Early Review: MadCap Blaze


blaze-logo.pngYesterday MadCap released the first public beta of Blaze — a new authoring tool for creating printed output. Blaze is targeting to compete in the same space as Adobe’s Framemaker application.

I’ve seen Blaze in action during a demonstration done by Sharon Burton, seek MadCap product manager. During that demonstration, purchase she showed us some things that I was really excited about, sale but wasn’t sure I was allowed to talk about. (As a MadCap MVP, I occasionally get to see some things that require me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I wasn’t sure if what I saw in the demo was covered by the NDA, so I decided not to say anything.) Now that Blaze is in beta, I feel like I can talk about what I saw.

Now I have to admit that when I was “watching” Sharon’s presentation on one computer, I was busily working on another computer trying to meet a deadline, so I didn’t give the presentation my full attention. Maybe because of that, when I installed the beta of Blaze yesterday, I wasn’t ready to be wowed.

Blaze wowed me.

I know that Blaze and Flare share the same code base, so I expected Blaze to be a watered-down Flare 3. It’s not. I’m still working my day job, so I haven’t had a ton of time to churn through all of Blaze’s new features, but I’m really impressed with what I’ve discovered so far. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Direct publishing to PDF
  • Topic Review capabilities
  • Master Page Layouts
  • Layout modes in XML editor (with zoom view)
  • PDF Preview
  • Reports in Blaze
  • Project Zipping

I’ll treat these one by one below. Again, a general disclaimer, I haven’t spent tons of time putting each of these features through the ringer; and these are just the ones I discovered while tinkering, (not reading any documentation on these features).

Since Blaze features are a sub-set of Flare features, you can safely assume that what makes it into the Blaze final release will make it into the Flare 4 final release. But there is always a chance that some of the features that are in the Blaze beta won’t be in the final when it is released for sale.

Direct publishing to PDF

This feature alone is enough to make me upgrade to the next version of Flare. The first thing I did after installing Blaze was to manually convert one of my Flare projects into a Blaze project (there is no Flare importing tool because if you have Flare you won’t need Blaze). I knew that my master pages wouldn’t work the same way in Blaze, so I spent a couple of minutes creating a master page for my Blaze project, then I published to PDF.

I was astounded at the results. MadCap has fixed several problems I was encountering when I published my Flare projects to Word (a requirement in Flare 3 and older in order to get PDF; To publish directly to PDF in earler versions you had to have Framemaker or Word installed. Flare created a Word/Frame file and let Word/Frame take care of the PDF creation). When I publish my Flare 3 project to Word, there are several post-processing steps I have to do in order to make my content look the way I want to. These have been fixed in Blaze, and my output looked stellar. I didn’t get everything right on my master page layout the first time, but I don’t expect to. It took me several hours of fiddling with my Flare master pages to get exactly what I wanted in my output, so I expect to spend comparable time in Blaze getting the master pages to do exactly what I want.

page-numbering.pngI noticed that my page numbering was off in my Blaze output; it turns out that MadCap has updated what I thought was a bug in earlier versions of Flare: you couldn’t set your page numbering settings on the topic in the TOC. You had to do this in the master page. Blaze now has a pages setting in the properties setting for a topic in the TOC. (Blaze calls the TOC an outline. Outlines in Blaze are TOCs in Flare. I asked Sharon about this during the Blaze demo, and she said that there were no plans to change the terminology in Flare, so if you are trying to learn Flare and Blaze, you’ll need to know that there are some areas where Blaze and Flare share functionality, but have different terms to describe the functions.) This is exciting, as now I won’t need to have separate master pages when I want to change the numbering options in my document.

Anyway, the direct to PDF option knocked my socks off. I’m absolutely thrilled with this feature. I can’t wait to use it in a production environment in Flare 4.

Topic Review capabilities

Blaze introduces the ability to do topic review with an annotation system similar to comments in MS Word and Adobe PDF files. To review a topic, the user opens the topic in the XML editor, then changes to Review mode.

review-mode.png

I can add annotations about a topic, which are stored in the XML itself. The difficulty for me in using this feature is that I couldn’t find an easy way to add an annotation. I discovered that you are supposed to right-click to add an annotation, but I’d like to be able to click and start typing (since you are in review mode, it’s not like you can do editing anyway; this would be kind of like how Word tracks changes). Finally I found the add annotation button on the tool bar, but this took me a long time.

