Ragtime Solo v5.6.1

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail
Published by: B&E Software GmbH, go to the web site
Requires: (PC) Pentium of faster CPU, Windows 95 or higher, 32MB RAM; (Mac) OS8, 32MB RAM
MSRP: Free (Ragtime 5.x.x commercial version: US$495; 10 user Education license: US$375)

Kai Brüning and Thomas Everth released the first version of RagTime for the Apple Macintosh in 1986. RagTime integrated word processing and spreadsheets into one program. The software was successful in the European Macintosh market right from its introduction. It found about 250,000 users in education, small and big business. Germany was a veritable hotbed for other desktop publishing software development between '86 and '96, with DMC Publishing's Calamus SL and other products which gradually migrated to either Windows or Mac when their original Atari and Amiga platforms disappeared.

It's about time that someone started using the much-hyped need for a universal application document container. Ragtime Solo is frame-based, but there is only one frame type - a generic one which can hold any type of data: formatted text, graphics, spreadsheet data/cells, graphs, buttons, etc. Data from one frame can be used in any other frame, or exported to another application altogether. Usage within Ragtime is seamless - no OLE embedding, no complex filter settings or scripts. Frames can be internally linked, text can be piped from frame to frame and page to page. Data can be scanned directly into a frame. Exotic text handling and formatting is as easy as pointing and clicking different (and extensive) selections. Ragtime has a true three-dimensional spreadsheet engine (and does regular spreadsheets too). A single spreadsheet can be made up of multiple planes. Formulas can be used to address the set of planes in a single range. The ability to demonstrate and model complex analyses and system types is very powerful and easy to use (compared to specialty modeling applications). Microsoft Excel sure can't do any of this.

As a page layout program which is designed around integrated word processing, graphing and spreadsheet tools, Ragtime Solo represents competition for MS Office, Quark XPress and Adobe InDesign. Ragtime Solo is also free. RagTime Solo asks the user during each startup to acknowledge that it may not be employed for commercial use, but beyond this does not require any authorization or registration. RagTime Solo runs on one computer only at any given time in a local area network. Some color profiles for high end output devices are left out to reduce download size. Dictionaries for spell checking and hyphenation are not included in the download but can be purchased separately.

What do I like best about Ragtime? Plenty. You can set frame transparency on the fly. HTML export of a transparent text frame which has been placed on top of a bitmap graphic is perfectly preserved - transparency and all. Frame layering works flawlessly. Free frame rotation, no matter what it contains. The typographical tools are excellent, albeit disorganized. The integrated program tutorial is excellent and reasonably thorough. Ragtime documents can be moved back and forth between Windows and Mac versions without the need for any sort of conversion. Professional output and export options for desktop printing, image setting, color separation, overprinting, PDF and HTML. Excellent Keyboard Accelerator (shortcuts) editor.

What do I like least? Character spacing, kerning and justification controls each reside in a different dialog sheet - the Ragtime function groupings are generally poor. There doesn't seem to be any spacing/offset adjustment to move text flow away from the edges of images. The user interface, in particular the various settings dialogs, need a lot of work. For example, the powerful typographical tools in the "Get Info" dialog, accessed by right clicking on a text frame, have cryptically named tabs such as Typography and Typography 2. There's plenty of cryptic language in the dialog sheets as well, including this bit in the text component settings: " Torn Off Even If Not Installed In Any Container." So what happens when you select the setting? I'm not sure and the balloon help in the dialog is equally opaque. There's lots of non-standard language in the UI, which uses descriptives and references that are native only to Ragtime. Curiously, there's no keyboard shortcut to turn snaps on and off. Being able to snap frame positions to a hidden grid is one of the most powerful layout tools for creating accurate work.

Cons: Ragtime Solo is reminiscent of StarOffice - the product is essentially free unless it's being put to commercial use. Nice, but the usual question arises - is there any money in it? Ragtime Solo and StarOffice are terrific products and we'd hate to see them orphaned. Unlike StarOffice however, Ragtime Solo is not intended as a replacement for the full MS Office suite. The Ragtime Solo online help system is extremely detailed but an experienced copy editor should be let loose on it in order to impose some standardized layout and publishing language. We encountered a number of minor bugs, including double underline simply won't work with certain fonts; EPS import stumbles from time to time - ditto for FlashPix; character spacing breaks text flow formatting around objects.

Pros: Ragtime Solo has some excellent European lineage, which means that attention to the fundamentals of text formatting and production output is front and center. This is a serious DTP program which can be an all-in-one tool in any home or office publishing environment which regularly has the need to combine word processing, spreadsheets and supporting graphs to create a professional document ready for publishing and distribution. If you don't need all of the massive capabilities in all the different parts of MS Office, try Ragtime Solo. The feature and functions set is enormous. There's a learning curve here that's not to be sneered at, but with text and spreadsheet formatting and layout this powerful, the effort is worthwhile for anyone who really wants to make productive and extended use of a publishing program. Online help is extremely detailed. Ragtime Solo is well worth a serious look.

Letters to the Editor are welcome and occasionally abused in public. Send e-mail to: whine@kickstartnews.com





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