Review: Printworks page layout software for Mac

Printworks: surprisingly able with some interesting features to boot
Printworks: surprisingly able with some interesting features to boot (click this image for a larger view)

Recently I wiped my Mac and put everything I needed back on, in attempts to free up space, and to get rid of loads of apps and other little things I’d installed for one reason or another, but long-term didn’t really use. I do this every year or so, as a sort of spring cleaning, since everything is backed up via Time Machine.

But it left me with a conundrum: reinstall Adobe CS 6 or not, or even go to the online subscription versions of the new 2014 Adobe titles? I only really used InDesign and Photoshop nowadays, and Photoshop has been barely necessary lately as all I really do is prepare images for online, and I can even do that with Preview (although I have tried other alternatives, none of them offer a single crop-resize-resample function which would be awesome). Illustrator I did occasionally use, mainly for its gorgeous graphs, but I’ve let Apple’s Numbers take over that function as I think they look even better, and it’s easier to use.

InDesign, though, I have been using every month for several years now to create MagBytes. Not that I was completely sold on it, although I have used it for many years (in the magazine industry before that). I find the interface clunky, it still doesn’t look fab with a Retina display, link-management is difficult and several operations are unintuitive and even stupid, like not being able to set a drop shadow that stays in the dialogue. You have to type your preferred settings every bloody time … But I am used to it, so I can work fast enough, and since the MagBytes newsletter needs links to look at apps and online features, it’s relatively easy to set up hyperlinks that survive into PDFs (just not to manage those links afterwards).

PDF is another strength of InDesign: I suppose it’s because Adobe invented the PDF format, but you can set careful parameters that result in good-looking, linked-up PDFs that are still small enough to be easily emailed and downloaded.

Anyway, before I made up my decision, I tried out Pages but the inability to add pages to a spread was just too difficult to get my head around (you now can, thankfully, from the last update, from the Insert menu). But the PDFs that resulted were 3-4 times bigger than those generated by InDesign. I even looked at iBooks Author, but it doesn’t really suit the desired PDF filetype at the end (although it’s fantastic for creating interactive iBooks).

Issue 55 of MagBytes was attempted in Publisher Lite
Issue 55 of MagBytes was attempted in Publisher Lite

So I actually created an entire MagBytes (#55) in a third-party app called PageMeUp, and it looked … OK, I guess, but it would only maintain links that I copied over along with text – I couldn’t create links on the fly as I developed the magazine file.

Another app I looked at was Printworks, and although I must point out immediately that, likewise, it’s not possible to select some text and create a hyperlink, it has some really intriguing features.

First and foremost would be its pretty incredible graphics library, but let’s start at the beginning – like many of Apple’s apps, Printworks starts with a templates’ chooser, and one of the things I liked straight away is the set of blank ones (landscape, gatefold, tri-fold, z-fold etc, 14 in total) along with the graphics-rich ones we have come to expect.
The graphics-laden examples are numerous – Brochures, Flyers, Catalogs [sic], Newsletters, Menus, Letterheads and Fax Covers, Calendars, Certificates and Posters under Desktop Publishing, then there are Blank, Music, Photo and Videos for Discs and Media, under Business Cards there’s Blank, Horizontal and Vertical, there are three Labels categories, three for envelopes and two for cards then the My Templates section you can populate yourself. Every category had at least 7 templates and many have many more (Brochures has 32) – there’s way more choice than Pages. In all there are over a thousand templates ready to go.

Layers, tools
Printworks also supports layers. A layout starts on a foreground layer with a layer behind that. On the background you set guides etc that, once you’re working on the layer above, stay untouched if you want to guide-up an individual page (swap between layers, and add new ones, under ‘Foreground’ at top left). You can also hide and show layers for trying different layouts.

But there’s also a Master page (under Content Pages) at top right, for guiding-up and otherwise setting master pages. Guides can be locked and you can Delete All when you’ve changed your mind (nothing worse than killing them one by one).

At the top left in the toolbar you can switch from Pointer, for moving things around, the Text tool (which supports Text Box, Circular Text and Vertical Text – click-and-hold on the Text icon to see the options), the shape tool (Rectangle, Circle and Spline for pen-like vector drawings with click-and-drag operation as in Illustrator and Photoshop) and there’s even a freehand drawing tool beside that. Any drawn shapes, circles and rectangles can be stroked and filled from the inspector on the right, and there are linear and radial gradients to choose from.

