Computers: Classic at a budget price: The pioneer of professional DTP is available in a low-cost version. Cliff Joseph reports

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Aldus Pagemaker was not the first page-layout package, but it was the most important. It started the whole desktop publishing revolution when it was launched back in 1985, altering the economics of the publishing industry and saving the Apple Macintosh from vanishing into obscurity.

The current version for PC-compatible systems, Pagemaker 5, has developed into an incredibly powerful and complex program - so complex, in fact, that you really need to be a trained designer to use it properly. Now, like Microsoft, Aldus has decided that there is money to be made out of home and small business users and has released a low-cost version of the program called Pagemaker Classic that runs - like all PC versions of the program - under Microsoft Windows.

At pounds 70.44 (including VAT) - compared with a street price of about pounds 450 for Pagemaker 5 - Pagemaker Classic is a bargain. It is similar to the earlier version, Pagemaker 4, which itself sold for about pounds 450 a year ago. But while the program is good value for money, Aldus could have done a better job at adapting it to the needs of the newcomer to DTP. Unnervingly, when you start the program for the first time it presents you with just a list of menus and a blank screen.

This prompts a rush for the manual, where you discover that you have to tell the program to start a new file each time. When you do this, you find yourself faced with a window that is unnecessarily complex. It looks like it requires you to enter all sorts of information on margins, the size of the page and so on. In fact, all you really need to do is select the right size for the page, as everything else can be changed as you go along.

Things do then get easier. Your new document consists of a blank page surrounded by a 'pasteboard', an area where you can drop bits of text or graphics and store them while you are not using them. This was one of Pagemaker's most important innovations because it gives great freedom to move things around while experimenting with the layout of the page.

The Place command allows you to take text and graphics created in other programs, such as word processors or graphics software, and to drop them on to the pages of your new document. Each item can then be moved around the page simply by 'dragging' with the mouse.

Each bit of text or a graphic is surrounded by a thin frame and you can change the size of any item by clicking the mouse on the little square handles on the the frames. To help keep everything tidy, there are a number of 'guides' available that provide a framework on the page.

If you were preparing a newsletter that had six columns of text on each page, you could select the Column Guides command, type '6' and six columns would be drawn on the page. Then, when you use the Place command, any text placed on the page automatically flows into those columns without you having to position the text yourself.

The disadvantage of being able to move things around so easily is that you can end up with some really messy page layouts if you do not know what you are doing. So, to help the newcomer to desktop publishing, Pagemaker Classic provides more than 20 templates for creating anything from a small business card to a complete mail-order catalogue.

Some templates are simply blank pages with a number of guides in place and these can easily be modified by more adventurous users to suit their own needs. For the real beginner, there is another type of template that already has dummy text and graphics placed on the page. When you use the Place command with these templates, the dummies are automatically replaced by your new text and graphic items, giving you instant page layouts.

In addition to these layout tools, Pagemaker Classic includes a wordprocessing module called Story Editor. This does not match expensive word processors such as Word or Wordperfect, but it does have a spell checker, while the main part of the program has plenty of options for formatting text to give professional-looking results.

I know a number of people who use Pagemaker as their main word processor as well as for page layout, making the pounds 70 price tag seem like excellent value. The only real problem with Pagemaker Classic is that Aldus has not tailored the manual towards the need of ordinary users.

They seem to have taken the original Pagemaker manual - which is aimed at trained designers - and just trimmed it down. And, considering that Pagemaker Classic has good facilities for creating indexes in documents, the lack of an index in the manual is a pretty daft mistake.

The unhelpful manual means that users with no previous desktop publishing experience may struggle at first, but there is little doubt that Pagemaker Classic is the most powerful desktop publishing package in its price range.

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