Markzware Lands Flightcheck Professional 5.0
We talked to three of Markzware's top beta testers about the new Mac OS X compatible release of this popular pre- and post-flight tool. The say the GUI's still geeky, but the Mac OS X support and buffed-up feature set make this PDF validation tool a must-have upgrade.
Markzware Software recently launched its long-awaited and much heralded FlightCheck Professional 5.0. The latest generation of the company's flagship quality-assurance software for digital publishers offers a host of desirable features aimed at graphic arts and printing professionals.
Topping the list is Mac OS X compatibility, perhaps the feature Macintosh users covet most today. Also new: FlightCheck Professional 5 now scans and validates over 100 file formats, including native application files, PDFs from generation tools (including Acrobat), and accredited file format standards, such as PDF/X-1a, PDF/X-3, Ghent Group, Pass4Press.
An improved drag+drop GUI makes it easier to initiate file validation scans. The GUI also inherits the Mac's Aqua UI style, so FlightCheck Pro 5 just plain looks and works better on OS X. Beta testers say, however, that the user interface could still stand some polish (more on that point later).
An enhanced PDF object model browser allows users to "access virtually any and all intricate details" within a PDF file, Markzware officials say. Users simply go to the program's 'Overview Window' to browse all the objects that make up a particular PDF file.
THE TOOL VS. THE HYPE
There are many new features and benefits Markzware officials say they've packed into this latest FlightCheck release, the fifth major point upgrade in the product's history.
To find out how the software and the company's claims hold up, we convinced Markzware officials to serve up three of their most informed and astute beta testers for PrintMedia readers. We left the choice of users up to Markzware. The beta testers were asked to give us their take on the new FlightCheck Professional 5.
Markzware's Mary Gay Marchese, the effusive director of public relations for the Santa Ana, Calif.-based company, says the firm "enlisted the help of dozens of diverse representatives from the print and graphic arts industries to serve as beta testers."
Among Markzware's dozens of beta testers were three who worked with PrintMedia for the purpose of this preview:
• Brian Frank, digital media specialist for Viva! Communications, an advertising and marketing firm in Des Moines, Iowa.;
• Adam Duran, director of production at the East Bay Business Times, a weekly business journal in Pleasanton, Calif.;
• and Sam Cox, preflight engineer at Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation, a manufacturer of paperboard and paper-based packaging, headquartered in Carol Stream, Ill.
A graphic designer for Viva! Communications, Frank creates everything from traditional print advertising campaigns to Web site designs for major clients such as The United Way of Central Iowa, the Institute for Supply Management, and Central Iowa and Glass Shoppe Imports.
In addition to design responsibilities, Frank performs Photoshop magic, file conversions, preflighting, collecting project file elements for output, and final file transmissions. He's used and gotten used to Markzware's FlightCheck over the past five years, using earlier versions.
"My responsibilities include some of the technical things that designers usually prefer not to do," Frank wryly says. In that way, though, Frank is representative of many graphic designers working in small- to mid-sized graphic design teams, and even in some larger organizations today.
In addition to the creative, artists are increasingly being asked to handle technical work, such as preflighting and uploads. Indeed, Frank's initial exposure to FlightCheck was as a prepress tool for verifying client's digital files, submitted as Quark, PageMaker, Microsoft Publisher or PowerPoint, and other standard (and not-so-standard) formats.
Then as now, Frank uses FlightCheck to scan files for problems with resolution, color space, font discrepancies, and other common and not so common file errors. Files with problems are bounced back to the design team or other source, while 'clean' files are passed on to the printer.
The gains in time and cost savings are obvious to any publishing professional; hence the steady demand for professional preflighting tools from vendors such as Markzware, Enfocus, Creo, Extensis, Agfa, Adobe, Kodak, DALiM, and others.
For Frank, the most important feature of the new 5.0 upgrade is support for Apple's Mac OS X. Viva! Communications migrated to Mac OS X last January, when it began experiencing serious compatibility issues between OS 9 and some of the newer, mission-critical software they'd recently licensed. Frank says Markzware's native OS X support means the new 5.0 version simply performs more reliably, "without glitches," on Mac OS X. Earlier FlightCheck versions could run into compatibility snags common to running older software on a newer operating system.
