Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Manga Studio 5 EX - first impressions

Manga Studio 5 EX was released last week and, having used version 4 EX (which I reviewed here for MacWorld) every day for the last four and a half years, I was keen to get my hands on the new version. The upgrade from version 3 to 4 had been a great pleasure, so I had held on for the pro EX version, which included the story management features I use to keep myself organised. What I found was, to put it mildly, a mixed bag.

MS5 EX isn't really an upgrade. It's a completely different program. Earlier versions were a westernised version of Celsys Comic Studio. The new version is a different program - Clip Studio.

Sadly, it has not been localised very well. Menu options are sometimes offered in a lousy pidgin English that, while close to comprehensible, still leave one in doubt.  Were this version of Manga Studio a masterpiece of usability, I don't think this would matter. But it's not. It's a melée of menus, submenus, optional customisations, and interface contradictions so gnomic that one is frequently sent into the seven-fold preference menus to try and right things.

Herein lies the contradiction that makes the struggle seem somewhat worth it - at the heart of the madness is an excellent program with which to draw comics. The pen tools are, largely, better. They can be tweaked to your heart's desire. There are new perspective rulers which make a mockery of MS4's fiddly version (though these are retained for those who are used to them). There are a myriad of new colouring features which will please anyone who doesn't want to colour in Photoshop. Huge paper sizes are now available if you need them. It feels snappier. The manual is 650 pages long,  I'm sure that there is plenty more iceberg underwater.

But on trying to draw a comic with the ease I did in Manga Studio 4, I came across several issues that meant I couldn't. I list these merely as a caveat for other upgraders who may be thinking of switching. Such is the nature of the program that, given four or five hours of tweaking, you could probably make it behave the way you want it to - but it seems almost cruel of SmithMicro to offer this software out of the box with so many indiosyncratic differences from its predecessor. Here are ten things that drove me crazy:

1. The pen and pencil cursors are the same. So if you switch between the two with your shortcut key, as I do all day long, you can't tell immediately which one you're using. Of course, should you wish to draw with a pastel, that has its own cursor. Perhaps the pastel lobby is more powerful than the pencil lobby.

2. Correction has been taken out of the pen menus. Good luck digging the mess it is now out and reinstating it. One of the best features of MS3 & 4 was that if you turned correction right up to 20 and drew a stroke, it was a straight line with a variable width based on how hard you pressed down - as if you'd drawn a nib line with a ruler. Now, no matter how you tweak its numerous settings, the super-corrected line shrinks to a razor-thin line. If you relied on that feature to quickly draw lines, you won't be doing that any more.

EDIT: I worked out how to make it work like it used to. Click the spanner (bottom right) to bring up tool settings. Select 'correction' from the menu on the left. Click the check box (the little eye) so the 'post correction' option is visible on the tool menu. Check 'bezier curve' only under that. You'll now get straight, relatively uniform lines like MS4 when correction is switched on.  Feel free to play with the other settings - bezier curve is the one that restores the familiar behaviour.

3. Instead of numerical sliders to change settings, some options are represented by a series of slightly different grey blocks. Good luck remembering which grey box you clicked, and what numerical value it denotes.

EDIT: You can change this. CMD-click on the blocks, select 'show slider'.

4. The straight line and shape drawing tool, panel ruler tools and ruler tools are all under one icon. I found them eventually. Panel cutting was a very neat and tidy operation in version 4, but it's reverted to the complicated setup I think I remember from version 3, generating nested folders and masks. I don't know why. Perhaps someone knows why.

EDIT: You can turn the nested folders off (you'll still get one big nested folder) - in the tool properties for "divide frame folder", select "not change". Not change! Now, when you chop things up, all the artwork is behind one mask.

5. The layers palette has been broken into two separate entities. The relationship between these two is as complex and delicate as the relationship between those four organisms that make up the Portuguese Man O War. And as difficult to understand. Remember when there was a button to make your pencils into a blue line? Now, merge a couple of layers, one blue-lined, and things become very complicated very quickly.

6. Remember the old square eraser that you could turn to an angle? And it was big when you zoomed out and small when you zoomed in? I'm sure you can restore that but after an hour of trying, I gave up.

EDIT: If you want a square eraser (I couldn't work out how to easily angle it), select eraser, go to tool property, select brush shape, click 'material', look for a brush called 'small', it's a square.

7. Everything is set to anti-aliased. Set aside some time to really enjoy putting things back to 2-bit.

8. There are a lot of new pencils, but they look and feel different to the MS4 pencil. You can import your old pencil, but it doesn't look the same. I'm sure this is something I'll get used to, but it would have been nice to have had the option. You can import all your old tools from MS4 if you wish, but the results are a mixed bag.

9. Saving and organising your page templates has gone from placing them in one simple menu by saving the page as a template, to having to select a load of layers, make them into material, then place them on a paper template, after digging them out from all the other templates provided.

10. The interface is a huge mess. It's a disaster. I heard complaints over the years that MS4 had an ugly interface. It wasn't beautiful, but it worked, and it was easy to get by with a bare minimum of screen real estate lost. The new version is almost exquisite in its visual bloat.

I don't think this a bad piece of software, per se. It's learnable. But I honestly think that SmithMicro are dishonest in pushing this as the same line of software. Customisable as it is, they could have made at least some concession to their existing users. Out of the box, it is more disruptive than helpful to long term users. For six or seven years, I've touted Manga Studio as software that makes making comics easier and more pleasant. This is the first version I've used that doesn't do that. And that's a shame.