Cerilica's Vantage reviewedPublished: 28th Sep 2001, 16:21:18 | Permalink | Printable
Is it the next killer app? Will we give it the thumbs up or the thumbs down?Reviewed by Michael Stubbs
Vantage is the much-hyped, much-praised professional graphics and design package developed and published by Cerilica. The RISC OS media, along with Cerilica, have been heaping praise upon this package. But what exactly is it?
Basically, Vantage is a new vector-based illustration package, full of professional features aimed at people sending their creations to professional printers. One could consider Vantage to be a direct replacement to ArtWorks, but with a totally different interface and lots of advanced features. Vantage simulates paper and inks onscreen to ensure what you see is what you get; Cerilica call this technology TRUISM. To further aid this, the software is bundled with !Monitor, to calibrate your monitor and !DotGain which allows you to adjust PostScript dot gain compensating for variations in ink spread on the paper.
Thankfully, this review is not focusing on these features. I, for one, am convinced of Vantage's print capabilities: it is superb at it. Examples of work crafted in Vantage can be found at www.cerilica.com/vantage/ or see any Cerilica advert in Acorn User.
This review is taking a different angle: Web graphics. As someone who uses the RiscPC to design Web sites - graphics and HTML - I have had a long-standing complaint: the anti-aliasing from some graphics packages and the anti-aliasing from the RISC OS Font Manager simply don't give crisp enough results. Text looks especially blurry compared to the results one gets from Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro on the Windows platform. Enter Vantage with it's advanced anti aliasing engine. Using up to 200,000 levels of anti-aliasing (shades) as opposed to the common 16, Cerilica claim this engine will provide the crispest possible results.
Vantage sounded like it was just what Web designers using RISC OS needed: a vector based package with modern anti-aliasing. Inspired, I decided to redesign my personal Web site, using Vantage for the graphics. The creations on my Web site are not breath-taking - it is only a personal Web site, afterall - but they stand to show whether Vantage is as good at Web graphics as is claimed by the publishers.
Before you start: measurements
Although Vantage is aimed at print designers, Cerilica did admit to me that a lot of users would be using it for Web graphics. When I first loaded the package, I was suprised to find that there was no option to set measurements in pixels - there was just paper measurements. Having failed to read the appropriate section of the manual fully (and understand it), I contacted Cerilica about this. It is possible to create ones own measurements in Vantage, although I have not looked into this. Cerilica kindly emailed a dummy Vantage application with the appropriate changes in it so that I could now specify measurements in pixels.
Text: title and menu
Because one has to cater for those unfortunate enough to have to put up with jagged, aliased text (Windows users), I decided to use images for my menu system in the redesign of my site. This was Vantage's first challenge. Would the text that Vantage churned out be nice and crisp, or would it be like the Font Managers?
As the menu was to be a top-to-bottom affair, on the left of all pages, I simply typed the menu as a list in Vantage. At this point I hit my first problem: I wanted each menu item to be exported as a bitmap graphic of exactly the same dimensions, so they all lined up correctly and the text was lined up. Vantage appears to offer no way to do this. After much pondering, I came up with a rather long-winded solution. I dragged the longest item of the menu to a clear space, then drew a box around it. I then resized the Vantage window so that just this box was visible. When saving as a bitmap, what is visible on your screen is what you get, unless you select Page when saving, which can be immensely useful. I then saved this menu item out as a TIFF.
fig i - resize window to show just the area that you wish to save.
The next step required the use of Photodesk. I imported the TIFF into Photodesk and then carefully cropped the image one pixel inside the lines of the rectangle that I had drawn around the text. This was then saved over the TIFF and the converted to a PNG using John Kortink's Translator software. Cerilica suggest that another way around this is to save out as a sprite and then use Rob Davison's freeware !Chopper application. This can be found at www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/7320/archives/chop.zip
Indeed it would have been possible to simply resize the Vantage window and just retyped each menu item without moving the window. This would have worked no problems: the problem is loading up Vantage at a later date and wanting to add more to the menu. At least, I perceived this as a problem! Cerilica have informed me that when you save your work as a Vantage/Draw file, settings such as windows size, position and scale are saved. This means that so long as you are careful and don't move the window, you should be able to simply resize the window to export just the text as a bitmap.
The other bit of plain text I required was the large Arenaman Site title, which I saved out as a TIFF, cropped in Photodesk and converted to a PNG using Translator.
The anti-aliasing engine in Vantage lived up to Cerilica's claims, producing the crispest text I've seen from any package on any platform. To make sure, I checked the results on a Windows PC and yes, it is noticeable better than text from Paint Shop Pro. When exporting as a bitmap, Vantage internally converts any text to paths, meaning that Vantage's anti-aliasing engine renders everything in the resulting bitmap: the Acorn font manager just isn't up to the same standards.
On the last version of my site, I had in the title image three images from various sections of the site which are supposed to represent what the site is about: there's the RiscPC, the pub building at Commondale and Barney, the Golden Retriever. This is something I decided to keep in this version of the site and so set about utilising some of Vantage's new effects.
