- Unstructured FrameMaker 11 (this review)
- Structured FrameMaker 11 (click to switch)
This is a pretty big upgrade and means that I can’t do all of FrameMaker 11 justice in a single review AND explore all the new features, but I’ll touch on many. Most of my focus will be on the overall interface and ease of use.
I suggest you download a copy and work with it. See how Adobe continues to breathe life back into this flagship product in the technical communication space. It’s also available as part of the Technical Communications Suite, making it (wait for it) a sweet deal (sorry...). For a reasonable price you get a bunch of tools (my personal favourite, outside of FrameMaker of course, has to be Captivate). Read more about the full suite elsewhere, but for now, I hope you find this review honest, light, and informative.
Having worked with the previous 10+ versions (from 3 onwards, plus assorted ‘dot’ releases including the original FrameBuilder and FrameMaker+SGML versions) I’ve seen many interface changes along the way. Some have been minor, some pretty major. The current interface is both familiar enough to use every day, and subtly unique enough that I perform the odd double take. For lack of a better word, the interface feels ‘tighter’ than the previous release. Things are a bit more compact and seem to be cleaner.
The default workspaces are good, but I find any defaults generally need tweaking.
For serious graphics work there is a Object Style Designer, but it’s not a default part of any workspace. Actually, it’s not even a tab group item. Instead, it’s a stand-alone dialog and a bit frustrating as you either have it open, or you don’t. It’s modal which means you better work with it while it’s open, as you can’t move away from it. A bit like the Graphics > Rotate, or the Set Number of Sides dialogs. Relatively minor as far as annoying goes, but it would be great if the Designers (Character, Paragraph, Table, and now Object Style) all functioned in a similar fashion.
So, what is my final verdict on the interface? It’s clean, crisp, and uses Workspaces that I don’t actually use much or like. However, I still love the interface. Why? Because I can create my own and this is what I do.
I have a few tweaked and tuned workspaces. I have my own for DITA Author and another for DITA Review. I have some for Book Writing and Image Work. I’ve been given the chance to set my preferences, and use them as I want. This means the software does what I want, not what a developer decided. This is the ideal as far as I’m concerned. So, for the record, I’m a fan of the Workspace function, but do set things up for yourself and move beyond the defaults provided.
The options to assign specific menu combinations to a given workspace also exist. This means you can tweak the menu options to show or hide options based on a workspace. Imagine having a dedicated workspace for images in which the Table menu is not visible. Or a workspace in which some of the options in the Structured menu are hidden. On a larger implementation of FrameMaker this means you can control the menu items. While it’s not a simple process, it is repeatable, and based on files that can be transferred between computers. A single administrator could therefore configure a FrameMaker installation and apply the standard settings across an organization. While this feature isn’t something that I’ll personally use, I can see where some clients may really take advantage of the option to customize workspaces and menus based on the job at hand.
One last wish. The toolbar icons could use a splash of colour. Right now they follow the same grey that we see in a LOT of Adobe tools. Not sure why (colour shouldn’t cost more, right?) but I liked colour icons. Makes it easy to spot the one I like, and to spot it quickly.
For years I've gone to File > Preferences > whatever. This then leads to many options and most are set once. It was a bit of a headache to set it up as I would go back and forth on options. Now, I go to Edit > Preferences. You may be thinking "wow, they changed a menu, big whoop...", but the menu change is not the end of this update.
There are a lot of great things in the new setup. For starters, we have 9 sets of preferences in a single dialog. This is much faster to work with. We also have a lot of good stuff in there, but you can explore it on your own. To do so, remember to choose Edit > Preferences.
A few of my personal issues in the preferences setup (writing that makes me feel very, Very, VERY geek) are the options for Spelling > Dictionary that support either Hunspell or Proximity. They sound cool, but I have no clue what the difference is. This would be ideally documented right in the dialog.
The same issue of “I have no clue what this means” applies to the Global > Panels and Pods preferences. Some inline documentation of these options would be fantastic.
Again, this is a one time configuration for most people. In most cases the defaults are totally adequate, so don’t worry about changing them unless you have a reason. The product perfectionist in me though is really wondering how far that can be pushed. Give me the details on the complex stuff right now, and put it right in front of me, but only when it’s needed!
The ongoing tweaks to the interface have left me giving up on a few things like standard shortcuts. In the past three versions I’ve had to press the Alt key and use different options more than I’ve wanted to. I understand that there are changes to the application, but is it too much to ask that the Alt keys on my Windows install stay the same? I understand that Windows may assign defaults, but it would be nice if they got replaced with the same set that I’ve used with different versions of FrameMaker over the years.
If you want to skip the detailed complaining about this, just move past the indented text. Not all of this is directly in Adobe's control, but there is a way that it can be configured, and I'd like to see that as a standard moving forward.
On to my next gripe. For anyone who ever uses the Format menu and dreads hovering over the Font option for fear of the mother of all popup screens... no luck. It’s still there. Maybe a grouping of the fonts as an option (for example, add a “group fonts by family” so that all fonts in the Adobe, Arial, Courier, Kozuka, and all other groups are under a single main callout OR maybe just 26 characters for fonts in group A, B, C, and so on) would be a step forward. Fix up this little interface issue to make my life a bit easier if I use menus and a mouse.
For some people this may be considered the greatest thing ever, but I see it as minor, but nice. I often build documents for clients and get all kinds of weird commentary to try and describe where content is. The new line number feature (Format > Document > Line Numbers) is a neat little feature. I’d love to quickly toggle them on/off with the View menu as well, but the general function is a good one. This feature is good for anyone who has to be involved in document review and needs to move beyond “it’s on page 17” to the specifics of “it’s on page 17, line 28.
A few shortcuts that I rely on include the F8 and F9 keys. In previous versions these would display quick access to character (F8) or paragraph (F9) tags. Great feature. It used to be that the tags were buried in the bottom on the left of the screen. Now they appear inline based on where the insertion point is. Very similar in feel to the click of the secondary mouse button and seeing a menu where you click. Nice touch Adobe. They also extended this into a lot of other places, including working with structured content. Again, nicely done. Makes it a lot faster and easier to work with template or structure based materials.
All that being typed, the biggest pain that this presents is on first time use. When I launch the application and use my F8 or F9 shortcuts I wonder if I pressed anything at all. The lag can be up to 30 minutes (well, not that long, but wow it seems like it's taking a long time). Not sure if that is my system, or common, but other reviewers have noticed this. Still, once it's out of the way, this works very fast.
Okay, enough of the yapping. What’s my conclusion on the unstructured product? Well, the changes are relatively minor here and nothing jumps out as a huge leap forward. It’s still pretty much the same as it was in both versions 9 and 10. If I take away a bit of my grumbling about the interface and get to the core of it, this is what I’ll commit to:
I like the interface in 9, 10, and 11, but it took some getting used to. The first few hours drove me a little crazy, just like Windows 7 did. However, once I got working with it, identified the issues, and resolved the workflow, it’s pretty decent. I love the idea of the workspace, even if it’s not exactly what I want by default. I can customize and tweak to my hearts content in a lot of areas.
The issues I have are relatively minor on this, and the application seems to do what I require. It generally does what I want, when I want, and how I want, and that’s the sign of good software. One or two more versions with a few more interface tweaks and I think it’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to seeing if/how it’s going to run on Windows 8 as well. That’s going to be the next big challenge I have to address on the interface side of FrameMaker 11. Here’s hoping that Adobe has been playing in that sandbox too.