OS X dock is vindicated by this move – but to be honest, while shading is handy it does introduce a certain amount of inconsistency into the interface.

This aside, MLayout will feel immediately familiar to XPress users. It is certainly closer to XPress than Adobe InDesign is – perhaps showing Quark what it could have done on Mac OS X.

The XPress-like interface isn’t the end of Softmagic’s efforts to woo the company’s alienated customer-base: interpolability is a major strength touted by Softmagic. Version 2 of MLayout introduces a useful new function – XPress file conversion. At present, only version 3.x files are supported because in Softmagic’s core market, Asia, most designers and publications are still using version 3.3.

In Europe and the United States, those publications which have not switched to InDesign are likely to be using version 4, 5, or even 6. Softmagic is currently working on incorporating an XPress 4 file converter with a debut promised at Macworld Expo San Francisco show 2005.

The conversion is a simple enough process of choosing Document Converter from the file menu. Results are admirable, but the fact remains that XPress 3.3 is rather long in the tooth.

MLayout’s peculiarities
MLayout is centred around a technique named “DesignModel”. DesignModels are XML-aware design templates. This means that within the application there is significant separation of content and design. XML-tagged data can be automatically paginated based on a pre-defined set of rules and XML tags. All of this is very interesting, but if you want to launch straight into layout work, it can also be safely ignored.

Text and colour
MLayout is suitable as a general design application, but its roots lie in the specific niche of publication design. As such, it has all of the fine typographical controls one has come to expect from high-end layout apps. The ability to adjust text colour, tracking, scale, baseline-shit, leading and kerning are all there and accessed in a fairly intuitive manner.

Typeface-handling is performed using Mac OS X’s built-in font support, so a well-organized Font Book is an obvious advantage. One interesting aspect of MLayout’s type handling is the inclusion of a text-frame specifically for creating headlines.

In terms of colour handling, MLayout is behind the competition, omitting Pantone support. However, CMYK, RGB and HSL colour models are all catered for.

The biggest difference between MLayout and its more-familiar competitors is Image Modelling, or Grouped Image Management (GIM). In an attempt to increase design flexibility, the developers have created a different way of considering images.

First a GIM Definition File (GDF) is created, which groups images by characteristics: size, kind, attributes etc. The next process is to create a GIM. A GIM can then be applied to a document to achieve various different styles of graphic-oriented design.

It’s a fairly involved process and not one that many users will take advantage of initially, but if you happen to be designing a catalogue, brochure or other repetitive and image-heavy document it could come in handy.

The fly in the ointment
In terms of output, it will be necessary to export everything a PDF as few bureaus currently support MLayout. Thankfully, the program makes excellent PDFs using Mac OS X’s built-in Quartz graphics layer.

Finally, version 2.0 of MLayout has seen a 50 per cent price rise, which is unfortunate – but the fact remains that it’s still significantly cheaper than QuarkXPress or InDesign. Users of version 1.5 can get version 2.0 as a free upgrade.

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