April 26, 2007

Pagestream delivers easy, powerful DTP

Author: Bruce Byfield

Pagestream is a proprietary desktop publishing program for Linux, Windows, Macintosh, and Amiga. First developed for the Atari more than two decades ago, it is produced by a small company, but has attracted a loyal and active group of users. Pagestream's strengths include an easy-to-use interface and a strong awareness of typography, but in the version beta for GNU/Linux, users also have to contend with limited font support and apparently disabled table support.

Once past the registration screen for first-time users, the GNU/Linux version of Pagestream opens three windows. The first is the Navigator, which consists of a tip pane and buttons for browsing the tips, and icons for items traditionally found in the File menu: New, Open, Preferences, and Quit. The second is the menu bar and toolbar, and the third is the Action Bar, a floating window of icons for basic tasks such as selecting, entering text, and drawing basic geometrical shapes. Opening a document summons up two more windows: the strangely bare editing window and a small floating palette that identifies the X and Y coordinates of the mouse cursor on the current page. As with the GIMP, this arrangement works best when the program is the only one on the desktop that is not minimized, and when each window is set to float on top. Otherwise, you have continually have to track down lost Pagestream windows.

However, once you have set up the windows, working with the Pagestream interface is simplicity itself. Perhaps because of its maturity, Pagestream's menus follow a largely left-to-right, general-to-particular order that is almost immediately understandable. Preferences and object and text insertion are in the File menu, spellchecking and style definition in Edit, and layout options in the menu of the same name. They are followed by a Type menu for text and an Object menu for graphics, drawings, and tables. Only the Script menu, which is a grab bag of unrelated tools, requires much effort to remember. The menu layout makes it much easier to start using Pagestream than Scribus, which is probably Pagestream's main free software competitor.

Should you run into trouble despite the logical interface, a detailed HTML help system accompanies the program. This system is refreshingly task-oriented, especially when you get into the details of layout, and extensively cross-linked to related topics, making it easy to use, especially with browser tabs. Each page also has provisions for user comments, which suggests why the help system is so unusually ... helpful.

A program informed by typography

One of the reasons that Pagestream is such a joy to use is the awareness of typography that it shows throughout. For instance, many of the tips are not about the program so much as snippets of education for the general user, such as not using two spaces after a period, or using the first line indent setting for a paragraph rather than manually indenting.

Pagestream - click to enlarge

Once you start designing a document, this awareness is obvious throughout. In Files -> Preferences, Pagestream includes defaults for automatically converting straight quotes to smart quotes, and allows you to define a separate measurement unit for text, instead of forcing you to choose between rulers that measure points or typefaces set in inches. Either way, the coordinates floating window makes positioning text frames and objects on-the-fly even easier. By default, pages display a grid and basic guidelines, and, for more complex layouts, the gutter between columns as well.

The tool set is especially thorough for type. Tracking (the space between characters) can be set manually or by preset definitions ranging from very loose to very tight or monospaced. Leading (the space between lines of type) can be proportional to the size of the text, fixed, relative to the grid, or measured from a couple of different locations. Hyphenation and kerning are equally adjustable; you can even define your own character pairs to kern from Edit -> Define -> Kerning Pairs, and enable the automatic use of ligatures (single character versions of two letters that fit closely together, such as "fl"). In short, Pagestream makes it easy for you to ensure that your type looks professional.

As might be expected from such a design-conscious program, Pagestream requires heavy use of styles to take full advantage of its features. You can save documents as templates, and define master pages to alter the design of pages in your documents. You also define character, paragraph, and object styles. Admittedly, you can choose not to use the edit palette and menus to set up your design manually, but such tasks as indexing and adding a table of contents require the use of styles, so you are better off not to, unless you are designing only a one or two page document. My only real complaint about the implementation of styles is that, confusingly, the editing palette, despite having a Style field, includes no listing for paragraph and character styles. Instead, you have to choose them from a submenu of the Type menu, which is not nearly as convenient.


While scoring high marks for usability and power, Pagestream does have some problems. The Find dialog could use more options. In particular, I'd like the ability to search for styles using regular expressions, although the option to ignore accents is a useful touch. Pagestream is unable to import PNG graphics, although it supports other common formats such as JPEG and GIF.

Other problems also cropped up during my testing. File -> System Preferences > Fonts did not add typefaces to Pagestream. Judging from the help, this failure may be due to the fact that this feature is unique to the Amiga version, but, if so, why isn't it grayed out for other platforms? More seriously, whether Pagestream can display PostScript fonts appears to be hit or miss, and completely independent of who manufactures the font or any other variable that I could think of. Yet all the undisplayable fonts work without problem in other applications.

Another problem is in the editing of tables. Adding rows and columns, editing cell design, or deleting or merging cells all proved impossible, even going through the procedure described in the help step by step a half dozen times. The necessary tools were there, but they did not work as the help described. Given the ease of creating text frames, grouping frames provides a workaround, although a time-consuming one. Since this limitation is also found in the version of Scribus on my system, I can't help speculating whether it is a low priority for the GNU/Linux version, despite Pagestream's developer assuring me that table functionality should work.

What is not clear is which of these problems is unique to the GNU/Linux version, and which are due to the version tested being a beta. Either way, presumably these problems will be addressed before the final release.


It has been several years since I bought a proprietary program. However, if I could ignore my philosophy and focus on features, Pagestream might almost tempt me to change my mind. Its features are far in advance of OpenOffice.org's basic desktop publishing capabilities, and, while it seems functionally equivalent to Scribus, it is far easier to navigate and learn. I only had to refer to Pagestream's help system three or four times as I tried to gain basic competence in the program; by contrast, to reach the same level in Scribus had me scrambling for guidance a couple of dozen times.

If I were to buy Pagestream, I could at least take comfort in the fact that I was supporting a small developer who works conscientiously with the community that supports his efforts.

For those who don't share my scruples, Pagestream retails for $99 plus $15 for shipping in Canada or the United States. Additional versions are $50, and upgrades are $40. Those who register on the site can download a demo version. Considering that the equivalent functionality in QuarkXpress or InDesign costs more than 10 times as much -- and neither supports GNU/Linux -- Pagestream seems the logical choice for any user of proprietary desktop publishing software under Linux.

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