Monday, January 10, 2005

Scribus - First Impressions

As noted in yesterday's post, Scribus is a free alternative to the very expensive QuarkXpress and InDesign Desk Top Publishing (DTP) software packages. There is the inevitable concern that something so free could be as good as products that carry very large price tags. Having used QuarkXpress for Macintosh System 9 a few years ago (I think the latest release I used was 5.0) I was most interested to see how Scribus might compare.

I had used QuarkXpress to prepare a very large, graphics intensive document. There were numerous inherent problems with QuarkXpress at the time and it was only after I finished the project that I realized that the main problem - printing - was caused by having the linked graphics files on a separate server. QuarkXpress took forever to bring out their OS X upgrade and I am sure that Adobe made huge inroads with their InDesign competitor in the meantime. Other alternatives for DTP fall short. In particular, Microsoft Word (which many use because they have it anyway) cannot be made to produce stable documents simply because the various elements are not fixed to the page. How many times has an image "disappeared" off a Word page just when you think everything is in place?

Introduction to Scribus

Scribus is primarily for Linux but will run under Apple's X11 terminal. I am not savvy enough to explain much of this, but essentially OS X runs on UNIX so this makes cross-platform applications easier to implement. X11 is free with OS X and can be downloaded from Apple.

Typically you need to access a terminal (i.e. you have to type in meaningless but error sensitive instructions on a command line, just like the original DOS) but a small application called Aquascribus can do the nasty work for you. Aquascribus can be placed into the Dock and this will load X11 and then Scribus with one click of the mouse.

Scribus runs in an X Window so this looks a little peculiar on a Mac (tho' not as peculiar as Virtual PC running Windows XP!) There are a number of basic differences, most of which are related to the UNIX/Linux concept that often ignores ease of use in preference to "geekish" principles. Also, X Window does not recognize the Apple Command (pretzel) key so shortcuts are different, i.e. ctrl+C for Copy. That being said, the X Window interface is probably as easy to use as Windows XP.

Getting Started

Once Scribus is up and running, an X Window appears with a menu running along the top. The most logical thing to do is select "File > New" to get started. But perhaps a more logical approach should be to set preferences "Settings > Preferences". Dialog boxes are classic UNIX in style and easy to use.

Mouse rollovers help to understand the meaning of the various tools but be warned, there is no Help available and assistance on Scribus' website is minimal (though there is a seoarate documentation site). That's what you get with free software! Not that Help systems with the expensive DTP packages are much use anyway in my experience. Initial efforts are therefore mainly achieved by trial and error but this is a good way to get used to the program even if it may be a little frustrating at times. I feel sure that a prior knowledge of QuarkXpress made my initiation a lot simpler.

Comparison with QuarkXpress

As noted above, a familiarity with QuarkXpress makes using Scribus a relatively easy experience. This is because the designers of Scribus were undoubtedly looking to emulate much of what QuarkXpress has to offer.

First impression is that Scribus may have the better interface. The Story Editor is a great way to enter, modify and format text prior to sending it to the document, though the font used is a little strange to say the least. The Story Editor becomes more relevant as the document itself becomes more and more complex, because the program enters text quite slowly directly into a text box. On the other hand, selecting colors for text means scrolling through a list of color names - not so good.

Text and image boxes are anchored to the document using x and y coordinates - evidence that Scribus is a true DTP software package. Image boxes can be designed to have text wrap around with infinitely variable borders, while text boxes can be superimposed on them for the purpose of creating captions, etc.

Linking text boxes seems to be easier with Scribus than with QuarkXpress (I always had problems with this in the System 9 product). Simply select the first text box, click the linking tool and then click the second text box. Done!

Scribus doesn't have a spell checker (but you could type the text into a text editor first, then port it over but that invokes other potential problems). Export to PDF is excellent, by the way. Color management may be a problem, just as it is with Gimp, the Linux version of PhotoShop, but I need to find out more on this subject.

I have printed directly from Scribus with no problem. There may be a problem with sending the Scribus file to bureaus as they may not have heard of Scribus! Export is available in EPS, SVG and PDF formats.

An ironic advantage for QuarkXpress might be the fact that students of DTP could conveniently come to grips with their software via Scribus - an important fact for impoverished graphic artists (and there are many more graphic artists who are impoverished rather than wealthy).


The system has crashed twice on me (I had to Force Quit X11 and AquaScribus) but the autosave function worked a treat.
It seems to be virtually impossible to copy and paste text from OS X directly into X11. This is because they each use a separate clipboard. By copying text to TextEdit and saving it as a TXT file, it is possible to then import the text into Scribus. Not an elegant solution.

Another problem (for which there may be an easy solution) is the apparent lack of special characters. The character "ยบ" pasted as "1/4", for example.

Fonts that we are used to using in the Apple world are not available to X11 without some serious manipulation and even then they may not work as well. The basic fonts that come with X11 are OK but there is little variety for true DTP work. Score one to the expensive programs, minus 5 to Scribus!

Color management may also be a problem (the Linux world, including Gimp users, have little respect for CMYK). This is a key factor for professional DTP work, particularly when work is to be sent to a professional print shop.

This is but a first impression review. I am currently working on a DTP document that will publish the France 2004 Travelogue as a simple PDF file. That should be a good test of Scribus' capabilities. More on this later.