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TUAW Faceoff: Low-cost vector design apps

Robert Palmer

While I'm not a hard-core professional illustrator or cartoonist, I do use vector design tools almost every day. Designing logos, playing with type, and creating quick layouts are things every vector design tool should do well.

Adobe Illustrator CS3, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla in this field, and it's my tool of choice. But there are plenty of people who don't need the extensive functionality that Illustrator provides. Plus, Illustrator is something of a resource hog (right now, it's using 176MB of real memory and 1.21GB of virtual memory on my system).

Today, I'm going to review four leaner, lower-cost (or free) options from four high-powered indie Mac developers: DrawBerry, EazyDraw, Lineform, and VectorDesigner. Unlike Illustrator, all of these use Mac OS X's built-in Core Image foundation, which makes them very easy to compare to each other.

It's high noon for vector apps, after the jump.

To test the features of the various applications, I designed a simple "Web 2.0 style" logo in Adobe Illustrator (as I might be asked to do).

To break this down into tasks, each application is expected to:

  • Create a star shape with 20 points
  • Inset the star shape a little
  • Make a "horizon" by creating an intersecting shape
  • Add transparency effects
  • Add a drop shadow
  • Add the "pointer" glyph from the Lucida Grande font
  • Type "TUAW" using the Calibri Bold font
  • Bend the crossbar of the "A" slightly
  • Add gradients (yuck -- but hey, it's what the client wanted)
  • Add diagonal lines behind the logo
  • Make a file so I can import it into Photoshop

Now that we know what's involved, let's light this candle.

DrawBerry 0.5, free

DrawBerry, from Raphael Bost, is the freest application on our list, which is a big plus. And, it has a nice HUD interface, which is popular with the Mac users I know. Starting it for the first time is a little scary, though, as it looks like the HUD sneezed all over your desktop:

It offers very basic drawing tools: a rectangle tool, a circle tool, and a pen tool. The pen tool has two modes: a straight-line drawing mode, and a curves drawing mode. While I could have drawn the star shape with the straight-line drawing tool, I didn't exactly have 16 hours to spend getting it right. Instead, I used a circle in the absence of a star or polygon tool.

Zooming in was tough, because DrawBerry offers only a loupe for getting a close look at your artwork. Most difficult of all, DrawBerry lacked an intersection tool, so I had to draw the "horizon" myself, which took precious time. Additionally, the "TUAW" text couldn't be converted into vectors, and there was no way to apply a gradient fill to the letters.

Layers functionality was pretty nice, but items on locked layers can still be selected. This means if you have a selection that contains both locked and unlocked items, you won't be able to move anything.

Additionally (and these are excusable, since this is free beta software, after all):

  • Help isn't available
  • Clicking on the gradient swatch in the Shape palette moved the Shape palette around randomly
  • Text disappears (with no clue as to where it went) if the text box is too small
  • The interface few spelling problems: "Canevas"? Really?

Lastly, and sadly, the "Vectorial EPS" that DrawBerry generated was unreadable by Photoshop. Oops.

EazyDraw 2.6, $95

True to its name, EazyDraw was very easy to use. It also has charting and mathematical tools (which I'm not really covering in my test) that look very useful to someone who might need that sort of thing. At $95, it's the most expensive app in the group.

The interface needs the attention of a qualified user experience designer. Some buttons are labeled with abbreviations like "MJ," "Mn," "Vt," and "Gu" -- and as much as I like Mary Jane (from Spider Man! Honest!), Minnesota, Vermont, and ... uh ... Guam, they're just not right for interface buttons. The star tool is just bizarre, requiring the user to type a number (corresponding to the number of points) while they drag the star on the canvas.

The curve editing tools, on the other hand, were extremely easy to use (for the crossbar on the A), except I wasn't able to select more than one point at the same time to move.

I also wasn't able to add the lines behind the logo, since the maximum number of objects allowed in the demo was 35. But it looked fully capable of doing that.

Lineform 1.5, $80

Lineform, from Freeverse, comes highly rated, with a five-star review from CNet and an Apple Design Award. And as an Illustrator user, having an app that uses a lot of the same keyboard shortcuts was a blessing: it felt much faster to use than any of the others. Its feature-set was the most complete of all the tools, with a notable exception: a polygon or star tool would have made it perfect for this test.

Resizing objects is very simple -- dragging a selection over multiple objects allows you resize them all at once, even. Compared to the others in the group, the align and distribute functions were much better. (Heck, they were there, which puts it a leg up.) An align and distribute toolbar would have been very helpful, though.

Editing the vector points for the crossbar of the A was a little hard to figure out, but once I did, it made good sense. (You have to convert the corner points to "curves," and then everything will bend the way you need it to.)

Lineform had good documentation in the form of a couple of PDF files, and were written for a beginning user who wanted to get going quickly.

VectorDesigner, $70

VectorDesigner, from TweakerSoft, was just updated just a few days ago to version 1.2.0. Of the apps I tested, VectorDesigner was the only one that was able to do everything in the test (although EazyDraw is a close second -- since the diagonal lines were only a limitation of the demo). The results, as you can see, are impressive.

The gradient tool in VectorDesigner is a clear winner -- it was actually fun to use. Coming from someone that really doesn't enjoy gradients very much, that's saying something. Like the rest of the candidates in our field, VectorDesigner has very easy-to-use transparency tools, too, thanks to the Quartz foundation built into Mac OS X.

On the downside, the application becomes very, very slow when zoomed in tight on a part of your artwork. On my 2.8GHz Intel iMac (which isn't too pokey), watching the screen redraw in response to me using the key combination to zoom in was unexpected (and made me a little nostalgic).

As an added bonus, TweakerSoft offers a suite of video tutorials on their website to get you up and running right away.

In summary, is there a clear winner? In my mind, it's still Illustrator. For the price, though, VectorDesigner edges out EazyDraw for functionality and style. In any case, all these apps are solid options if you're doing basic design and need to quickly make a piece of vector artwork.

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