Contents | < Browse | Browse >

===========================================================================
                          REVIEW: STYLUS PRO-PAK
  Maxwell Daymon                                         mdaymon@rmii.com
===========================================================================

The Amiga has never really been a leader in desktop publishing.
Development has always been primarily focused on games, video, and lately
multimedia markets.  However, Stylus has come back with a redesigned
version of their product "ProVector" in the form of a productivity package.


The Stylus Pro-Pak actually consists of four distinct programs:

· ProVector 3.0
    The structured drawing program (certainly the focus of the package)

· StylusTracer
    Converts IFF ILBM and TIFF bitmaps to IFF-DR2D or Adobe Illustrator

· PSImport
    Imports and decomposes PostScript, EPS, and Adobe Illustrator EPS

· RexxRequest.
    An ARexx command host that gives gadtools.library functions to ARexx
    programmers


* Installation

The Stylus Pro-Pak uses the Standard Amiga Installer Utility and the
installation script is very well implemented.  In Expert mode (my preferred
mode), not only does it allow you to choose and verify what you want
installed, it will tell you exactly how much disk space the options will
take.  If you are not satisfied, you simply reselect what you want
installed.  There is no need to abort and start the whole process over
again as some other scripts would require.  You can keep altering your
choices until you finally decide what configuration will be acceptable.

The package comes with the manual for the 2.0/2.1 version of ProVector and
a very sharp context sensitive ProVector 3.0 on-line help system.  Given
the quality and extent of the included AmigaGuide based help files, I just
don't see much point in the manual.  Being able to position the pointer on
any given button/window, pressing help, and instantly getting such a
comprehensive on-line help makes the slightly dated manual a non-issue.


* StylusTracer

The included bitmap tracing utility, StylusTracer, is an extremely powerful
tracer.  Gold Disk's Trace program is an embarrassment by comparison. 
StylusTracer loads IFF ILBM (2-256 color, HAM, 24-bit) and TIFF bitmap
images.  The program worked on my CyberGraphX screenmodes in up to 256
colors, and surprised me when it even opened on an Amiga HAM6 screen (I'm
sure HAM8 is even better) StylusTracer supports dithering to increase the
number of apparent colors, and can use color or grayscale palettes.  If you
aren't doing color work, grayscale offers a very clean image, especially
with the AGA chip set.

There are a number of image processing features that help to convert any
given bitmap to a form conducive to tracing.  Conversion is available to
and from black & white, indexed color, grayscale, and full-color (24-bit).
Seven different smoothing options are there to tackle various image
problems: average, median, blur, gradient, region, minimum, and maximum. 
The program also offers a generous complement of image processing features:
posterize, remove isolated pixels (very nice before tracing a dirty scan),
sharpen, edge detect, thin, scale, invert, strip bits, brightness,
contrast, and gamma.  Having all these tools immediately available makes
the process of tracing much less painful.  Coupled with undo ;-), you can
really experiment with various options quickly.  Simple painting options
are also available including pixel by pixel editing at any magnification
level.  The program will save the image back out as an IFF file (so you
actually get a TIFF to IFF ILBM file format converter in the process).

The trace options allow you to specify precision, curve fitting, whether or
not you even want curves or just straight lines traced, and how you want
objects handled (with or without holes) and so on.  You can export traced
data as IFF DR2D, or Adobe Illustrator with or without a preview header.  I
had no problems using data exported to Adobe Illustrator format on various
Macintosh machines running the software.

If you are not satisfied with a trace, you can keep tweaking options and
retracing until you find settings suit the particular bitmap.  A logo is
probably going to demand significantly different settings than an
illustration.  Further, you can actually watch as it traces so you don't
have to wait out the entire process before you know whether the options
were adequate.

[Graphic card users should note that StylusTracer currently assumes that
256 color screens have an 8-bit per gun palette.  Most of the graphic cards
currently available for the Amiga only support 6-bits per gun, so opening
the program in 256 color grayscale causes a problem.  It won't dither the
colors (it thinks it has them all) and your granularity is high.  Reducing
the screen down to 64 colors will cause the effect to disappear since the
program will then be dealing with the actual grayscale the card produces
and dither appropriately]


* PSImport

PSImport is one of the included modules that is called from the ProVector 3
"Import »" menu.  ProVector scans the PV_Import directory for such external
modules and automatically adds them to the "Import »" menu upon loading.

Rather than loading EPS files and placing a bounding box or jagged bitmap
preview, Stylus has decided to provide a utility that actually attempts to
decompose the EPS (or PS) file into a usable vector drawing again.

There is a problem with this, however.  Some EPS files, especially those
created by Gold Disk programs, have some problems that cause PSImport to
choke.  In the case of these files, you can't even simply accept the
graphic as a bounding box to try its luck at running the file.

However, files from other sources generally ran very well.  One particular
advantage to this method is that all printers can use valid EPS clip art
with ProVector.  Normally, you can only use EPS clip art with PostScript
printers or with programs that interpret the PostScript to a form another
printer understands.  Even with programs that do this interpretation, they
do not allow editing or correcting such clip art in the process.


* RexxRequest

While other programs have their own solutions for implementing GUIs in
ARexx macros, the Stylus Pro-Pak gives the user a stand-alone host utility
that can be used for any ARexx macro.  It can even be used in place of the
customized systems that have generally been provided until this point.

