Calamus SL 2006 for Windows

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, January 2006
Published by: invers Software Verlag
Requires: Any PC running Windows 98 through XP, 64MB RAM, 250MB free hard drive space (for full installation of all available modules)
MSRP: €699.00 (approx. US$849.00, CAN$979.00), €99.00 (student version), €99.00 (iCalamus)

The Calamus SL professional desktop publishing software began its life on the Atari. WAIT! Don't stop reading! Atari actually made some terrific computers back in the day. Does anybody remember the ST? How about the MegaSTE? The TT Workstation? What about the late, lamented Falcon 030? How about the clones (the Hades and the Medusa) based on the TOS operating system running massive amounts of RAM, fancy video cards, separate floating point processors and a wealth of other good things? Well there was a time when, briefly, Atari ruled the PC roost. It was arguably the best platform for anybody interested in graphic design, digital music and gaming. Briefly. Some smart people at DMC Publishing in Germany released Calamus on the TOS/GEM platform back in 1988 and the desktop publishing world was never the same again.

Calamus SL (the word is from ancient Greek and refers to the hard part of a feather quill used to create pen tips) was designed from the ground up as a professional document design, page layout, text formatting and output program. From the beginning it featured powerful tools to do just about anything necessary for the design and production of flyers, newspapers, magazines, advertising, books and indeed anything at all which could be designed for output on paper. It was built without limits to page or document size, came with brilliant, embedded stochastic (FM) screening algorithms (StarScreen), had no output resolution limits of any kind, was frame based and up until 1998 at least probably had the most powerful text formatting engine of any product on the market (including Quark XPress, PageMaker, etc., etc.).

So what happened to this apotheosis? Well for one thing, it started life on the wrong platform. Atari Computers went the way of the Dodo bird. The owners of Calamus SL then made a decisive jump to the PC platform, complete with fully redesigned code and user interface, in the U.S., with a company ill-prepared to market and sell a professional publishing product (so let's have a great big and sustained boo-hiss for the late, somewhat lamented MGI Software). All the while, a small group of independent programmers back in Germany continued development of the old program (complete with the uniquely unconventional user interface), under license, and proceeded to wrap the whole thing in a PC emulation layer. Well both development paths worked well, but only the Germans managed to survive with their versions intact. And that's what we're reviewing here.

Calamus SL is a professional desktop publishing program. It is modularized around a powerful core program which acts as a container for all the modules. Modules can be loaded and unloaded on-the-fly, with active modules appearing automatically on the main upper toolbar. The core program is separated into distinct sections for text formatting, text editing, bitmap editing, vector editing, effects, drawing, color separation, color editing, output (PDF, print, web, digital), font editing and control, and program configuration. The UI consists of three main sections: the vertical module tools pane on the left, the main document window, and the upper section occupied by the program toolbars and the module selector. Selecting a module on the toolbar automatically places all of the tools related to the module into the module pane on the left. Calamus document creation is frame based which means that setting up new documents is as simple as placing text frames, bitmap frames, vector frames and uniframes on your pages as needed. Uniframes are unique to Calamus. They act as containers for user-defined objects.

Page layout and design is straightforward. Once you've placed a text frame on the page, for example, select the EDDIE text editor module to type and edit original text. You can also import text from an existing file. Text frames can be linked to each other across multiple pages so that any text you enter or import flows from one frame to the next automatically. Frames can be linked for text flow across an unlimited number of pages consecutively, non-consecutively and intermittently. Select the bitmap module to draw, populate and edit graphics. Select the vector module to do the same things with vector files and so on. Bitmaps and text can be converted to vector objects on-the-fly. Frames can be positioned and repositioned at will, with or without content. There is an extensive set of alignment tools, rulers, grids and snaps to facilitate microscopically precise layouts. Frames can be grouped, automatically updated, layered, and include transparency and masking controls for powerful effects. Unique to Calamus are virtual frame copies. You can, for example, create a business card in layered frames, group the various frames into one, then make virtual copies and lay them out according to the dimensions of a specific Avery card paper. Thereafter, any change or addition you make to the original card layout, text, etc., will automatically appear in all the other virtual copies—it's brilliant and powerful.

Calamus SL remains one of the most powerful and comprehensive desktop publishing programs available today. That it's developed in Germany and supported from the (English language) German web site shouldn't put you off. There are versions of the web site in several languages actually. There's also an active community of users, mostly small printing businesses and private publishers, who provide support and interaction on the invers Software forums. invers Software itself provides plenty of technical support.

