Review: iCalamus

How would you like it if a developer created an application that could compete with QuarkXPress 7 and InDesign CS3? And all for 129 Euros? I bet you would be running to the store to be the first to buy that software. Well, I have bad news for you, iCalamus costs 129 Euros, but it is far from a replacement for InDesign nor QuarkXPress. And to be honest, the developer is very clear about that. So, waht can you expect from iCalamus?
You can expect a well written application that allows you to create layouts as you would in QuarkXPress and Indesign, but with a lot less functionality. That raises a problem: why would you buy iCalamus at 129 Euros if you can spend that amount and get the whole iWork ‘08 suite, including Pages, with which you can create layouts just as well?

That’s a very good question, indeed. My answer is that you don’t need iCalamus if you are only going to create very simple layout designs — not too flashy business cards, letter heads, basic brochures. Even better: Pages comes with a full-blown PDF-format, printable manual, explaining all the features and how to create your own templates. iCalamus comes with a Help file that has all the basics covered, but doesn’t explain you — for example — how to create type on a path (I found out you can’t).

iCalamus only opens… iCalamus documents. There is no support for importing documents from InDesign, QuarkXpress or an older layout application. The reason is stated on the iCalamus web site: “Honestly: What do you expect for 129 EUR? – You can save documents from these programs as PDF or in the usual exchange formats for text, images and vector graphics and import or place them in iCalamus.”

Export capabilities are skinny too, with PDF and half a dozen image formats as the only formats supported. No RTF in the list, no way to get your text out of iCalamus. Luckily, placing text is possible.

Now on the bright side of things, iCalamus does offer more flexibility than Pages ‘08 in terms of design capabilities. For example, you can create shapes that hold text. After a bit of experimenting, I found this feature to be a very nice addition that you don’t get in Pages ‘08. With a bit of creativity, you can make text flows that have odd shapes, and it’s all well designed in interface terms. There is also a very nice and easy to use vector path / masking feature.

However, is that enough to buy the application? I really don’t know. I think the idea behind iCalamus is great, the software looks good, works well, and is user-friendly, but there’s little to convince that you would need iCalamus instead of immediately taking the plunge and buy InDesign or QuarkXPress instead.

iCalamus falls short in important areas. I can live with the limited import and export capabilities, but I would love to see more printing functionality, such as built-in colour management (not standard ColorSync), the ability to print separations, etc. And don’t tell me the target audience of iCalamus doesn’t use these features anyway; take a look at the iCalamus web site and you’ll see why I won’t buy that.

So, I am not convinced that a layout designer, not even a beginner or a serious amateur, would need iCalamus. While it has some excellent features, it lacks basic requirements, and that makes it a difficult application to say something conclusive about. I gave it 3 cubes because of its potential and for what is there already. But I believe it should be more clear cut that iCalamus is indeed a layout program that is not an island and which would more clearly sit between Pages ‘08 and the heavyweights.

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