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The relative success of CorelDraw upgrades is inconsistent to say the least. CorelDraw was already at version 3 before anyone took any notice; version 4 was astonishing; version 8 was a blinder; version 10 was the dog’s bollocks. All the intermediate releases, however, have come across as fillers, as if they were produced by contractual obligation. This is how version 12 feels too.

First, here’s a quick reminder of what the suite contains for those who live in a sheltered graphics world dominated by Adobe and Macromedia. The core of the package is CorelDraw itself, a multi-talented and extremely powerful bézier-based illustration program. Supporting this is Photo-Paint, a Photoshop-style and layer-based bitmap graphics program. These two are ranked alongside RAVE, a Flash-happy Web-graphics and animation package reminiscent of Adobe’s now-ditched LiveMotion. The rest of the suite is made up from various graphics utilities and a generous serving of clip media and fonts.
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Looking at CorelDraw 12 first, its most striking new feature is the Smart Drawing tool. Nabbed from Corel’s Tablet PC development team, this tool lets you draw basic shapes with a rough freehand action whereupon the program automatically converts your scribble into the shape it thinks you intended to draw. Draw a rough square, and CorelDraw turns it into a perfect vector square. Drag out a rough line and it becomes a simple perfect rule with two end-points. Sketch some rough zig-zags or undulating curves, and CorelDraw straightens or smooths out the path accordingly.

Of course you could just as easily use the relevant Pen and Shape tools instead, but Smart Drawing is a one-tool wonder that speeds up your work and doesn’t get in the way like most illustration tools. The main limitation is in the range of shapes it can recognize, but experience reveals more than we expected. For example, most of our attempts to draw a hexagon were interpreted by CorelDraw as a circle. At the same time, it had no problem recognizing a hastily sketched five-pointed (occult) star, even helpfully closing the path at the end.

Guiding light

Corel is very proud of its new Dynamic Guides. These are on-screen guides which pop up as you edit your illustration, revealing alignments, snap-to points, intersections, and so on, in relation to other elements in the artwork. They are a good idea and worth enabling, but don’t always show the alignments you wanted to see. Instead, the guides tend to relate to the point at which you clicked on the object being manipulated, rather than their actual Bézier path handles. The feature is similar to the Smart Guides that have been in Adobe Illustrator for several versions already, although CorelDraw’s show more measurement data.

Beyond these two very obvious new features, CorelDraw 12 sees plenty of smaller improvements. On-screen text rendering seems better, and the program supports OpenType fonts and Unicode in general. The program has for many years exhibited DTP pretensions, with paragraph and character style sheets, multilingual spellchecker, and multi-column layouts, This has now been enhanced with an Insert Character docker window, which works like a glyph browser. This looks poor by Adobe Illustrator CS standards, and you can’t automate type options such as ligatures or old style characters very easily, but it’s a good feature to have up your sleeve.

Expert users will find plenty to welcome in the new version. You have more control over which parts of elements can be snapped to, and you get on-screen feedback on the snappable bits as you drag your mouse around. There’s a new Virtual Segment Delete tool for simplifying over-complex paths – a good idea, but it’s a shame Corel couldn’t have found a more convenient approach than introducing a brand new tool. You can embed fonts into native CorelDraw documents to make them more portable. The list goes on, but we’re talking minor functionality here.

Export headaches

The export formats ought to have been cleaned up, but they’re as unpredictable as ever. Exporting a 1MB CorelDraw document to EPS format swells it up to 170MB, for example, and exporting to Illustrator format (four versions out of date, by the way) produces 323MB. Even the bitmap export filters create huge files.

Talking of bitmaps, Photo-Paint 12 sees only a slight improvement, albeit welcome. Corel has introduced a Touch-Up Brush for removing blemishes from photos, and this works much like the Patch tool in Adobe Photoshop. It’s a great way of getting rid of dust and scratches from scans too, although you need to test the strength before committing yourself: the default setting tends to lift off surface texture, leaving the result looking a bit plastic.

Corel RAVE 3 has been given a similar lightweight upgrade. The main addition is proper support for repeat graphics as symbols. By managing graphics in the new Symbol Manager docker window, you can lay down multiple links, which all refer to a single original graphic. This reduces unnecessary duplication in Web designs and Flash animations. But even though RAVE hasn’t changed a great deal since version 2, it deserves more attention now that Adobe has killed off its own comparable package, LiveMotion. If you want to create everyday Flash movies, but hate using Macromedia Flash because it’s so damn complicated, we thoroughly recommend RAVE instead.

As well as offering only a mild range of upgrade features, some long-running issues with the suite as a whole have still not been addressed in version 12. Most notably, the Tools palette in each program are still out of kilter, forcing you to hunt up and down for the right tool when you skip from one program to another. Mac users should note that Corel has not produced a Mac edition of the suite this time round, and almost certainly won’t in the future.

Ultimately, the CorelDraw Graphics Suite 12 is an impressive package in its own right. It’s just that the reasons to upgrade from version 11 or even 10 are not entirely compelling.