Select the text tool, click and drag out on the page and start typing, or paste copied text into it. I prefer being able to place where text goes – in PageMeUp, when you clicked the Text tool a text box just materialised in the middle of the page – this is how the new Preview, in Yosemite, works by the way, when you want to add text or a shape). Like InDesign, a red Plus box lets you know there’s more text in the text box that you can see. Drag it bigger, or click on the Plus and click somewhere else to link to another box, column etc. Text can be edited for spelling (double-click on a word) or you can change all attributes of it by clicking on it once and selecting a new face, flush-style etc from the inspector, which affects all the text in the box (the same as InDesign, Illustrator etc).

Another nice feature is comprehensive Styles that are easy to use. These are accessed from the Styles button at top centre. There are defaults in there, or choose Edit Styles to add or modify your own, or select some text on the page, change its parameters until you are happy, and select Add from Selection. Nice. When you edit the styles, there is control for manipulating space between characters and between lines vertically, but not the kind of fine kerning control and other typeface and flow options you find in InDesign.

An Object Cause Wrap is another essential feature for those doing layouts. Drag an object over text, then select the button and from the four options. You can also add space around it.

Heading Editor
Heading Editor

A slightly odd feature is the Heading editor – the text isn’t editable until you double-click it, then you can edit it in a dialogue box. I assume that means the headline on the page is an object rather than text, but I’m not sure. It does give you extra creative power (drop shadow, opacity) you wouldn’t normally require of text. It also lets you fill the letters with images, supplied and from your own librarywhich can be pretty cool. Why have these options for normal body text? It’s unlikely you’d ever need it.

Graphics libraries
Printworks ships with over 1000 examples of clipart, much of which is excellent in quality (but don’t drag it too big on the page). This can be expanded to over 40,000 with an additional purchase from (be great to be able to do this on the fly from within Printworks). You have to go to the link.

But that’ll set you back $59.95– you can browse the images online, luckily, before you shell out. It’s still a lot cheaper than continually buying stock images.

There’s also ‘Printworks with Extras’ where you get it all, with all he extra images, as a bundle for NZ$76.12.

Belight’s approach to graphics is very sensible: if you drag a corner handle of a graphic, it resizes proportionally only, but you can grab centre side, top and bottom handles to squish or stretch. Click joust outside a corner handle and you can swing it to rotate on the fly – handy.

It’s obvious this company (I think it’s in a former Soviet country) knows its graphics chops, going by the other apps they have for sale online and in the App Store – photo editors, 3D designers, font sets etc. In Printworks, there’s a camera icon above the graphics library on the left and this accesses your iPhoto collection, which is very Apple-like. Double-click any image and you get an Inspector window with image effects including Colour Controls, Exposure, Posterise and many more so you can work on them right in Printworks. An additional 100+masks are available for these from the Inspector on the right. And there are Smart Objects: loads of shapes including arrows, starbursts, hexagons etc, which you can edit by stroke, colour, add drop shadows to … you can even import images inside shapes so they mask them immediately. And everything can be made instantly transparent thanks to an Opacity slider near the bottom of the Inspector on the right.

You can drag out and position borders, but also stroke any placed image by selecting it, clicking Stroke in the Inspector on the right, and adding the weight, colour and other attributes directly.

Click the eye icon at top right any time to see what the printed version would look like (makes guides etc invisible).

All important, but there are only three image qualities for PDFs – 300dpi, 600 or 150. You can’t customise beyond those (I usually 254dpi for Retina displays) but ‘workflows’ are available for emailing (which compresses it further), add to iBooks etc. The other options are TIFF, JPEG and EPS (these will bitmap the typefaces, unlike PDF).

Page management
A button that looks like a book, nearer the centre on the left, lets you add and navigate between pages. This is easy to use, once you know it’s there, and an eminently practical arrangement that deals with one of the major frustrations of most entry-level page layout programs including, even, Apple’s Pages which only adds a page when you over-type on the existing one.

Apart from not being able to select some text and add a hyperlink – essential for my own needs – I got a couple of crashes, but I was running a non-standard Mac OS on my MacBook Pro. The free update to take it to 1.0.1 made it much more stable on my machine. If I could only add links … All the templates are in Portrait mode and MagBytes is landscape, with the pages readable subsequently below, since it’s designed for landscape monitors and iPad held that way. So you can re-orient the page in the Inspector on the right, but then you have to manually move everything to fit (above).
As for the clipart, I hopefully assume Belight has permission for the shots of the British Royal Family etc.

A surprisingly able layout program with some sophisticated features, particularly for working with images. It’s very easy to use once you watch the included 20 minutes or so of instructional videos that serve well to demystify and explain everything. If you didn’t need to jump all the way up to a pro package like InDesign but Pages wasn’t cutting it for your layout leads, Printworks is a real contender with some very nice touches.

Printworks NZ$38.99 in the Mac App Store (free trial available – it may be worth visiting the site for the free Rails train simulator app, and more of interest). I noticed the price on the Belight site was $49.95 …