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Desktop Publishing With Scribus 1.3.0

The Scribus team unleashed the 1.3.0 version of scribus last week, with a few new features that make Scribus even more interesting. It's been quite a while since I looked in on Scribus, so I decided the 1.3.0 release was a good time to catch up with the application. Scribus is a desktop publishing program for Linux, Windows and Mac OS X. It's been many years since I've used QuarkXPress, but Scribus reminds me a great deal of QuarkXPress, and (like QuarkXPress) takes a little while to get used to using. That's not to say it's a difficult application — but with all the features in Scribus, it will take a little while to master the application.

Figure 1. Scribus 1.3.0

I tested Scribus on an AMD64 Ubuntu Hoary box. I didn’t have any problems compiling Scribus 1.3.0 after I installed a couple of development packages that were missing. The compile only took about 20 minutes, and then I was off and running. Scribus should compile without any major problems on any newer Linux distribution, and you can probably expect packages for 1.3.0 to start showing up pretty soon as well.

Support for Mac OS X and Windows is one of the first features that the Scribus team mention in the release about 1.3.0. Obviously, I was already happy just with Linux support, but for businesses and organizations that use Windows and/or Mac OS X this is a very good thing indeed.

The Undo system in Scribus has been re-vamped, and the user can run through the action history to step back and replay what they’ve done, which can be very useful for anyone working on complex layouts. For example, if you’ve done some work with an image object and then move on to text layout, and later decide you want to roll back some of the actions you performed with the image object — without having to undo everything you’ve done in the text layout — the undo feature will let you move back to the image object’s actions without touching the text layout. In some ways, it’s kind of like version control for desktop publishing. Very nice, indeed.

The application now has a “pre-flight” feature that will warn about problems for printing or when converting to PDF. It bears mentioning at this point that Scribus’ support for PDF is excellent, and the pre-flight feature can save a little time if one happens to be working on an extremely long document — not to mention a great deal of paper if one is sending to the printer rather than a PDF. You can also choose between different versions of PDF, so if your audience may be reading your PDFs with something less recent or advanced than the latest Adobe Acrobat Reader (say, xpdf) then you can export to PDF 1.3 or even PostScript. The pre-flight check will warn if the document contains a layout, like image transparency, that isn’t compatible with the version of PDF that you’re exporting to. Scribus also supports export to PNG images and SVG.

Figure 2. Scribus “Pre-flight” check

The Scribus release notes improved support for CYMK images, Photoshop PDS files and some other improvements to color management. I didn’t really test these features extensively, but they’re definitely worth a mention for users who are working with professional desktop publishing.

Since I’ve used DTP programs before, I felt right at home using Scribus, even though it’d been years since I’d used QuarkXPress. There were a few non-intuitive items with Scribus, but overall I found the program easy to use. Users who have only used word processing applications, like Word, AbiWord or OpenOffice.org’s word processor, will probably take a while to get up to speed. However, the Scribus folks have some nice documentation that makes it easy to get started. If you’ve never used a DTP program before, check out their tutorials and you’ll be productive with Scribus in no time.

Figure 3. Scribus Document Preferences

For the most part, Scribus should have all of the features most users need to create complex documents for publication. It’s more than suitable for home users who might want to create nice-looking documents (expect this year’s Christmas newsletters to look extra-nice), and should be able to handle a great deal of professional DTP work as well. It’s apparently quite good at creating PDF forms for small businesses as well.

One thing I noticed in this release, though it’s a small thing, is that the flow text feature has been improved or fixed since the last time I test-drove Scribus. The last time I tried Scribus, I couldn’t for the life of me get text to flow from one frame to another, which is obviously a problem for anyone using Scribus to create documents where a long article or other piece of text needs to flow from one page or text box to another. Now it works like a charm, which is a very good thing indeed.

Another feature I like, though I don’t think it’s particularly new to 1.3.0, is Scribus’ autosave feature. I tend not to think about autosaving documents since I typically do all my writing in Vim (which also has a nice autosave feature), and I really appreciate having regular backups I don’t have to think about. I haven’t needed them, but it’s nice to know that they’re there. Remember, your computer only crashes when you don’t have backups.

There are still a few rough edges with Scribus. For some odd reason, for example, there were times when I could hit the Delete key to remove a text box, and other times when hitting Delete had no effect.

It took me a while to figure out that, to create a text box with columns, I had to add columns in the Properties dialog under the “Shape” properties. Not sure if that’s the norm for today’s desktop publishing applications, but I would have expected “Columns” to be available in the Style menu, and/or the Text properties for a text object.

However, those are minor complaints compared to the features that Scribus offers. I’d strongly recommend that Linux users who have a need for DTP software take a look at Scribus and the rest of the Linux DTP Stack. With Scribus, The Gimp and Inkscape, a lot is possible for desktop publishing under Linux that wasn’t possible just a few years ago.

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