Review: OmniGraffle 2.0

A Mac OS X first grows up: a look at OmniGraffle 2.0 (May 18th, 2002)

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Product Manufacturer: The Omni Group

Price: $60

The Good

  • Superb interface; strong, expanding feature set; excellent user experience; exemplary use of OS X-specific features.

The Bad

  • Compatibility could be a barrier for some pro users.

In recent months, the Omni Group has become a household name among Mac OS X power users as one of the most innovative Cocoa developers in the industry. While still in a critical growth period, OmniWeb 4 - the company's Mac OS X-native Web browsing package - is recognized by the Mac OS X community as a viable competitor to established giants like Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator. Omni has seen an unprecedented adoption of its Web browser, largely due to the increasing desire for software built exclusively for Mac OS X.

At a glance, OmniGraffle 2.0 is -like its sister products- stunningly designed and intuitively arranged. Sharply rendered icons illustrate the functionality contained in the application's standard toolbar, and an Info window contains all the necessary options to manage object and document attributes. Digging deeper, it becomes readily apparent that OmniGraffle is packed with useful and intuitive features.

The main toolbar, conveniently located at the top of each document, includes the digital instruments needed to draw a fluid and aesthetically pleasing flowchart. The developers' solid implementation of Apple's Quartz rendering engine yields not only pristine graphics, but offers a truly graceful workflow. Apple proved with Mac OS X that "live" visual feedback and vector graphics often provide a richer user experience; concrete examples of this include OmniGraffle's ability to live-resize objects, scale objects without loss of quality, and freely slide objects around the workspace. Since Omni's applications are written in Cocoa, they do not work under Mac OS 9 and below; however, this benefits OS X users because they have to deal with holdover elements from the porting process.

The Omni development team built OmniGraffle with a specific and unique vision for the product. Because of this, many veteran users of products like Corel ConceptDraw may feel alienated in the minimalist interface. Omni, however, maintains that its interface increases productivity by carefully organizing tools, and in OmniGraffle 2, they've achieved this goal. The Info window, vaguely reminiscent of a palette from Adobe Photoshop, features a toolbar of its own with a small menu used to select what attributes to manipulate. This may appear to be, at first, an unintuitive interface design, but the clever implementation of a "clone" option remedies this concern by spawning additional Info windows, which can contain various attribute controls.

While it is clear that every feature in OmniGraffle has been implemented elegantly, it is important to weigh the included feature set against its competitors. Using OmniGraffle, a user can chart everything from DNA and chronologies to Boolean logic gates, road trips, office plans, and database schematics. One of the primary competitors to OmniGraffle - ironically a Windows-only application, Microsoft Visio - has a comparable feature set, but a graphically deprived interface. Priced at as much as fifteen times the cost of OmniGraffle 2.0, Visio follows the classic Microsoft philosophy that a complex interface is proportionally powerful - a paradigm that has always been rejected by Apple.

The graphical feedback provided by OmniGraffle improves the overall user experience of the application. For example, the alignment pane of the Info window features a set of six buttons that can be used to manipulate relative alignment; these buttons feature constantly changing icons based on the 'alignment point' setting. An astonishing amount of detail is also included in almost every Info pane; the combination of graphical feedback and useful features makes OmniGraffle version 2.0 feel more like a 6.0 release. As a result, OmniGraffle's unparalleled interface is sufficiently compelling to draw many mainstream design and diagramming professionals to Mac OS X.

Objects in OmniGraffle can be manipulated using AppleScript and stylized with gradients and colors. Comprehensive options include the ability to export files as HTML image maps for use on the Web, auto-arrange and resize objects, group items into layers, and create templates and custom palettes for future use. Files can even be saved as Mac OS X packages with included images bundled inside, another testament to OmniGraffle's integration with Mac OS X. The myriad of supported file formats allows the ability to export any diagram as a PDF, TIFF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, or EPS file. The Export feature can save images for Web users (72 DPI) or optimize for flexible print-ready files.

For users of charting software, seeking freedom from Mac OS 9 or Windows, one can't go wrong with OmniGraffle. Because OmniGraffle serves a relatively small user base, compatibility remains an issue for many professionals, especially those working in Windows or non-Mac OS settings. If cross-compatibility is an issue on a day-to-day basis, customers should consider alternative industry standard products that are more compatible. This remains the only true barrier between niche existence and a widespread adoption for OmniGraffle, if only a matter of simple logistics. Nevertheless, OmniGraffle's extensive set of export options suggests that despite its status as a niche product, wider adoption is forthcoming.

Complex diagramming in Graffle 2; click to enlarge.

Omni Graffle preferences; click to enlarge.

by Nick Aziz and Neal Parikh


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