Its Own Reward

Virtuoso aims high by combining illustration and page-layout tools

by Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes

When we heard last year that Texas-based Altsys was readying a NeXT version of FreeHand, the venerable Mac and Windows drawing program it created for Aldus, we assumed that the market battle between FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator was simply moving to a new venue. Now that the product has arrived in the form of Altsys Virtuoso, it turns out that the company had a bigger objective in mind: to be number one in Post-Script-based design and production.

Priced at $695, Virtuoso offers sophisticated tools for illustration and freehand drawing, plus typographical and organizational features for creating single-page lay- outs. According to Altsys, Virtuoso is the first program on the NeXT platform to provide illustration, layout, and the capability to color-separate TIFF images.

Altsys certainly knows how to work with PostScript, having developed not just the award-winning FreeHand but also Fontographer, the first program to enable professional PostScript typeface design and editing. The company has incorporated the features of NeXT-STEP 3.0, including pressure-sensitive-tablet support for the program's calligraphic and variable-weight pens, Object Links to dynamically share data with other applications, as well as Pantone Matching System and PostScript Level 2 support.

We reviewed an early beta version of the program and were very impressed, especially with its drawing features and text-formatting capabilities.

Coolest features
We were immediately intrigued by the Layers feature, which organizes illustrations into named layers that can be separately printed, viewed, and locked (Figure 1). Layers make it easy to change the stacking order of overlapping elements in a drawing or to print documents without printing their TIFF images (by isolating the images to a nonprinting layer). You can also manipulate the stacking of elements in a single layer with Bring to Front, Send to Back, and so on.

Other cool features include easy alignment and distribution. Virtuoso can align selected objects based on the rectangular area each object occupies. It can also distribute, or space out, objects evenly along an axis, even if they are different in shape and size.

For shading contours and tapering colors, you can create a blend, a series of intermediate paths based on the shapes of two original paths. Virtuoso, like Adobe Illustrator, lets you blend between any two ungrouped paths (either two open paths or two closed paths, but not an open path and a closed path). The paths can have different colors and fill patterns. We particularly liked the ability to automatically reblend without having to delete and regenerate the steps.

The Paste Inside feature lets you use a path as a clipping region, which exposes an image underneath the path. You can use it to crop an image, create a window inside an image, or create the illusion of transparency. Virtuoso pastes the object you previously placed inside the selected path. Once inside the path, the object can be moved as you move the path, or you can move the path without moving the object.

The program separates all color images, including RGB TIFF images, and you can preview the separations on screen. Virtuoso also offers trapping control in the separation process, and the RGB-to-CMYK conversion feature allows you to predict the process ink colors before printing.

PostScript programmers will be impressed by Virtuoso's ability to specify pure PostScript code in order to create special effects such as custom lines and fills. You can type up to 255 characters of code in the Inspector panel. For larger sections of code, you can write your own UserPrep file.

Virtuoso's toolbox is organized by function: There are tools for drawing basic shapes (the Rectangle, Multigon, Ellipse, and Line tools); drawing freeform shapes (the Freehand and Path tools); transforming shapes (the Rotate, Reflect, Skew, and Scale tools); and performing basic functions (the Pointer, Text, Knife, Trace, and Magnifying-glass tools). Most have keyboard alternatives.

Professional drawing
The Freehand tool is especially easy to use. It can be changed into a variable-weight pen for pressure-sensitive drawing or painting or into a calligraphic pen that is ideal for ornately lettered invitations (Figure 2). The Multigon tool creates polygons and starbursts while offering the user control over the number of sides and the obtuseness of the shapes. The Autotracing Tool works best with simple TIFF images. You can also send a TIFF image to a background layer and lock the lay-er for manual tracing.

The program can import graphics from FreeHand and Illustrator files in Mac and PC formats, as well as NeXT formats for Illustrator files, TIFF and EPS image files, and ASCII and RTF text files. It also exports graphics to a variety of file formats, including EPS, FreeHand, and Illustrator.

Keeping to the NeXT interface guidelines, Virtuoso's Inspector panel offers information about any object you select. You can make precise changes by changing attri-butes in the panel with impunity; there are up to 100 levels of undo. Editing in preview mode in full color is surprisingly fast (the program also has a keyline mode for editing). Selected objects can be magnified up to 1600 percent.

We found the methods for ap-plying color very convenient: You can drag a color swatch into the color wells in the Inspector panel or drag a swatch from a color well and drop it into an object. You can also lock the color wells in the Inspector panel to the large color well in the Colors panel or assign a color from the Color List. Tints can be created quickly in the Tint panel (Figure 3), and you can define and name colors in the Color List and reuse them in other documents.

Also convenient is the Styles List, which lets you quickly apply fill and line styles. The program provides 20 editable PostScript lines and 20 PostScript fills, and you can add your own.

Text formatting and layout
Virtuoso excels at handling text. It provides automatic hyphenation, copyfitting control, linked text blocks, object avoidance (wrapping text around graphics), multiple rows and columns, and extensive typographic controls just the features you'd expect to find in a page-layout program.

The sole drawback is that Virtuoso creates only single pages. Although many advertising and packaging projects can be laid out as a single, large page or in multiple documents, it is difficult to create a multiple-page document such as a gatefold brochure.

The program uses containers to hold text. When you select text, the container sprouts a ruler with tab stops at the top and a link box in the lower right corner. The link box turns black if there is additional text that has overflowed the container. You can link the container to another container by dragging the link box to a path, polygon, or new container. The exact dimensions of a container, as well as text insets from each side, can be specified in the Inspector panel. And you can choose to wrap text from the top of a column to the bottom or from side to side, across columns.

Users can distribute text across columns with the same number of lines in each column, and leading can be adjusted or the text optically scaled for copyfitting. With object avoidance, you can set text to run through or wrap around objects, with specified offset distances for each side of the object.

Overall impressions
With Virtuoso and Adobe Illustrator, professional illustration programs have turned a corner. They are now a great deal more than drawing tools; they are on their way to providing a complete set of single-page layout capabilities and Virtuoso seems to have an early lead in that race. There is no doubt in our minds that Virtuoso has raised the level of functionality for illustration programs. It will be hard to beat.

Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes are contributing editors to NeXTWORLD and publishers of the Bove & Rhodes Inside Report on Multimedia and Publishing Technologies. They can be contacted at