Publishing software is dominated by three packages: Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress for high-end commercial print, and Microsoft Publisher for office-based design. However, there is a fourth option and, with a history stretching back 20 years, it's a mystery that Serif PagePlus isn't better known.
PagePlus is aimed primarily at the office user rather than the professional designer, so user-friendliness is key: the program is easy to get to grips with and always tries to help. A good example of this is X5's new hover-based approach to selection, where groups and objects glow as you hold your mouse over them, indicating exactly what will be selected if you click. A new Lasso Select tool and a selection handle to manage rotation also make it easier to carry out basic tasks.
The clearest sign of PagePlus' focus on usability is its wide range of themed templates for common jobs such as creating business cards, stationery, newsletters and so on. PagePlus X5 offers no fewer than 880 themed layouts as ready-to-use presets and, if you click on the More button, you can buy additional industry-specific designs from Serif's online Template Store.
The big danger of a template-based approach is that it undermines creativity. However, PagePlus makes customisation simple. Handling master pages is now more flexible, with the ability to apply multiple masters and detach master page objects on the current layout for independent editing. You can also mix landscape and portrait orientations in the same publication, and the new Colour Scheme Designer lets you quickly create your own themed colour palettes.
Text handling is key to the success of a publishing project, and here PagePlus X5 adds support for Word 2010 files, including pictures and layout. Typographic features are far richer than a word processor's thanks to the powerful composition engine, which offers optical margin alignment and justification. New in X5 is support for advanced OpenType font features such as swashes, ornaments and intelligent character pairs.
In terms of graphics, the new support for SVG is unlikely to prove useful, mainly because PagePlus already supports the more common formats: JPEG, TIFF, PNG, PSD, EPS, DXF, WMF and more. However, improvements to the way text wraps around transparent objects should enable more polished layouts. The ability to apply gradient and bitmap fills and transparency effects to outlines add some design flair too.
To help you get on top of design-intensive, multilayered layouts, the revamped Layers palette shows thumbnails of all groups and objects. For longer documents, you can insert cross-references to headings, anchors, pictures and so on, as well as "continued from" and "continued on" links. You can also add user-defined variables that can be updated throughout the publication, and mix page-numbering styles.
As for output, the main Print dialog in PagePlus X5 has been simplified. Clicking on More Options gives access to comprehensive control over factors such as layout, mail-merge, bleed and separations. There's also an interactive Print Preview, where you can add crop marks and colour bars, as well as create booklets and n-up layouts.
For in-house print this is all you need, but for commercial colour-separated print you'll need to take your work to a bureau. To do this, you can package up your PagePlus publication, complete with all fonts and linked files, but it's easier to produce a PDF. PagePlus takes PDF export and import very seriously, and the latest version adds support for percentage scaling and non-printing layers, as well as output intents, improved colour management and greyscale handling.
Without any new headline features, it's difficult to get too excited about PagePlus X5. However, there are improvements across the board, and the program has built up huge power over its long history, especially in terms of dedicated workspaces for story editing, logo design, photo handling, cut-out creation, book production and even basic 3D. Most importantly, while concentrating on office-based ease of use, PagePlus X5 is also more serious about commercial print than its main rival, Microsoft Publisher. This makes it a good option for occasional publishers who can't justify the cost of InDesign or QuarkXPress.