Virtuoso Performance

Move over Illustrator here comes a drawing program with text in columns

by Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes

Altsys has dogged Adobe Systems for supremacy in illustration software since the dawn of drawing programs. The Altsys-developed Aldus FreeHand com-petes against Adobe Illustrator on the Mac and Windows platforms. Illustrator was the first to arrive for NeXT, offering curve drawing and image tracing, text manipulation, minimal page-layout features, object-transformation tools (rotating, scaling, skewing, and so on), and color separations for printing. Now Altsys Virtuoso has arrived with virtually everything Illustrator offers, plus more typographical and object-manipulation features. Virtuoso is also the first drawing program on the NeXT platform to provide the capability to color-separate TIFF images and PostScript graphics.

Considering that Illustrator has made no major revisions to its NeXT product in the last two years, Altsys seems to have leap-frogged Adobe this time, especially for layout-intensive applications.

Drawing and tracing
Virtuoso offers most of the drawing features found in Illustrator and adds some new ones. The bezigon tool lets you draw any kind of free-form path with any number of points and automatic curvature the program decides where to place control points while you are placing the corner points. The tool is especially useful for drawing shapes that consist of lines and circular arcs. Virtuoso also offers a multigon tool to create polygons and star bursts, giving control over the number of sides and obtuseness of the shapes.

One unique feature of Virtuoso is the capability to use its freehand tool as a variable-weight pen for pressure-sensitive drawing or painting, or as a calligraphic pen for calligraphy. A drawback of this is that the program does not offer the ability to set tolerance levels for controlling sensitivity to hand movements (as Illustrator does). Nevertheless, Virtuoso is more forgiving of errors, offering up to 100 levels of undo, compared with Illustrator's single level.

In addition, Virtuoso adheres more to the NeXT's interface, providing an Inspector panel that includes information about any selected object. Precise changes to the object are made by changing the attributes listed in the panel. This feature comes in handy when you do blends. With the Inspector panel, Virtuoso lets you automatically reblend a blend without having to delete and regenerate the steps (as Illustrator requires).

Virtuoso lets you trace images automatically and drag a selection rectangle around a placed TIFF image to trace only part of the image, so you get only the curve you want. Compared with Illustrator, however, Virtuoso makes you go through an extra step when manually tracing images: You must place the image in the document, then send it to the background layer to make it lighter in shade for easier tracing. Virtuoso also lacks an auto-trace gap-distance setting (for ignoring gaps in an image) and a color-tolerance setting (for controlling the tool's sensitivity to color differentials in an image).

Virtuoso provides convenient Fill and Line Inspector panels for setting an object's fill pattern or color and line attributes. Virtuoso also has arrowheads for lines, a Styles List for quickly applying fill and line styles to objects, and 40 editable PostScript lines and fills (you can also add your own). But the program does not go as far as Illustrator in its pattern control, which allows you to define any graphic as the basis for a pattern.

Using text
Virtuoso offers more text-manipulation features for single-page layout of text blocks than any other drawing program on the NeXT. It offers automatic hyphenation, copy-fitting control, and settings for multiple rows and columns inside a text container. It also provides extensive control over text attributes such as leading, kerning, tracking, and spacing.

When you select text in Virtuoso, a ruler appears at the top of its container, making five types of tabs available: align left, align right, center, decimal, and wrapping (for tabular columns). The exact dimensions of a container and text insets can be specified in the Inspector panel. Unlike Illustrator and other drawing programs, which treat each text block as a single column, Virtuoso lets you specify several columns and rows within a container, and you can wrap text from top to bottom of a column or from side to side across columns.

Virtuoso also offers features found only in page-layout programs, such as automatic rules-based hyphenation and a keep-on-same-line option. Virtuoso goes further than Illustrator in typographic control by offering ragged-zone control, spacing before and after paragraphs, a keep-lines-to-gether option, and paragraph rules (lines that float with the text). It also goes further in controlling text set along a path, with settings available in the Inspector panel. Virtuoso lets you set text-standoff distances for wrapping text around a graphic object or TIFF image. The only feature missing is an auto-kerning option (for using the font designer's built-in character-pair kerning) that can be applied to an entire document. Virtuoso's kerning and tracking sliders are more convenient than Illustrator's, and Virtuoso offers three different methods of controlling line leading. Virtuoso also provides in-line, shadow, and zoom text effects.

Overall, Virtuoso offers more text-manipulation features and control over attributes than other drawing programs, and is much better than Illustrator for creating tables with rows and columns.

Layout and assembly
Virtuoso offers exceptional features for arranging graphic objects, such as rulers, ruler guides, grids, snap-to options, and precise movement control. The program's powerful Layers feature lets you organize the illustration's parts into named layers that can be separately printed, viewed, and locked. Layers make it easy to change the stacking order of overlapping elements in a drawing or to print documents without printing their TIFF images. You can also manipulate the stacking of elements in a single layer.

Other cool layout features in Virtuoso include alignment and distribution capabilities not found in Illustrator. Virtuoso can align selected objects based on the rectangu-lar area each object occupies. It can also distribute, or space out, objects proportionally along an axis, even if the objects are different in shape and size. While Illustrator's methods of measuring distances and moving objects are powerful for precision work, Virtuoso's align-ment options are more automatic and easier to use, which makes Virtuoso better than Illustrator for typical layout functions.

Different strokes
Virtuoso and Illustrator are more alike than different, providing excellent tools and features for illustration, color separation, and printing. They differ in the special effects that are not typical of drawing programs: Virtuoso takes care of TIFF images automatically, whereas Illustrator automatically creates charts and graphs with drawn objects. In addition, Virtuoso lets you resize TIFF images to snap to different sizes according to the printer's resolution. Virtuoso can also apply color directly to TIFF images, replacing black areas.

Virtuoso offers no automatic charting and graphing tools (both of which are available in Illustrator), and the program, in its 1.0 version, is less mature than Illustrator due to its support of NeXT-STEP 3.0 features. The Altsys product crashed twice (both times when we were using questionable fonts in the Font panel to dynamically alter the appearance of text), but otherwise performed flawlessly.

As to the inevitable comparisons with Illustrator, Virtuoso excels in text formatting and page layout, while Illustrator is better at drawing freehand shapes and tracing images. The documentation for Illustrator is more concise, easier to follow, and easier to use for reference than Virtuoso's documentation, which is nevertheless complete and professional. By use of Inspector panels, Virtuoso conforms closer to the style of NeXT applications.

Your choice will most likely depend on the availability of specific features, or the overall style and feel of the program. Fortunately, the programs import and export common file formats and can transfer PostScript graphics to and from each other, leaving professional illustrators the option of using both. But for those users who need to create single-page layouts with text in rows and columns, Altsys gives a virtuoso performance.

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 reached at

Virtuoso 1.0

4 & 1/2 Cubes

A superb illustration program with many innovative features. Sporting superior layout and text-formatting capabilities than its competitor, Illustrator, Virtuoso lacks only graphing tools.


Altsys Corporation, 269 West Renner, Richardson, TX 75080.

214/680-2060, 800/477-2131.

Illustrator (rating update)

4 Cubes Although Illustrator was nearly perfect when it came out, Adobe has left this program unchanged for two years. With the march of technology and Altsys's challenge, the program now rates a reduced four cubes.