CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2020 review: Faster, with more AI and added collaboration Review

Maria J. Danford

Since moving to annual updates, CorelDRAW has been getting one or two strong features in each release. In the 2020 release, which costs £299 a year or £599 as a one-time purchase, that includes using machine learning to improve several features. This isn’t an attempt to deliver automatic designs, but […]

Since moving to annual updates, CorelDRAW has been getting one or two strong features in each release. In the 2020 release, which costs £299 a year or £599 as a one-time purchase, that includes using machine learning to improve several features. This isn’t an attempt to deliver automatic designs, but to make designers more productive.

Expert users could turn a bitmap into a vector illustration by starting with PowerTRACE, but there’s usually quite a bit of tedious cleanup to be done on tracings. This tool is now powered by machine learning (and promoted to being a feature inside CorelDRAW rather than a separate app) and although it can take a little time to complete, you get an accurate and detailed trace with lots of detail without having to do any drawing yourself.

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PowerTRACE is now built into CorelDRAW and creates complex vector illustrations from photos.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

If you only have a low-resolution image and you want to blow it up to use in a poster, it’s going to look blurry or have jagged edges; the machine-learning-powered upsampling tool in PHOTO-PAINT uses machine-learning models for the new photorealistic and illustration modes. You can’t add detail that isn’t there, but this can make the difference between the image being unusable and being able to incorporate it in a design. You can also remove JPEG artefacts quite effectively, in a bitmap or as part of tracing a bitmap.

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Resampling the original image in PHOTO-PAINT (shown right) doesn’t add missing detail, but cleans up low-resolution images so you can still use them.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet  

Consumer photo apps have had effects that make your photo look like a Van Gogh painting or comic book art for a while, but the consumer apps don’t give professional designers the controls they need, like the ability to apply the effect to just part of an image — the view through a window, for example — or use it on vector images as well as photos. The new Art Style effects again use machine learning to apply post-impressionist, woodcut and other styles to an image (bitmap or vector) — which you can then carry on working with.

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You can apply funky ML-powered art effects to bitmaps and vector objects in PHOTO-PAINT.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet  

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The new ML-powered smart selection tool created a near-perfect mask of a complex edge from a very rough selection line drawn with a mouse (top). But draw outside the object you want to select and you confuse the ML-powered selection tool so your line becomes part of the mask (above).


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

You can combine this very effectively with the new non-destructive bitmap lens, which lets you add an effect by selecting an area of the image and treating it as a bitmap to which you can then apply bitmap effects. That means you can highlight an area of a photo and use an art effect on it, and if you decide later that you want the effect to apply to a different area of the image, you can move or resize the lens.

PHOTO-PAINT also uses machine learning to refine the outline you draw with the smart selection mask. Make sure to draw inside the object you want to select and you get a near-pixel perfect selection even on difficult edges like hair and feathers; draw outside the object instead and you get a very messy selection that’s hard to clean up because you’ve trained the model wrong.

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It’s also nice to see more of the PHOTO-PAINT effects (now handily grouped in the Effects docker) become non-destructive, so you can apply them to an image and remove them later if they don’t work with the final design.

Fixes and fonts

CorelDRAW is often used as much as a desktop publishing package as it is for illustration — especially for producing brochures, adverts and even more exotic output like car and bus wrap. So it’s nice to see support for multi-level bulleted and numbered lists in paragraph text. And if you use OpenType variable fonts in Windows 10, you can tune all the available settings interactively with sliders and see the results in the design straight away.  

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Change the options in variable fonts and you might not need to include as many font files in the file.


Image: Corel   

Variable fonts are still relatively new, and the most immediate use might be to stretch the width or tweak the weight of a font to fit in the space you have in the design. But it also lets you use a single font file and get the look of several different weights and styles of font, which can significantly reduce file sizes.

There are also a number of small fixes and improvements. Another new shadow tool option applies inner shadows to objects, making it easy to give a 3D effect like a paper cutout. And a new Feather edge blur effect gives you different ways of softening the edges of vector objects with an even or a graduated transparency.

The find and replace tool is even more comprehensive: you can replace anything from a colour to the colour model (so if you need to switch from outputting posters and banners to creating web assets, you can quickly flip from CMYK to RGB), and you can now find and replace fonts throughout a document. Making changes this way is a huge timesaver when you’re doing it late in the design process and you have a lot of objects to work with.

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Comprehensive Find and Replace options make it easy to apply changes across a design.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet      

There’s a tiny feature we love that helps designers take advantage of new features in each release: on the Help menu you can turn on highlights for new options on menus and in panes and dialog boxes.

If you’re exporting a file to PDF, which is very common for getting designs approved (or creating a portfolio to show new customers), you can now automatically trim off the edges of the page outside the main design to reduce the file size. Designers often lay out different versions of design elements in the margins where they’re handy for comparing or swapping into the main illustration. You used to have to remove those and change the page size, which usually meant saving a copy and cleaning it up before making the PDF. 

