Serif WebPlus X4

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Sally Wiener Grotta & Daniel Grotta
PC World
Thursday, October 29, 2009; 12:19 AM

Selecting a Web site design program can be daunting. You could choose either an easy-to-use application that straightjackets you with templates that allow little or no customization, or a professional program that has a steep learning curve and demands lots of technical expertise. Firmly in the middle ground, however, is Serif WebPlus ($100), from the company that produces the desktop publishing program PagePlus; it helps you create an attractive, dynamic, and highly customizable Web site without having to use HTML coding, JavaScript, or the like. The newest version, WebPlus X4, ups the ante on sophistication, while improving its accessibility.

On the surface, WebPlus X4 is a template-based, wizard-driven, drag-and-drop program. But under the hood, we found lots of controls and options. Experts can start a site from a blank page and even edit in code, if they wish. For the rest of us, the Create New Site from Template wizard has 50 design templates in six categories (plus five additional templates when you register).

We found no barriers to fully customizing our site, even when we started with a template. Each template has several types of pages already developed, such as Home, Gallery, Products, Contact, Article, or Links. Checkmarks select the pages for your initial Web site design; you can add or delete pages as you work, too. Choose from numerous color schemes, or use the new versatile Color Scheme Designer to design your own. As you work, a How-To panel next to the vertical toolbar keeps Help at your fingertips (or it can be collapsed out of your way). For more guidance, the new Learning Zone on the Startup splash screen has direct links to video and PDF tutorials, and to Support (the User Guide, Serif's online support, and user forums).

At the bottom of the main workspace is the new QuickBuilder Bar, which makes some of WebPlus X4's most powerful features comparatively quick and simple. Drag and drop any of the QuickBuilder tools--Text Frame, Image, Flash, Navigation Bar, Page, Photo Gallery, or Smart Object--onto your page, and it will open up a dialog or wizard for placing that object (such as an animated slide show) right onto your page. The Navigation Bar icon offers a nice range of customization, which results in a Java or Flash navigation bar of the kind we used to spend hours trying to code and then troubleshoot.

Smart Objects are Web gadgets that are hosted by Serif's own Web server. (You get 18 months of free Web hosting when you buy WebPlus X4. However, Serif assures us that if you choose another company to host your site, Serif will continue to support your Smart Objects indefinitely for free.) An example of a Smart Object is the new Resource Booking that creates a page in which visitors to the site can reserve a table in a restaurant, a conference room in the office, a seat at a concert, etc. Another is the Content Management System (CMS), which allows you to set up your site so that it can be edited online (by authorized users). In this way, the site owner can rewrite text, update information, add or replace photos, and so forth, without needing to work within WebPlus. Other Smart Objects can add a blog or forum, a signup for a newsletter, and other interactive functions.

Other new features include customizable tables and calendars; Boolean commands (Add, Subtract, Intersect, and Exclude) for combining drawn objects and text into complex shapes; the newly integrated Photo Lab for editing pictures; and dynamic guide snapping. Serif has partnered with Google so you can embed Google Maps into your site, attempt to generate income with Google Ads, or sign up for Google Analytics to analyze who is visiting your site.

Numerous existing features are enhanced, such as the ability to apply multiple Master Pages to a single Web page, and making an embedded YouTube video high definition or full-screen mode. Text handling is improved, with an expanded choice of import converters, and better control over how text fits a frame. Text and pictures can now be more easily aligned, with options for having the image inline with the text. However, we found it difficult to place the picture exactly where we wanted within a text box because it is controlled in a menu by pixel dimensions; you can't simply drop and move the image where you want.

To take advantage of all of WebPlus X4's power, you'll have to spend some time exploring the many options behind its apparent drag-and-drop simplicity. Nevertheless, for users who want to have a sophisticated, professional-looking Web site but who aren't professional coders, Serif WebPlus X4 delivers tools that nontechies can master.

--Sally Wiener Grotta & Daniel Grotta


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