The Arenaman Site title was to go in the top bar, justified to the left, and these three pictures in the top bar, justified to the right. To keep it all neat and aligned correctly, the size of the page I was to use for the bitmap graphics needed defining precisely. Thus I loaded a fresh page in Vantage (default A4) and then resized it.
fig ii - defining precise dimensions of the page
Since I had added the ability to deal with measurements in pixels, I defined the width and height in the form of 123pixels.
Once this was done, the next step was to import the three images, saved as sprites on my hard drive. Thankfully, Cerilica have continued with the great RISC OS tradition of drag 'n' drop - to import sprites you simply drag them over the Vantage window. Usefully, you can place objects outside of the actual page (the white area), which is essential when working with a very small page.
fig iii - bitmap images imported into Vantage
fig iv - resizing images
After importing, I had to resize the images. This is done like any other object in Vantage - simply select the object by clicking on it and resize.
I decided to give Vantage's sprite cropping facility a whirl. I decided I wanted part of each image in a circle so they could be overlapped in a row. This is done by drawing a circle (or whatever shape you prefer) over the area of the image you want showing in that shape. Without moving the shape, you then select the image and cut it to the clipboard. Then select the shape and click on the Fancy Fills tool and select the fill from clipboard option. At this point I had problems. Nothing happened. Back to the manual, check instructions and try again. Nothing. In despair I emailed Cerilica again. Before they had time to respond, I discovered how to achieve the desired cropping. After selecting fill from clipboard, you then have to click on the Swap Colours tool on the toolbar. Cerilica say that a shape needs to have a fill colour before you can do the sprite cropping. This is a discrepency in the manual which is to be rectified for the next edition.
fig v - drawing the circles to crop sprites
fig vi - this little button makes cropping work
Now that I had sorted out the cropping problem, I had the desired results. The cropping feature should prove to be immensely useful and powerful; I only used it at it's simplest level. I am sure we will see some fantastic creations arise from it!
Another powerful feature in Vantage is it's transparency function, which can be applied to both vector and bitmap options. This has already been used to great effect in some designs for print - there are many examples included on the Vantage CD. Here, as the images were aligned in a row, each overlapping, a little transparency would add that bit of style to the overall composition.
Adding transparency is very easy. Simply select the object, or objects, and click on the Transparency tool on the toolbar. A row of circles, each representing different levels of transparency, will appear on the tool bar. To add a level of transparency, one simply drags the appropriate circle to the Opacity indicator above the circles.
fig vii - adjusting the transparency of one or more objects
With the transparency set appropriately, I saved out as a TIFF and converted to a PNG using Translator.
I should emphasize again that the graphics I have created here are rather basic because they are just for my personal Web site. However, they show, at a basic level, what Vantage is capable of.
Vantage's interface is superb. As someone who barely ever used ArtWorks, I didn't find it hard to get used to the new interface. I suspect ArtWorks users might, but it really is very efficient and natural to use. I have had the occasional random crash, but overall the package seem pretty stable. Stability is something that is bound to be tweaked each time an update is released.
As the graphics on my site show, Vantage's anti-aliasing engine is just superb. It is in a class of it's own and really shines when it comes to fine lines and text: the output is undeniably crisp. The tiny Melotech logo on each page was scaled down and output in Vantage. It remains perfectly crisp, which once more shows off the excellent anti-aliasing engines.
I feel that Vantage should have shipped with pixels in the default list of measurements. It is a small oversight and can be added by the user, but it does prevent itself from being used out-of-the-box for pixel-precise Web graphics. I am assured that Vantage will now ship with pixels as a default option.
A further beneficial addition would be a page cropping function so one didn't have to do this in Photodesk or another suitable package. Cerilica say this is a potential future addition which has been considered along with automatic HTML image maps. Both of these features would be invaluable to the Web designer and would enchance the software's professional status in this field.
The manual is very well written, with plenty of screen shots. It is unfortunate that a small, but none-the-less, vital piece of information on cropping was missed out, but this is being corrected by Cerilica.
Saving out directly as a PNG from Vantage seemed to produce inferior results to TIFF and Sprite output. However, I am informed that it is technically not possible for PNG output to me worse than other bitmap output... if the settings are correct. It seems reasonable to assume that I will have an option ticked that I shouldn't have. Correcting this will correct the resulting PNG. I have not heard complaints from others about this and so I must emphasise that this is not a fault!
Vantage is not yet perfect, but it is an undeniably fantastic piece of software. It is powerful, yet easy to use. Critically, it's output for the Web is unbeatable. Cerilica are constantly developing Vantage and small number of issues mentioned are likely to be resolved.
For Web use, Vantage comes highly recommended. For sheer quality, Vantage beats the competition hands down. For the casual user, some automated effects such as can be found in XaraX (drop shadow, bevel effect) would not go amiss. If Cerilica do add the page cropping and automatic HTML image maps, then Vantage will be the ultimate Web graphics tool.
The images mentioned in this article can be found at www.michaelstubbs.co.uk/preview/home.php.
Cerilica (Many thanks to all at Cerilica for their help in the making of this article).
Michael Stubbs, drobe.co.uk receptionist
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