An AmigaGuide database which is optimized for OS 3.x, but still runs with
AmigaGuide v37 (OS 2.x) is included.  Although it is primarily a quick
reference, the entire package comes with many ARexx macros.  Almost all of
the included ARexx macros provide extensive real world examples of how to
implement ARexx scripts using RexxRequest.


* ProVector 3

ProVector is a fast program.  Drawing, manipulating, and using the program
is a pleasing experience.  Since gradient fills can slow the process
(although no more than any other program doing gradients) they can be
turned off while still keeping full color fills and patterns available.
You aren't restricted to an "all or nothing" preview approach.  There are
four levels of preview: wireframe, color, pattern, and gradient.  Each one
adds to the previous level (for example, pattern does not forsake color).

At first the drawing method seemed quirky to me.  It is unlike Adobe
Illustrator, ProDraw, or most other drawing programs.  However, I picked up
on the process very quickly (within a few hours) and found it to be much
more natural and "organic" feeling than other programs.  ProVector3 is much
more suited to a traditional illustrator than a person who thinks in terms
of tangents and mathematical velocities of lines while designing.  In only
a few days I was getting better results, and in less time, using
ProVector's drawing tool compared to ProDraw's.  Going back to ProDraw is
like going back to pushing instead of driving.  It reminds me of the
transition to the "quirky" Amiga from the PC back in 1985.  Also, in
ProVector, you can press the backspace key to delete points in order from
latest to first if you make a mistake or would like to refine the drawing
without starting over again.  This is one of those "how did I ever live
without it?" features.

Along with the regular suite of drawing tools, ProVector has useful options
and constraints to the tools.  Circles and ellipses can be constrained to
specific slices, the rectangle tool has become the polygon tool.  You only
need to specify how many sides you want and it creates the polygon.  With
simple ARexx macros, you could create professional IFF DR2D charts and
graphs directly between the programs, and even time-based charts across
separate layers.

Some of the particularly useful features include an undo/redo of up to 256
levels, object zoom (which zooms in on a specific object), select NOT
(selects all those items not currently selected), custom crop mark
placement (not just 'on' or 'off'), and the special effects that can be
applied to objects.

The object manipulation options such as warp, skew, and other DO fold,
spindle and mutilate are particularly useful since they should you the
result as you work with the object.  Of course, with the undo/redo, even
this isn't "needed" but it's very nice to see the results before you
confirm the action.

Fonts can be changed after the fact (just select the text box and choose a
different font) and Adobe Type 1 fonts are directly supported.  Fonts can
specifically be marked on a per item basis for downloading.  This saves
memory and printing time if you do not need to download ALL your fonts
simply because you are using one that your printer doesn't have.

Gradients can have up to 65,536 colors per fill, not just two.  Further,
each color pair can have as many as 256 (non user defined) intermediate
colors to define the gradient.  Gradients can be filled as linear, conic,
radial, and bound to the shape of the object.  Transition speeds of the
gradient are even more flexible (fast, slow, constant, fast/slow,
slow/fast, etc.)

ProVector also supports layers, up to 256.  Each layer can be shown,
hidden, edited, and locked independently.  For large projects this is a
wonderful feature.  You can open many projects at the same time, memory
would seem to be the practical limitation here.  Professional 'musts' such
as color separation, under color removal, black generation, and per color
trapping are all available with ProVector.

Output options are available (and external, so more can be added) for
PostScript, Preferences (Printer), HPGL, Adobe Illustrator EPS, IFF ILBM
(2-256 colors and anti-aliased 24-bit).  The results have been excellent.

ARexx support for these programs is very strong.  I can see being able to
add 'tool palettes' very easily and naturally to the programs with
utilities such as ToolManager (Stefan Becker).

This isn't to say there aren't a few snags with ProVector.  There is no
'pasteboard' off the main page.  If you drag an item off to the side, it
will still exist, but you can't see it.  You can drag it back if you click
where you left it (or select all the objects on the page and then select
NOT and center) but I believe another solution would be easier and more
intuitive.

Tooltypes and many of the ARexx tools currently only deal in inches.  The
ARexx macros can be modified, but I think an all around improvement to
measurement context sensitivity would enhance the program.  If you are
someone who deals mostly with inches, you're okay.  I'm a pica person.  :-)
You can still use other systems, and modifying the commented ARexx macros
is certainly no difficult task, but the fact that tooltypes are inches only
is counter-intuitive.

Zoom mode leaves parts of the page undrawn that weren't specifically in the
Zoom box, even if they would fit in the window.  I see no reason why parts
of the pages that technically exist are not drawn in certain zoom
situations.  However, under normal circumstances, this behavior is not
often exhibited.

Finally, feeding the program corrupt or incorrectly written DR2D files
could cause some problems including crashes or strange behavior.  Handling
bad DR2D files should be as graceful as possible, because there is at least
one major Amiga DTP package still being developed that still writes bad
DR2D files.


* Conclusions

It's refreshing to see a capable, functioning, supported, professional
application like ProVector for the Amiga.  ProVector 3 is one of the few
Amiga programs that has been given the prefix 'Pro' that actually deserves
it.  It's a powerful structured drawing system with a strong suite of
utilities and an extensive ARexx facility.  Although the entire package is
close to the upgrade price for comparable packages on other platforms, it's
certainly in the same league.  Unfortunately, I've only been able to touch
on ProVector 3, a single review just doesn't do the product justice.