Art without the work. (Instant Artist and Sketcher computer graphics software; ScanPlus B/W 300 PageReader LT scanner) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Robert Bixby
Last month, I told you about Arts & Letters Scenario (Computer Support, 15926 Midway Road, Dallas, Texas 75244), a simple and inexpensive way to have fun with clip art and a generous set of drawing tools. Instant Artist (Autodesk Retail Products, 11911 North Creek Parkway, Bothell, Washington 98011) takes this concept even further. Instead of providing a blank canvas for you to fill, Instant Artist provides eight standard formats (letter, envelope, certificate, postcard, banner, sign, business card, and greeting card) with several predrawn examples in each format. You can alter the existing designs or create your own with free-form art, any of the dozens of clip art objects, or text in any TrueType or Adobe Postscript Type 1 font available on your system. The type styles available include plain and italic (no bold) but also tilted, staggered (at random baselines), and wacky (staggered and tilted at all angles). You can also alter the type's width, color, and outline color.
One problem is that Instant Artist prints registration marks (little crosses to indicate the edge of the card on the paper) when you print postcards and business cards. I found them unnecessary, and there is no way to turn them off.
This month, I also had the opportunity to try Fractal Design Sketcher (Fractal Design, 335 Spreckels Drive, Suite F, Aptos, California 95003).
Sketcher is a gray-scale graphics program that's both ingeniously designed and creatively packaged. Another Fractal Design product, Painter, comes in a paint bucket. Sketcher comes in that staple of sketch artists everywhere, the cigar box. Sketcher supports the Wacom touch-sensitive tablet, but I was able to get great results using just a mouse (Sketcher comes with a special mouse driver).
Sketcher provides the computer artist with a broad range of drawing tools, including pen, pencil, and charcoal. You can also smear with water and erase completely. You have the option of drawing on one of several paper grains. You can cut, paste, distort, and trace. Tracing is a little different from what you might expect. Rather than tracing the contours of a gray scale, it superimposes one drawing on the other so you can trace it, just as if you were working with tracing paper. The program is a complete gray-scale photo studio that lets you take charge of brightness and contrast and even impose a paper's texture on a scanned photo, making it look as if it's been rendered in charcoal on art paper. A gray-scale editing program is perfect for most desktop publishers, since few of us can afford much use of color on the desktop.
On the hardware front, after some months of trying, I finally got my hands on the ScanPlus B/W 300 PageReader LT scanner (Plustek USA, 3350 Scott Boulevard, Suite 46, Santa Clara, California 95054). This scanner is a sheet-fed HP ScanJet-compatible black-and-white 300-dpi scanner specially designed for OCR work. It comes with Calera Wordscan OCR software, which operates in Windows (you can order another package, if you want; Recognita is available, which can read foreign languages and operate under DOS). I normally use ReadRight OCR software, and the Calera product impressed me in two ways. It's very accurate (while somewhat slow when compared to ReadRight). But it is simple to use and has a very intuitive user interface. Once you've scanned material in, you can save it in any one of several word processor formats, including ASCII.
Installation involves nothing more than putting a controller card in the expansion bus of your computer, stringing a cable from the scanner to the computer, and installing the OCR software. The scanner doesn't even require its own power supply. It attaches to the computer via a control cable, and it takes its juice from the expansion bus. The software and hardware performed flawlessly, but remember that a sheet-fed scanner is useless for scanning from bound material. If you only need to scan in sheets of material, the ScanPlus will serve you well.
This scanner currently lacks a paper handler, so you have to feed each sheet in individually, but a paper handler may be added by the time you read this. It's no fun feeding sheets through a scanner, but after typing a book and then scanning a book, I can attest that the process of scanning and using an OCR is much easier (and far more accurate) than typing.