Computers: Modest prices for vanity publishing: 'DTP' has made everyone an aspiring media star. David Hewson on low-cost software that can provide the means if not the talent

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The Independent Online
VITAL STATISTICS

Budget Desktop Publishing

SOFTWARE

PagePlus: Serif Europe; 0800 924925; pounds 70.

Publisher: Microsoft; 0734 270000; pounds 50.

Personal Press: Macsense; 0491 411466; pounds 88.

Publish It Easy: Macline; 081 401 1111; pounds 116.

PRINTER

Stylus 800: Epson 0800 289622; pounds 300.

(Best available prices including VAT)

VANITY PLAYS no small part in the operation of a personal computer and nothing appeals to the conceit in us more than desktop publishing.

'DTP', a genre entirely created by the birth of the personal computer, enables ordinary mortals to produce pages that look as if they were typeset and designed by professionals. Frequently professionals from whom all elements of good taste and design sense have been surgically removed, it is true. But if people are really silly enough to believe that owning a piece of software capable of producing typeset-quality headlines and text will turn you into a miniature press baron overnight, why blame the machine?

Aesthetics aside, the greatest objection to desktop publishing has always been the cost. The whole idea was invented on the Apple Macintosh, so, until Apple's recent price cuts, it has always been expensive just to own the right hardware for the job.

But desktop publishing programs have always demanded hefty prices too. The three best known packages - PageMaker, the first DTP program, Quark XPress and Ventura Publisher - are all highly sophisticated pieces of software which can, within reason, turn out everything from a parish news letter to bookstand-quality magazine or book. All are expensive, varying in street price between about pounds 600 and pounds 900 including VAT.

If publishing a national colour magazine or typesetting a book to be printed in its thousands are your goals, then you should brace yourself for the cost of these big-name packages. But a lot of desktop publishing has much more mundane purposes and may well be 'published' through the simple medium of an office or school photocopier. For this kind of work, paying more than pounds 1,000 for a piece of software and a fancy printer on which to output it is plain crazy.

Desktop publishing has two parts - the software to put the pages together on screen and a printer capable of outputting them at a quality that bears a reasonably close resemblance to conventional typesetting and printing. The old answers - a dedicated desktop publishing package and an expensive laser printer - are no longer the only solutions.

The first question any budding desktop publisher should ask is: do I have the tools around already? Anyone working with an Apple Macintosh or a Windows PC-compatible computer can probably put together good, simple DTP newsletters from a basic word processing package. On a Windows machine, Lotus Ami Pro stands out as an excellent word processor which also has extensive desktop publishing capabilities and a package of pre-designed 'templates' for common items such as three-column newsletters.

For a parish magazine or newsletter, you probably need look no further. Ami Pro can set headlines, allows columns of text to be shifted across the page and will 'import' graphics more easily than most of the early dedicated desktop publishing packages. Unlike them, it is also a delight for writing text.

You can find the same sort of facility on the Mac with MacWrite Pro and to a lesser extent with Microsoft Word, though Word is far from a simple program to master for this kind of work. The more design elements and typographic twiddles you want to put on your page, the more you will need the services of a proper desktop publishing package. There are still alternatives to the big-name, king's ransom packages, however.

Microsoft, the world's largest software company, unexpectedly has a product in this range, which can be found discounted for about pounds 50. Version 2.0 of Publisher, has just been released and excellent it is, too, if you are new to desktop publishing but familiar with other Microsoft Windows applications, since it shares common ideas such as 'drop and drag' and using 'clip art' collections.

Publisher 2.0 - avoid earlier versions - is about as user friendly as a DTP package can get. There is a comprehensive collection of templates, including some dashing little paper aeroplanes and origami projects, which help the newcomer look professional, and the application will even drop big hints when you do something daft, such as placing your artwork only half on the page.

The big desktop publishing bargain for use with Windows is PagePlus, which is only available by direct mail for pounds 70 (including VAT) or pounds 117.50 for the program and a vast collection of artwork and fonts that will consume 15 megabytes of storage on your hard disk. PagePlus makes wild claims about being as proficient as Quark XPress, the most popular choice for commercial magazine production and design, for less than one-tenth of the price. That is pushing it a bit, but PagePlus is an excellent package with a wide range of professional features - and a few rough edges. Unlike other cheaper packages, it is capable of producing good-looking work to high typographic standards and in colour. It can also translate across an enormous range of different file formats and for some people would be worth the price for this facility alone.

On the Mac, there are two excellent cheap packages, Personal Press and Publish It] Easy, although I think Personal Press is probably the simplest and most proficient of the two for the beginner. There is, however, a large drawback to the Mac packages and one which leads us to the second part of the desktop publishing equation - printing.

To get the best output from the Mac programs you need to print to a laser printer and one that is also 'Postscript compatible'. Postscript is the computer language that gives desktop publishing the power and flexibility to use typefaces of varying sizes and to rescale graphics and whole pages to diffferent sizes. But a lot of its bells and whistles are probably beyond the needs of the everyday user. The price of Postscript is falling, but you will be lucky to find a laser with it included for less than pounds 1,000.

PC Windows desktop publishing programs can use Postscript, but they can also take a cheaper route known as TrueType, which is less capable, but not so that most people would notice. TrueType lasers begin at about pounds 600. More exciting, there is a new, alternative route to typeset-quality output and that is the world of inkjet printers.

As an experiment, I ran the same artwork and typefaces through my Apple laser printer - purchase price in 1988 pounds 3,500 - and Epson's latest inkjet, the Stylus 800 - street price from about pounds 300. The Stylus is one of the newer inkjets, with higher quality than most, a resolution of 360 dots per inch against the laser's 300, and, at under 2p per page, lower running costs than most of its rivals.

After a little fiddling, the inkjet was producing pages that were as good as anything the more expensive machine could turn out and in some ways substantially better.

For about pounds 350, the combination of the PagePlus program and the Stylus 800 printer will give the average user tools and output quality which far exceed those available to the early desktop publishers who paid nearly pounds 10,000 to enter the game less than a decade ago.

On the other hand, if your ambitions are high, you will probably end up having to buy the big names anyway. And if you are looking for a job, you are more likely to find one with Quark XPress or Pagemaker experience than through being a dab hand at Publisher. But at least, unlike the pioneers among us, you have a choice.

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