For graphics artists fattened on a diet of Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia FreeHand, the lure of ACD Systems’ Canvas has most likely passed you by – not least due to its lack of support from repro houses and design studios. Yet while Canvas mightn’t enjoy the mainstream success of other graphics tools, it does have some beguiling features that could woo some creative folk into its fold.
Canvas is a single, integrated design package – more a digital studio – that delivers not just vector-based art tools, but a full collection of bitmap image-editing features, plus a healthy smattering of page-layout, Web-animation, and design tools. And while that may seem like a bloatware nightmare waiting to happen, somehow Canvas manages to squeeze all these tools – plus some advanced CAD, scientific, and GIS image-mapping features – into a single interface.
The upshot is that Canvas can rightly claim to be a creative Jack of all trades – the brickbat is that it’s only a master of some and, with this release, ACD seems to be moving Canvas out from the creative space and more into the realms of technical and scientific design.
This is a real shame for its more ‘art’ design user base, as Canvas has much going for it, especially for the freelance designer on a budget. Canvas is kind of like having QuarkXPress, Macromedia FreeHand and Fireworks, and Adobe Photoshop all rolled into one – and with only one interface to learn, it saves having to swap between different tools for when you need to, say, apply a filter to a picture placed into an electronic brochure. The nearest rival is the CorelDraw suite, but even this doesn’t have the breadth of features that Canvas does.
Canvas is also unique in its ability to equally handle both vector and bitmap graphics, and its SpriteLayer and SpriteEffects technology, introduced in version 7.0, are still impressive in the way they let you apply bitmap effects to vector objects. Fancy adding a Guassian blur to a vector stroke? No problem with Canvas – and its ability to add transparency to layered bitmap and vector images means generating cutaway schematics of, say, the inner workings of a combustion engine, are downright useful.
However, Canvas has always suffered in two areas – it has little support at the stage when most of us need it, such as outputting film or plates; and it has been plagued by an often clumsy interface. Version 8.0 went some way to rectify this, with the addition of auto-docking palettes in the toolbar and flyout menu tools from the tool palette. And some of these features have since found their way into packages such as Photoshop, which is testament to the interface strides ACD made. Canvas 9.0 attempts to improve on this, and it sort of succeeds. The dockable palettes – of which there are a great number – can be docked as tabbed labels down either side of the screen. However, when you click-&-select them, they have a tendency to overwhelm the work area as they pop out, and the tiny tabs made it hard for me to quickly track down a needed palette.
ACD has made the flyouts play nicer – now, instead of selecting a tool, then navigating through of maze of pop-up flyout menus to isolate the icon you need, related tool icons are automatically presented stuck to the tool palette to use as you need. The upside is a speedy workflow and less confusion, the downside is the flyout icon lists can obscure your work too much – making to tool palette up to four or more icons wide.
Other interface improvements are more sensible, although not as revolutionary as maybe ACD suggests. Harmonizing all the Pen, Ink, Arrow, and Dash attributes under a single, tabbed palette is welcome, but hardly the headline feature that ACD is trumpeting.
Aside from interface tweaks, there is little here over version 8.0 for the out-&-out graphic artist. An automatic red-eye reduction tool is very good, as is the Smooth Polygon tool, which does exactly what is says on the tin, and with some pleasing results.
The PDF support actually drew gasps, it is that good – you can import, edit, and export the latest PDFs flawlessly, and it even handles transparency (are you listening, Quark?). PDF settings can be saved, and this bakes a better PDF than QuarkXPress – meaning printers should be able to take your PDF files from Canvas and you’ll get predictable results. For Canvas newcomers, all colour options – such as Pantone – are present and correct.
However, it’s on the technical side of design that ACD has made the most strides with Canvas 9.0, and it really differentiates the product from being wrongly viewed as a poor second to Illustrator or FreeHand.
The stats say it all: Canvas 9.0 has a double floating-point 64-bit coordinate system of the kind they tend to reserve for expensive CAD systems that design nuclear-rocket tailfins. It can handle two billion objects and, if your print company doesn’t laugh at you, document sizes up to 2,000-x-2,000 miles – which kind of puts Quark’s 4-x-4 feet in the shade.
An enhanced imaging system supports 16-bit data per channel, per pixel, and the scientific edition handles up to 32-bits. Polygon points can be entered numerically, with values imported from spreadsheets, and a 2D expression tool can create images from mathematical equations. Updated auto dimensioning and SmartLine tools have greater accuracy – these let you drag measurement lines between objects, with dimensions and angles instantly added.
And all these are worthy editions, especially if accuracy is a key component of your job. If so, then Canvas 9.0 as a professional engineering design tool is a good purchase. However, there were some general niggles that may put you off. First, I found Canvas 9.0 quite flaky and quick to crash on several occasions – a rare thing on Mac OS X. Creating an EPS file was especially irksome – a no-no for a professional graphics package. Special characters – such as accented letters – don’t always work, and it seems marred with a more ponderous interface. Canvas 9.0 is no speed demon, and seems slower than version 8.0. To be fair, the team at ACD has already released a patch that fixes some of these problems, so top marks for reponse, but it might be wise to wait for a .1 version jump.
There are two other versions of Canvas available – a scientific imaging edition, and a GIS mapping edition.
Both can nearly double the cost of the professional tool. And, not being a medical-imaging professional or cartographer – I’d be loathe to pass judgement on them. However, the scientific version has a bunch of filters to analyize and colourize medical and scientific data, and 32-bits per pixel, per channel means essential detail isn’t lost. That said, a scientist buddy did take a look at it when I was reviewing it, and thought it didn’t go far enough for the price hike. The GIS version can import GeoTIFF and SHAPE files into unlimited layers for building up complex topology, and
you would be able to use the public domain GIS files. This might find more use, especially linked to the art tools in Canvas, but it’s a significant additional cost for the privilage.
So, Canvas is somewhat of a mixed bag. It has far too few headline additions – no new typography or key design tools – for my liking, and still a riot of bugs.
ACD is wisely taking the application into new waters with the CAD and technical additions that did make the
cut and, if that’s your bag, then Canvas 9.0 definitely looks a good buy – but I fear that for the rest of us, we’ll still be stuck with firing up separate tools for the time being.