For many new users, Calamus SL often begins with a UI wrestling match, unless you remember the following: select a module on the toolbar and its related tools appear in the left pane, click a frame icon on the toolbar then draw the appropriate frame on your document page in the main window, there are no limits to what you can do or create with Calamus SL. Remember those things and you'll be fine. Refer often to the online help system and the robust and detailed printed manual. If you can dream up a new creation, Calamus SL can produce it on screen and output it almost anywhere and in any format. Because Calamus users are spread far and wide around the world, you're not going to run into very many of them at local computer shows. On the other hand, the software is so uniquely powerful that after a few weeks of regular use you really won't care about how many people are using it. You'll just be glad you found it.

To use Calamus SL most effectively in the current digital publishing world (as opposed to the digital publishing world of 1998 for example) you absolutely have to have the full Bridge module which provides object based PostScript output for PS typesetters, EPS export, data converter and data export. The Bridge 6 module also offers PDF, PostScript and EPS export with embedded fonts, JPEG and GIF89a export. The Calipso module is another must-have because it provides excellent, editable PDF import (text, bitmaps and vectors); text imports as vectors so there are no text wrap errors because of missing fonts. Powerful stuff. There are dozens of modules available and the program is supplied with a robust set to get you started in professional production:

  • Page module
  • Frame module
  • Calamus Clipboard
  • Text module
  • Textstyle module
  • Text Editor module (EDDIE)
  • Lines module
  • Surfaces module
  • Helpline module
  • Vector Graphics Editor module
  • Vector Tracing module
  • Brush module
  • Image Rotation module
  • Histogram module
  • Color Separation module
  • Output Linearity module
  • Color List Converter module
  • Rastergenerator module (for autotypical raster)
  • Imposition module (light)
  • Control Line Editor module (FrankLIN light)
  • Pling module (alarm after printing)

Cons: People who have been using Calamus SL for years will tell you that the UI is perfectly good—possibly even great. For newcomers and for occasional users of the software, the user interface can be initially bizarre and non-intuitive. As with anything else, once you get to know it, the whole thing makes wonderful sense. It's just the period of time needed to get to that point which rankles. The price is still too high. The power of this software in the desktop publishing realm is remarkable and vast, but the program has fallen from the airy heights of its heyday and in my view is unlikely to reach those heights again unless the price is drastically reduced. MGI Software (absorbed by Roxio in 2002) developed a spectacularly powerful native Windows version back in 1999. The UI was Windows standard, functionality was amazing and the home consumer oriented honchos at MGI just didn't know what they had. Of course MGI/Roxio refused to sign over the rights to that version of Calamus to invers Software Verlag. But since MGI did quite a few things which didn't make any sense we can only lament that additional loss to the desktop publishing world. The Bridge 6 module should be included as part of the basic set.

Pros: Think of something, then do it with Calamus SL. If it can be reproduced on paper, you can design and lay it out in Calamus SL. Text on a path? Easy—the seriously powerful and professional level vector editing module will do it quickly. Need a textured background? Easy—the bitmap editor will do it quickly. Edit imported photos? Child's play! Re-kern a poorly designed font? No problem. Powerful text editing, line formatting and spell checking and hyphenation. Automated tag-based table of contents and indexing. Powerful text formatting—tab editing, kerning (letter, word, line), line space editor, text flow around objects (bitmap or vector) and on and on. Unlimited resolution, document size and page size. Full transparency layers. Powerful multi-layer masking. The full feature and function list runs into the thousands. New versions are coming for Mac OS X (iCalamus, no less) and Calamus SL2006 has just been released as I write this (January 2006). The available module list is extensive, and module pricing at least is very attractive. Adobe and Quark may dominate the market, but this newly updated classic remains a massively powerful (some say even better) contender. One way or another, Calamus SL gets our highest recommendation.

(Ed. Note: I was the Calamus for Windows product manager for a short time at MGI Software. I don't have any working or business relationship with invers Software. While the so-called native Windows version we developed at MGI and attempted to market was spectacularly powerful, it never rose to the lofty heights of power and versatility of Calamus SL at the time, and certainly can't hold a candle to Calamus SL today. If you decide to have a look at Calamus SL 2006, don't forget to also send an e-mail to invers Software proprietor Ulf Dunkel and tell him I said "Hi!" because you never know—it might shock him into offering you a discount!)

Comments? Questions? Qualms? Technical problems? Send an e-mail!





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