But this version of CorelDRAW has a lot more options than PDF for easily sharing designs.

Cross-platform collaboration

Corel has done more work on the macOS versions of the applications with this release. As well as the new features, there’s support for dark mode and for the macOS Catalina Sidecar feature that lets you use an iPad as a second display, plus better use of the Touch Bar on Macs that have that for layout and text controls. There’s also much better performance, especially for features that use the GPU for acceleration. We also noticed the speedup in general panning and zooming on large files.

There’s more GPU optimisation on Windows as well, and we noticed that the application opened quicker. The performance improvement is particularly welcome because while Corel says that CorelDRAW is optimised for Windows 10 (especially for touch and pen use), it’s still compatible with Windows 7 and 8. Small commercial design shops are often still running on older systems and aren’t all ready to move to Windows 10. 

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Because there’s still a 32-bit version of the CorelDRAW suite, you can install it on a Windows on Arm device like the Surface Pro X. Large and complicated vector files took a fraction longer to open than on a Core i7 Surface Book, and the lag with some PHOTO-PAINT tools like smart selection masks made them hard to use. That said, we saw a lot of lag with that tool even on a first-generation Core i7 Surface Book and tools like Symmetry and Gaussian blur ran quickly and with no hiccup.

There’s also the web app, CorelDRAW.app, which has gained more features since last year. It’s certainly impressive that you can draw with Bezier points in a browser app, but the focus is much more about being part of the new collaboration and review workflow.

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Add comments in the CorelDRAW desktop app and the people you invite to the web app can see them and reply without needing their own licence for CorelDRAW.app.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet       

When they’re ready to show a file to a client or customer, designers can annotate it with comments in CorelDRAW if they have specific questions they need answering, send it to the Corel Cloud using an Office 365 or G Suite account, and share it with anyone who needs to review or approve the design. The idea is that you don’t need to send a screenshot or expect everyone to have CorelDRAW on their system, or have a CorelDRAW licence; instead, they can open it in CorelDRAW.app where they can reply to the questions, mark the design up with their own comments, circle anything they’d like to see changed and come back later to see the finished version.

Designers can also place text boxes with the correct font and text size where colleagues are supposed to be able to fill in with the text they want to see — so they know whether the words fit and what they will look like. That could be anything from ad copy to an executive or financial analyst filling in the expert guidance that goes next to a chart in a financial report.

Theoretically, this should save a lot of time and mailing back and forth of large files for every design review cycle, especially as the app works on smartphones and can be installed as PWA. In practice, though, we found it only works smoothly if everyone has a CorelDRAW licence that lets them use all the web app features. If not, it quickly becomes confusing and frustrating.

Yes, you can choose what level of access people get: Viewers can look at designs and save them as a watermarked PDF; Reviewers can leave comments and add annotations (to make it clearer what the comment is about); and once you’ve made changes, and switched the design status to ‘request approval’, Approvers can sign it off. None of them can make changes to the underlying image, and if you want to use any of the additions made to the design in the web app back in your original artwork, you can export them as PNG, JPG or SVG. Handily, you get email notifications when the people you invite leave comments or mark up the design, and they get notifications when you reply to a comment. It’s all much easier than getting six different sets of comments and annotations by email.

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Sharing designs from the CorelDRAW web app lets you assign appropriate roles, although a bug currently means doing this twice.


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But if you send the link to someone who doesn’t have a Corel account with the right subscription, they need to use a guest login (which the sign-in screen doesn’t make clear), which makes them fill in their email address again then sends them a link that’s valid for an hour, can be clicked only once and doesn’t let them fill in text in the placeholder boxes. Corel is about to fix a bug that meant guest users could only see the image but not the comments, meaning the designer had to set reviewing permissions twice. Hopefully another issue that we found will be addressed: you can’t sign in as a guest with an email that has ever been used for a Corel account in the past unless it has a current qualifying licence.

A future release may also address the absurdly byzantine process of sending someone an email with a link that sends them another email with a link, because the awkwardness of this makes CorelDRAW.app slightly less useful for sharing designs with customers and clients than we were hoping, as they’re unlikely to have the right licence.

It will still be useful for design approval within an organisation, assuming they have an enterprise licence, or if the sign-off comes from a design manager who also uses the software (but is away from any computer where they could just open the design in CorelDRAW to look at it). However, it’s not the seamless collaboration it could be, and we hope Corel will be able to make the guest access fully functional and much easier to use, because this cloud collaboration ought to be one of the major features of this release.

In fact, Corel thinks it’s useful enough that as part of its COVID-19 response it’s letting anyone with a CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2019 or 2020 licence use CorelDRAW.app without needing the usual subscription until the end of May, to make remote work easier.

Conclusions

The web collaboration process has some teething troubles and needs to become more fluid and less intrusive for the people from whom designers want to get input and receive comments, but it has a lot of potential. The other improvements this year remove some frustrations, add some extra creativity and keep CorelDRAW a powerful option for both image editing and illustration.

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