Why Use Desktop Publishing Software?
The top performers in our review are PagePlus, the Gold Award winner; Xara Page & Layout Designer 11, the Silver Award winner; and Microsoft Publisher, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a program to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 systems.
There are instances when hiring a professional designer is necessary. However, most of us have relatively simple publishing needs – a newsletter for the neighborhood association, a flyer for a church event or a new menu for a family-owned restaurant. There's no need to spend money on design consultants when you can create professional-looking documents yourself. That's what standard desktop publishing software is for.
If you're new to self-publishing, you might be asking the question: Exactly what is desktop publishing? The good news is you define desktop publishing by what you create at home. These programs serve as magazine, short form, flyer and even book publishing software, depending on your needs.
Desktop publishing applications don't have the same features as professional layout software such as Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress, which target a different audience. For example, professional desktop publishing software will rarely offer templates to help guide your efforts, because the professionals who use those programs often create in-house templates designed for their specialized projects. The best desktop publishing software programs, by contrast, are packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of templates and images for any project you might be undertaking. Many of us need such templates to get us started and provide a foundation for various types of documents we create. Our desktop publishing software reviews are targeted toward the rest of us – software suited for easy, everyday use.
If you're wondering whether it might be worth paying the extra money for a professional application, check out our articles on desktop publishing software for some guidance.
Choosing the Best Desktop Publishing Software
Finding the best personal DTP software isn’t simply a matter of picking the one with the most templates or the most generous font selection. Those are important to have, but you'll want publisher software that balances user-friendliness with powerful capabilities and generous options. Don't worry if you don't understand why a certain feature is valuable just yet; the finer points of desktop publishing aren't difficult to learn, and they'll make all the difference when it comes to creating eye-catching business cards.
This software not only simplifies your life by making page layout designs easy, but helps you project a professional image with well-designed documents you can be proud to share with family and friends. You’ll want a program that gives you the ability to perform such tasks as editing PDFs and exporting to PDF, ePub and Microsoft files. This will make it a convenient, multipurpose tool you can use for all types of projects.
Layout & Publishing Tools
Although you might not use them every time you work on a design, there are a few page layout and publishing tools that are invaluable for a variety of projects. Master pages, for example, let you create a template for a specific publication that will appear either as a watermark or on the header and footer of each page in the publication, much like master slides in PowerPoint.
Custom guides place vertical and horizontal anchors throughout your document so you can easily align text, images and columns. Proportional snapping takes this feature to another level. Sometimes called "smart snapping," it automatically adjusts the width or height of something you're resizing to match the existing width or height of other elements on the page. So if you already have a column of text and need to insert another one, you can start drawing a text box and the software will let you know when your new column reaches the same width as the old one.
While most desktop publishing software will export documents to PDF, it’s far less common for a program to export to ePub formats and import from programs like Microsoft Word and Photoshop. Another uncommon feature is CMYK optimization. You won't find it in many desktop publishing tools, but it's a necessity in the professional page layout programs and can be an invaluable addition. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black – it's the color format used by ink printers. RGB (or red, green, blue) is the color format used to display pictures on a screen. Where most DTP programs will let your printer handle the conversion from RGB to CMYK, the top desktop publishing software has its own optimization settings and handles that conversion itself – which generally results in better prints.
Whether or not you're an experienced graphic designer, a capable set of visual tools is essential to good layout – even if you're doing something as simple as replacing a solid color with a gradient. The best desktop publishers offer a variety of graphic tools including QuickShapes, a library of all kinds of shapes that you can insert anywhere on the page, and transparency control, which lets you take a regular photo image and make it transparent.
Advanced programs offer integrated vector graphics editors that you can use to build or modify logos for your business. Many programs have photo correction tools to smooth out blemishes or fix color problems, and a few even offer Photoshop-style filters, giving you full control over fun, interesting visual elements like 3D effects and bas-relief images that have the appearance of a sculpture rising off the page.
Typography & Templates
As important as graphics and visuals are to good publications, beautiful text ties a document together. Most publisher software offers fun new fonts on installation, but it's what you can do with those fonts that sets the best applications apart.
The single most important typography feature to look for is text reflow: the ability to logically connect multiple columns of text together. When you edit the content of one column – say, by adding a new paragraph – your layout changes are reflected across all linked boxes.
Text reflow is a necessity when you're working with any sort of newspaper or magazine layout, since it lets you create articles that flow across columns and pages. This is a feature you will generally find in advanced page layout software. It is less common in the average desktop publishing program and often won’t function at quite the same level as advanced layout software. While many desktop publishing programs offer it, some haven't integrated it very well. Generally speaking, the higher a product is on our lineup, the better it integrates text reflow and the easier it is to use.
It might seem like a simple thing, but only a few desktop publishers let you create tables and charts from within the software; most force you to save them as images in other programs and import them. This can make it difficult and time-consuming to change data in a table cell, or alter a chart that doesn't fit the aesthetic of one of your newsletter's pages. Publishers that let you create and modify tables and charts directly are well worth your consideration.
Project templates are the key to quickly putting together professional-looking publications. You can craft designs from scratch with any of the programs we reviewed, but it's far easier to customize something that has already been laid out. Don't assume, however, that better products will always have a bigger number of pre-built templates; when it comes to desktop publishing, quality trumps quantity.
Desktop Publishing Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
We identified the best desktop publishing software on the market. The best options are PagePlus X8, Microsoft Publisher and Xara’s Page & Layout Designer. Each has a strong set of features that make it worthy of being called the best desktop publishing software.
The PagePlus X8 has the most comprehensive feature set of any software in our lineup. While it may not have the sheer volume of templates some of the other programs, it has a great breadth of options, both in terms of templates and overall features. You will be able to not only export to PDF format using this software, but you will be able to edit PDFs and export to ePub formats to share documents on eReaders of all kinds.
Microsoft Publisher is a great value because it is part of the Microsoft Office package. Since Microsoft Office is a very common software suite, many professionals will have access to it at work, if not at home. Even more important than its availability are its strong layout and typography tools as well as its great overall feature set that will help you create professional-looking publications.
Other products in our lineup may outshine Xara Page & Layout Designer when it comes to the number of templates and images they offer, but when it comes to the quality of those tools, this software package is hard to beat. Still, its generous offering of templates and images exceeds what most people would ever need. But more to the point, these tools are sharp and attractive and will help you create all kinds of sophisticated documents you will be proud to share with people.
Another product in our lineup, VivaDesigner 7.1, drops lower on our list because it lacks templates and art. It’s among the best book publishing software because it has superb tools for laying out articles and long form publications. Its master pages can help you establish great cohesiveness throughout the text. The CMYK optimization makes it ideal for printing.
Desktop publishing software is designed to make putting together calendars, brochures, newsletters and certificates something you enjoy, rather than a chore you want to be done with. While there will always be a learning curve, the best page layout software keeps that curve gentle and helps guide you with some of the most beautiful templates in the business. If you've looked through our lineup and still aren't sure which to choose, go right to the top of the list – we've tested every single one, and our rankings reflect those tests.