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Which Signmaking Software Should You Own? -
by Mark Rugen (www.givemehelp.com)

Publisher comment about this article It is shared for you by Sean Scott, president, SignIndustry.com. Although written for printers, by Mark Rugen (author), I felt it worthy of printing for the 10,000 dealership people that read Dealer Communicator

Deciding which software to purchase for your sign making needs can be a difficult task. We'll outline a few of the softwares out today and help you to decide which one best fits your business.

We are the #1 training experts for FlexiSIGN, Photoshop, Color Management, Large Format Printers, Seal Laminators and much more!

There are many factors to include in your decision such as, your budget, the type of signs you intend to make, the kind of hardware such as cutters and printers you want to run and of course the difficulty in learning the feature set of the software. Other factors include your personal skill set, and what the reseller will offer you in addition to the software purchase. Will you be using the software yourself or will you hire someone to do the design and production? Are you just starting out in the business or is this a shop growth decision?

What's Out There? I did a pretty thorough search of the Internet to find what software is available in the market and came up with quite a few. Although we can't review them all, I've placed each of them into one of three categories:
1. Shareware / Freeware / Trialware
2. Bridge or Entry/Mid Level Commercial
3. High End/High Production Commercial

Needless to say, I was exhausted by the variety of software that is available. In this series of articles, I am also placing each of these findings in a recommended category based on the needs of a sign shop:
1. Entry Level
2. Intermediate Level
3. Advanced Level

I am certain that I missed a few programs and have placed some in categories with which the manufacturer may disagree. As such, I recommend that any choices you make be investigated further with the manufacturer or reseller of that software.

Shareware/Freeware/Trialware
One approach to "selling" software is to allow the user a free copy of a lite version of the software, or a full copy of the software for a limited time. Some programs are truly free, while others are full versions with limited options. Reviewed here are those that do not require a dongle or security key. I found several programs that seem worth reviewing.

NCS SignofNCS 3.0 www.magisign.com (Macintosh Freeware):
NCS developed SignofNCS from 1995 as the first plug-in for Adobe Illustrator dedicated to sign makers. The current version SignofNCS 3.0 runs from the version 5.0 to the version 7.0 of Adobe Illustrator and drives around 300 models of cutting directly from a dialog inside Adobe Illustrator.

In June 2000, NCS introduced NCS MagiSign, a completely new product based on the experience acquired through the development of SignofNCS. From April 2001, NCS has offered SignofNCS 3.0 as freeware, meaning anybody is now allowed to download and use it for free.

Meanwhile, They will not provide any support by any way for this product. If ever you want to use this product and need some help, they invite you to register directly with NCS or one of their official distributors. For a fee of $150 USD, you will then receive a complete SignofNCS package, its manual in 6 languages (English, French, Dutch, Deutsch, Italian and Spanish) and some support by e-mail if any required.

SignofNCS appears as a dialog activated through a menu item from the Filter menu of Adobe Illustrator or from the Xtras menu of Macromedia Freehand. SignofNCS is compatible with serial Macintosh (Quadra, II FX,) and serial Power Macintosh (6x00, 7x00, 8x00, 9x00, Performa, G3 beige). Only registered versions are compatible with USB Power Macintosh (iMac, G3 and G4).

Since I don't own a MAC (shame on me) I could not try this software out, but it looks promising (and free) and since there are not many MAC solutions out there I've included it here. This could be considered "bridge" software, which is software that allows desktop design software to output to vinyl cutters or large format printers, but since it was free I placed it in the freeware section.

DahediSign www.dahedisign.com (Windows Freeware/Trialware):
Create your own signs, or cut directly your EPS files on all cutting plotters. DahediSign Software was developed near the beginning of computerized sign making in 1984. Since 1986 users could make sign and output mostly with Roland plotters. Since July 2000 the program was modernized and converted to the Windows environment.

The demo version is free, but limited to 1000 points in a drawing and three lines of text. The vectorizing tools will only function on the provided demo file. The program will work on Windows 95 thru XP. While there are mostly Roland plotters supported, there are also others such as Graphtec, Summa, Ioline, Aristo, Gerber and even a Generic HPGL that can be tried on those not listed. The program can be set up to function in four languages. Setup was easy and the overall functionality was good.

While there is no support for printers, I'd say this is a nice solution for cutting is you need just three lines of text. It will take a bit of practice to learn the program, there is one online example at their homepage, but most who already own cutting software should be able to figure it out. Since the program is made in the Netherlands, its not likely you'll get much support here in the USA, so you're pretty much on your own. You can upgrade to the junior version with all options for 400 EUROS or about $435 USD

Our vectorizing test was limited to the demo file, so we can't comment on how it handles poor artwork, however, the interface for vectorizing was easy to use and worked well on the example. The result was a tight fit. This feature is only available in the upgraded version.

Overall Rating: I would rate this program pretty valuable, but just be aware that there is no support here in the USA and it is limited as freeware.

Vistool 6
www.visualtoolbox.com
(Windows Freeware/Trialware):

Vistool 6 is a 32 bit Multi Tasking Software for Vinyl Cutting, Rotary Engraving, Laser Marking and Laser Cutting. The Download includes, Basic Engraving (Freeware) with 10 fonts and Basic Vinyl Cutting (Freeware) with 50 fonts, these are fully working programs with basic industry functions to get you started. Also in the download is 60 day fully working trials of Vistool 6 Standard Engraving, Advanced Engraving, Advanced Vinyl Cutting with Cut and Print and Advanced Laser Vision programs. These are 60 day fully functioning trial programs.

There is a version of Vistool 6 available for all your Rotary and Laser Engraving, Routing, Vinyl Cutting, Laser Cutting and Profile Milling needs. All Vistool 6 versions can be run on a Peer to Peer or Client Server Network.

The freeware version has limited capabilities but can be useful for basic vinyl cutting. No limits in terms of the number of lines of text, but no vectorizing features or bitmap handling features. The interface is fairly easy to use after playing with it for about 30 minutes.

Output devices include Roland and many others but also include many engravers, routers and a few generic HPGL drivers for those cutters not supported. I found the menus to be a bit confusing, but this is probably conquered with use. Text handling is good, but I could not find any basic effects like outlining other than a drop shadow, although the dynamic text to an arc was very easy to use.

The upgraded version (60 day trial) has many more features including Block Shadows, outlining, bitmap tracing or vectorizing, and smart weed for easy weeding of the final product. Import and export is limited but did include Adobe Illustrator, DXF and HPGL. Training and other help is based in Europe, so not much help here in the USA, although there is also a user message board on the makers' homepage that can be useful. The upgrade to the advanced version is $788 USD, rather expensive.

Overall Rating: An excellent set of basic sign making tools for those on a budget, such as smaller shops or those waiting to set aside money for more robust programs.

Which Sign Making Software Should You Choose? The software reviewed here are for those of you looking for an economic and basic solution. I would not say a sign shop could rely on them for high production, but they could provide temporary relief when a second sign system is needed.

Freeware Sign Making Evaluation Checklist
Questions you should ask before investing in "freeware" sign making software.

  • Does the software support my cutter?
  • Am I looking for a temporary solution?
  • Does the software require a dongle or security key?
  • Will the maker give me support?
  • Does the software have limited features?
  • How difficult will the software be to learn?
  • Can I import/export files to other software?

Mark Rugen is the President of Visual Communications Tuscaloosa, Alabama www.givemehelp.com, a consulting company specializing in the sign trade We are the #1 training experts for FlexiSIGN, Photoshop, Color Management, Large Format Printers, Seal Laminators and much more! More information: www.givemehelp.com

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