SmartDraw Review: A ‘Visual Processor’ for Windows PC Charts & Graphs

by Reads (7,679)

SmartDraw calls its Windows PC software application a “visual processor.” At its heart, though, SmartDraw is a charting and graphics application, not much different in concept than Harvard Graphics and others of that ilk. Where SmartDraw really shines is in the huge amount of graphic visuals it can produce, together with the loads of options for how these graphics are presented. If you’re making a bar graph, for example, you can turn it into a vertical, horizonal, or 3D chart. There are tons of choices, too, for things like color pallets, fonts and font sizes, and gridlines. The learning curve can be a bit steep, but you’ll probably find the results to be well worth your while.

Product Overview

“A picture is worth 1,000 words.” In almost any case that you can think of, information is easier to understand if it is presented graphically rather than than textually. That’s why you see so many “infographics” in newspapers, magazines, and online articles.

Yet getting information into an attractive and understandable graphic format isn’t always easy. Over the years, many great graphic applications have come and gone. Now that the Microsoft Office Suite contains a moderately good graph and charting capability, other general purpose graphics software has mainly given way to specialized applications such as Visio.

Today more than ever, however, effective communications relies on graphical presentation of information.  Sure, it’s quick and simple to stick basic charts and graphs into a report of PowerPoint presentation — and there’s lots of cheesy clip art available for free or next to nothing.

Yet the truth is that people judge you — and the worth of the information that you’re trying to communicate — not only by what you show them, but how you show it to them.

SmartDraw’s description of its graphic application as a “visual processor” is obviously a take-off on the term “word processor”. A word processor lets you arrange words into a usable format. By implication, then, a “visual processor” would allow you to organize imagery into a usable format.

Smart Draw 2012 is very good at doing just that. SmartDraw comes in several different editions. MSRPs are $297 for the Standard Edition, $397 for the Business Edition, and $597 for the Enterprise Edition, which is the one we are reviewing here. Discounts are also available.

The differences between editions, as you move up the price ladder, represent an increase in features, not content. Each edition has the same content, with more than 70 types of graphics templates including esoteric ones such as crime scene and accident scene reconstruction (possibly of interest to CSI script writers only!).

When you step from the Basic Edition to the Business Edition you get SharePoint support, PowerPoint integration, and a year’s support and maintenance. Whether these features are worth another hundred dollars is your decision, but I suspect that the Business Edition is the one that most people will find most useful, especially those who run home-based or small businesses.

The Enterprise Edition, which is the one we’re reviewing here, adds Visio import, along with the ability to import and export to Microsoft Project. Another feature exclusive to the Enterprise Edition is Automatic Process Documentation. This last feature has very limited use for most consumers and SMBs, although some SMBs might find that it comes in handy for making up employee handbooks and procedure guidelines.

In larger and more complex businesses, though, the ability to document processes and procedures quickly and easily could be a real timesaver. This is particularly true for any company subject to Sarbanes-Oxley or similar regulatory requirements requiring documentation of such things as internal accounting controls.

Performance

We installed SmartDraw from a DVD, which came with no written or PDF documentation. Installation is launched when the disc is recognized. and it’s lengthy due to all of the templates and libraries that are installed. I installed the software on a fairly typical home/small business laptop, a Lenovo T400s. Installation took just over 17 minutes. When completed, the application consumed 2.7GB of disc space.

As the program is launched, the first screen after the small splash screen presents you with a vertical list of all of the types or documents which you can create. Each type of doc is presented in small icon format along with a text description of the category.

Some of these choices have subclasses, meaning that you are presented with options. When you click on the type of document of graphic you want to create, either a submenu or a screen with the different image options will appear. For example, clicking on the bar chart side tab opens a selection of chart types that includes bar, pie, stacked and other chart styles. If you select a bar chart, you are presented with a window offering different bar chart options such as horizontal or vertical charts, or even 3D.

Pretty much every part of the chart or other image you are creating can be customized. You can choose from a variety of color pallets, fonts and font sizes, text orientations, labels, gridlines, and much more.

For charts, the data is usually inputted in the form of a data table. This table can also be created by importing the data from a spreadsheet. The labels for the columns, as well as those for the rows (if the labels exist), are automatically used to label the axis on the chart you are creating, wherever applicable. For example, a pie chart only uses labels for the slices, and as such, only requires a single set of labels. Initially, I found using the data table very confusing. The order in which you label and input rows and columns in the data table has a direct effect on how the graph appears. I found myself constantly moving the order of the labels and data to get the graph I want.

As with almost everything in SmartDraw, once you construct your graph or chart, it is highly customizable. You can change font and font size, the angle at which the labels appear, what the labels actually say, text colors, border colors, fill colors, and so forth. Charts can be rotated to change the perspective, and if you don’t like the original layout (a vertical bar chart, for example), a quick click in the ribbon bar will flip the axis. On a bar graph, you can change the shape and color of bars with a few clicks. The bars can be standard rectangles, cylinders, or even pyramids.

Strangely enough, the abundance of choices is also SmartDraw’s biggest problem. Users need to spend time on making decisions not only between the vast selection of chart types, but also in determining when you need to use the top ribbon menu or the vertical options bar on the left side, for instance.

Conclusion

Should you spend the money on SmartDraw? And if so, on which edition? As with so many things, it all depends. If you’re considering SmartDraw as a replacement for feaures in several other packages with which you’re pretty much satisfied, such as the charting capabilities of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Visio, then the answer is probably no. On the other hand, if you are tired of fumbling between different user interfaces with these already owned applications, you’re likely to appreciate the common interface that exists in SmartDraw whether you are making a bar chart or a timeline.

Likewise, the amount of graphical representation of data which you need to perform will also impact your purchasing decision. If you want complex graphs, even the Standard Edition will provide that.

On the other hand, SmartDraw can be difficult to work with when creating or customizing very complex and detailed graphics. There really isn’t a lot that SmartDraw can’t do, but even with the Help button, it’s not always easy to figure out just how to achieve what’s in your mind’s eye.

Luckily, once you’ve registered SmartDraw, you have access to a considerable number of video tutorials. It’s a good idea to view at least a few of these before undertaking a project. I usually just plug in a second monitor when I’m creating a graphic of a kind I haven’t made before, Then, I run a video when I seem to be getting stuck.

Best of all, you can download a trial copy of the Standard Edition of SmartDraw 2012 from the company’s web site. As far as I can tell, the trial copy contains everything the Standard Edition does, though it often needs to go online and download specific components. If you download the trial version and then decide to purchase the software, you’ll get a $100 discount on the product.

Pros

  • Automatically formats charts and graphs
  • Huge libraries of chart types and color schemes
  • Easy to export a chart or graph into Word, Excel, or a PDF doc

Cons

  • Sheer numbers of features can pose a rather steep learning curve
  • No written or PDF documentation is available from SmartDraw

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