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What are vector graphics?
Vector graphics use geometrical objects including points, lines, curves, circles or other shapes to form an image. The alternative is bitmap or raster graphics which are a map of bits, i.e. dots or pixels.
A vector or path has direction and magnitude (let's say length) and it is easily represented as a mathematical expression or formula. All we need to make it more concrete is to know the coordinates where it starts or ends:
Point A •–————►• Point B or Start •–————►• End
To double its size we simply double the path length which means a simple change to the mathematical formula to multiply the path length:
Start •——————————►• End
Unlike bitmap graphics, vector graphics vector graphics are scalable without losing any resolution. So if I double the size of a vector image then it does not lose sharpness or clarity. But if I were to double the size of a bitmap then I will lose sharpness as the individual bits or pixels become more visible. If you don't know what I mean then see this example.
Vector graphics editors versus bitmap graphics editors
The most common bitmaps are photographs and videos, images that represent the real or natural world. The most common vector graphics are two-dimensional (2D) designs for the World-Wide Web. Vector-based computer graphics are heavily used in industries that need precise designs: web design, CGI, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and science.
There is no clear-cut dividing line between most 2D vector-graphic editors and many bitmap-graphic editors. They often do aspects of the other. At the lowest level, a vector-graphics editor may be able to include bitmaps as a background and crop them. On the other hand, many bitmap editors draw vector lines and add text formatted with vector-graphic fonts.
The key difference is how the images are stored
Where there is a clear dividing line is what happens to the vector information when the image is saved to a file. If the vector data is converted to a bitmap format then the program is a bitmap editor. If the program stores the vector data then it can be included in this category. So the range of supported graphic file formats is a key consideration in rating vector-graphic image editors.
The typical place where vector graphics and bitmap graphics are stored together are compound formats. You are probably familiar with what are primarily document formats. Typically, the graphics are embedded within the format and may be able to be manipulated or edited by a drawing component of an application:
- PDF (Portable Document Format), the most widespread format.
- word-processing and desktop publishing (DTP) formats e.g. Microsoft Word DOC and DOCX.
- PostScript page description language, which is mainly used for printing, and EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) which is essentially PostScript with a preview image included.
- Flash animations.
Specialist editors are not reviewed here
I have deliberately excluded the following types of vector-graphic editor because they all deserve their own specialist reviews:
- flow-chart and diagram editors
- animation editors
- online editors
- 3D editors
What are important features
I will use the following list of technical features as the basis for evaluating each product. Other features that apply to any software (like local and online help, tutorials, and support) are not in this list.
Basic editors should be small and fast and easy to use for quick jobs or small, simple images. You may find that the drawing component of an office suite is sufficient:
- simple transformations like resize, rotate, and flip.
Advanced editors should have important features like:
- advanced transformations for masking
- print colour management although this is becoming less important as publishing moves to the Web
- support the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file-format
Inkscape is an excellent program that hardly appears to have changed for years. It works like a dream on Linux and that is where you should run it if you can as it has a long history of issues on Windows. Having said that my experience in recent times has been entirely positive as the user interface is easy to use and more consistent then most competing editors.
Inkscape has W3C-standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) as the native file format. It doesn't support all SVG features and people will keep complaining about that for years to come. What it does have are sufficient features to realistically compete with fuller-featured paid products like Illustrator, Freehand and CorelDraw. Plus it avoids many of their quirks and frustrations. Its features include shapes, paths, text, markers, clones, alpha blending, transforms, gradients, patterns, grouping, editing Creative Commons meta-data, editing nodes, layers, complex path operations, bitmap tracing, text-on-path, flowed text, direct XML editing, opening the vector file formats of SVG, SVGZ (gzipped SVG), PDF, and Adobe Illustrator (.AI), saving to the same formats except for .AI (as Illustrator opens .SVG), and imports most raster formats (JPEG, PNG, TIFF, etc.) but only exports PNG bitmaps.
Development seems to move at a crawl - in four years I can't tell what has changed and Inkscape still doesn't support SVG filter effects, animations, and SVG fonts. Nevertheless, I didn't miss anything at it is very comfortable to use. That usability is also enhanced by a much improved website with many useful resources including an impressive set of tutorials. They should be sufficient to help users free themselves from the limitations of digital image and photo editors.
DrawPlus Starter Edition (SE) is a drawing and graphics program that enables you to create vector graphics, family trees, room layouts web animations, brochures, and ISO format drawings. It is one of a suite of products that I have had many positive experiences with. Of them all DrawPlus SE is my favourite and in my latest tests I had a lot of fun with it. I had so much fun that I forgot that this software is feature-limited. I soon remembered whenever I tried to use a feature that is not available in the free version. In each case a window appears with suggestions to upgrade to get the restricted feature. This gets tedious over time particularly when the feature that you want is restricted as indicated by a light red fill on buttons or light red bands for menu options: filter effects, shape connectors, 3D effects, colour management, saving as PDFs, and so on. This still leaves more than half the features available so DrawPlus SE is competitive with most other editors.
Unlike some other users, I'm not bothered that the free program is a major version older (four years) than the paid version - developers are entitled to make a living and I'm just thankful that their products are available for free. You have to register with an active email account so you can receive the product activation code which is required for all versions including the free version.
Again, like Inkscape, the website has also improved. You won't need much when you first start it because the Startup Wizard will guide you when you need it the most, at the start. The Startup Wizard provides a wide range of templates to help with creating files "from scratch". However, this is where you meet the first and perhaps most important restriction that documents are limited to one page so you lose the benefit of many of the multi-page templates. Even so I recommend DrawPlus SE because it is more accessible than Inkscape and it should appeal even to basic users.
The remaining products don't appear to be actively developed or supported ...
... but you might find something useful as there are limited options for free vector graphic editors.
Microsoft Expression Design development and support were ended in 2012 when Microsoft decided to incorporate other parts of the Expression suite into Visual Studio. I decided to include it here because it is not still very usable particularly if you are a heavy user of Microsoft Office features like WordArt. Expression Design uses the same EMF files as WordArt. That is also why Expression Design lacks some features. Two examples are the limited text effects and limited shapes without a star. These features are provided through WMF and EMF file compatibility with the other Microsoft drawing tools.
The screen shot is doctored to show a design with the bottom half in wireframe mode and the bottom half in preview mode. In reality you get one or the other.
InsightPoint has a non-standard interface and looks rather unrefined. It is unusual in requiring the use of a move tool to move an object - usually you click on it and move it while holding the mouse button down. It is also limited to page sizes under A3. However it has a wide-range of capabilities that you can preview in the screenshots on the home page.
Creative Docs .NET is unusual in having its own non-standard interface which consists of icons without text. However there is text on lower level menus and dialog boxes. It could have been promising but it has some bugs which are unlikely to be resolved because it no longer appears to be developed or supported. Although the website specifically says it is actively developed there have been no updates since 2011.
Related Products and Links
You might want to check out these articles too:
DrawPlus Starter Edition
Microsoft Expressions Design
Last version 20 December 2012 as Microsoft halted development of Expression and are rolling some components and features into Visual Studio. Requires .NET Framework 4.0.
This software review is maintained by volunteer editor Remah. Registered members can contact the editor with any comments or questions they might have by clicking here.
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