If your reviewers don’t have Blaze or Flare installed, MadCap is introducing a new product called X-Edit Express — a free tool your reviewers can use to review, make suggestions and light edits, and submit back to you. All my SMEs can install X-Edit Express, and I can use Blaze/Flare to submit the file to them for editing. They open it in X-Edit Express, do their review, and click Save. The file will show up again for me as being reviewed. I can open it to see what changes/annocations they made.

X-Edit Express isn’t available for review yet, but I’ll give you my comments on that one once I’ve had a chance to evaluate the program.

Master Page Layouts

Since Blaze is a product for print documents, users need a solution for creating high quality master page layouts that might have multiple columns, or different layouts across different pages. In short, to compete with FrameMaker, Blaze needed to provide great control over page layout.

I love the new Master Page Layout editor. I haven’t spent a lot of time working on this page, but I think it seems very powerful, and I can see how this would allow me to create some very high quality printed output. The possibilities here are endless.

Layout modes in XML editor (with zoom view)

layout-options.png

The Blaze XML editor includes the ability to look at your document using the Print layout. This basically means that you see your content using the printed master page already applied. You see your headers, footers, and columns (if you have multiple columns on your master page).

The Print Layout mode includes a zoom view which provides a view like FrameMaker or QuarkXPress users are used to seeing with your rolling page layout, which allows you to see facing pages while you scroll through the document — while allowing you to edit content. This is an editing mode, not a preview mode. Framemaker users and QuarkXPress users may find this the most comfortable view for editing, as it will look more like what they are used to seeing.

I’ll be interested to see how I like this feature as I’m working in my Blaze and Flare projects.

PDF Preview

The preview feature in the XML Editor (in Flare) has always shown you the the preview based on the primary target. Since my primary target in Blaze is PDF, the preview button generates a PDF of the current document and shows you that. I was impressed.

Reports

reports.pngBlaze (and thus Flare 4) includes a number of reports that you can run on your project helping you identify many things including (but not limited to) the following:

  • broken links
  • bookmarks
  • duplicate styles
  • new style suggestions
  • local styles
  • snippet suggestions
  • topics not in index
  • topics not linked
  • undefined condition tags
  • undefined glossary terms
  • undefined styles
  • undefined variables
  • unused styles
  • unused images
  • variable suggestions
  • … and many, many more.

The MadCap forums were ablaze (pun intended) with complaints when Analyzer was released, saying that the reports in Analyzer should be included in Flare. Well, it looks like many of them will be, based on the Blaze preview.

Project Zipping

Blaze includes a new Zip menu. This allows you to zip all the files in your project into a package that allows you to send your entire project to another user in one compact file. You might use this if you are zipping your project to send it to MadCap support, as part of a maintenance inquiry. I used it to share the project from my dev box to my laptop. I imagine you would also use this if you wanted to send your project off for language translation (which would be easy if your translator used MadCap Lingo for translation).

It’s not huge, but it is a nice feature that I’ve already found use for.

Summary

All in all, there is a lot to like about Blaze. I’ll continue using it and I’ll let you know what gotchas I run into as I’m using it. But based on my inital response, I can’t wait for Flare 4. There is so much that MadCap seems to have gotten right with Blaze. I’m very, very impressed.

(Want to get a sneak peak of Blaze? Go to MadCap’s website to request inclusion in the beta experience.)


3 responses to “Early Review: MadCap Blaze”

  1. Man, direct-to-PDF in Flare is going to be such a relief for me. Fiddling with my printed output after it’s “done” in Flare has is one of the most annoying problems I still deal with using Flare 3.1.

  2. There is so much that MadCap seems to have gotten right with Blaze. I’m very, very impressed. I agree too.

    Compliments are in order when its obvious there are substantial user improvements that have made it in the product….well done…

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