In our monthly round-up of reviews in 'PC Magazine', Nick Edmunds looks at desktop publishing packages
Newer, cheaper desktop publishing (DTP) software has transformed a black art that was once the exclusive domain of the professional. For well under pounds 100 any PC user with a rudimentary understanding of Windows can now produce the most stunning full-colour publications. The common word-processor package is great for text and, to a limited extent, is capable of generating good-looking, well-formatted pages complete with graphics. A simple newsletter, for example, does not require the functions of a DTP package.

But the features found in the latest DTP programs turn dull-but-worthy documents into attractive high-quality output conveying a much more sophisticated message. With your words flowing neatly around colour pictures, shaded boxes for separated text, drop capitals, colour manipulation - among scores of other effects - the results can appear supremely professional. Once you have sampled the delights of creation with DTP, you will never go back to a word processor for any printed publishing. Your pages can be output to your own colour printer or (much cheaper for long runs) in a file format ready for the print shop.

In its latest July issue, PC Magazine reviewed the five leading low-cost DTP packages available for the PC. The software was judged on features, usability and value for money. Usability was tested under controlled laboratory conditions with a team of experienced DTP users and was scored measuring three elements: intuitiveness, productivity and overall satisfaction with the product. Usability is crucial to the first-timer daunted by the idea of producing a complex full-colour document; the easier the job can be made the better.

The good news to come out of the testing was that DTP software is becoming very easy to use. Better still, the package that proved the most usable was also the best value for money. Microsoft Publisher 3.0 for Windows 95 was awarded Editors Choice; superb value at just pounds 85. This package requires Microsoft's latest Windows 95 operating system but is packed with virtually every feature you could want. The software is a model of intuitiveness. Almost anyone can turn out great-looking pages, helped along by Publisher's automatic hand-holding Wizards which step you through any complicated task.

If you still use Microsoft's older operating system,Windows 3.1, then GSP Pressworks 2 POWERpack (pounds 34) is the one. It has its own pop-up helping hands - this time called PagePilots - and allows you to experiment with different layouts.

Serif's Page Plus 3.0 (for Windows 3.1) has, at pounds 42, halved in price in the past 12 months yet retains a good spread of features appealing both to first-timers and more advanced users. The Windows 95 version of this product, Page Plus Home Office Edition, looks good, but in its present form proved unreliable, producing the occasional crash.

The least satisfactory of the packages reviewed was Softkeys PFS:Publisher 1.1 for Windows 3.1. This software is out of date, lacks features, is not at all easy to use and, even at pounds 25, does not represent good value.

Microsoft 0345 002000; Serif 01159 421502; Softkey 0181-246 4000; GSP 01480 496575.

See the July 1996 issue of 'PC Magazine' for further details. All prices quoted exclude VAT.

The 'PC Magazine' Editor's Choice and recommended products are based on objective benchmarks developed by Ziff-Davis Labs. These independent benchmarks incorporate real-life computing tasks and are accepted as worldwide industry standards for measuring performance.