While the 4.0 version of FlightCheck ran under OS X's 'classic' compatibility mode, the current release is native to OS X, fully supporting the look and feel of the Apple's Aqua user interface design.
FlightCheck Pro 5 also benefits, Frank says, from improved performance that results from running applications natively under OS X. This as opposed to running applications under Apple's OS 9 emulator, an 'OS within an OS' that can cause legacy applications to run slower.
FlightCheck Professional 5.0 also isn't the prettiest Mac app on the block, says Frank, but he'll take good functionality over good looks. The digital media specialist says Markzware's engineers did "a good job" of keeping the application's established work patterns intact.
That means experienced FlightCheck users won't have to re-learn the application. Menus, dialogs, keystrokes and mouse clicks are largely consistent with previous versions.
"The interface, while not the most attractive I've seen, has remained consistent all along, including in this latest release," Frank says. "It was instantly familiar when I first launched it, and I was happy they hadn't made any major changes to [the user experience]. The interface was always a little clumsy, but I'm used to it now, and as long as the application finds the problems I need it to find, I couldn't care less how it looks."
Another feature that distinguishes FlightCheck Professional 5.0 from predecessors: a new 'batch mode' for submitting jobs to the program. Previous versions required users to select a file for validation. With FlightCheck Pro 5, Markzware has added the ability to feed the program a list of files, to be validated in batches.
"This is useful for high-volume operations, [such as] printers and ad agencies, for example," Frank says. "Some of the big agencies, for example, have two or three people who do nothing else but preflight files all day. For us, though, it's not as necessary a function. We're preparing about 10 files a week here, so I'm not typically in a position of needing to preflight more than one file at a time."
When it comes time to upload to Viva!'s printer, Frank directs FlightCheck Pro 5 to validate all the completed project files in a given folder. Files suffering from any one of 150 error conditions FlightCheck tests for are automatically flagged before upload. This takes but a few clicks and a few minutes, Frank says.
DON'T STOP THE PRESSES
Newspapers are among the most time-sensitive publications known to man, let alone the print industry. So it's not surprising that the folks at Pleasanton, Calif.'s East Bay Business Times don't want carefully planned schedules extended due to technical errors in files uploaded to their printer.
Production managers there need to be certain that uploaded files will sail through the printing process, and get to the paper's 30,000 readers at the same time every day. Meeting that goal is the job of Adam Duran, director of production, who beta tested several pre-release editions of FCP5 for 18 months, leading up to the product's launch.
Duran calls FlightCheck and a sister application, FlightCheck Collect! (basically the file collection technology from FlightCheck in a stand-alone edition), "an absolute necessity" for the East Bay Business Times since the publication's launch in 1998. He says the 5.0 upgrade represents some "major strides" forward in the FlightCheck tool.
As with Viva!'s Frank, Duran lauds FlightCheck's new Mac OS X support and batch processing support. "I appreciate the OS X coding, the ongoing support for OS 9, and the ability to collect and preflight multiple documents simultaneously."
Duran also likes FlightCheck 5's support of 'preflight profiles' (essentially named lists of actions to be performed on a group of files and predefined validation actions based on file types (e.g., PDFs can automatically get a different level of attention than, say, Word DOCs).
Also added to FlightCheck Professional 5.0 is the ability to customize validation alerts. Previous versions simply passed or failed a file. Prepress professionals had to go back, fix the reported problems, and re-validate the files to score a 'pass'.
In the new release, operators can set multiple levels of 'caution flags' in addition to a global pass/fail state. This makes it easier to decide whether to pass a file on to the printer, or send it back to the designer or client for more work.
About 40 ads are placed in the East Bay Business Times weekly, and 75% of them arrive as PDFs created by who-knows-what design application. Many have not been validated by their designers, or certified as PDF/X-1a or other advertising industry standards (such as TIFF/IT-P1).
"It's essential that a preflight program understand the colors, images, fonts, and trappings within these files," Duran says. "[FlightCheck Professional] version 5.0 appears to do this with pinpoint accuracy. QuarkXPress, PageMaker, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and even Word are used by our advertisers. FlightCheck [5.0] doesn't seem to miss a beat. It alerts us to problems in all of these file formats, and their contents."
In addition to accepting PDF files from advertisers, almost everything the East Bay Business Times publishes is submitted to their printer as a PDF. The paper is also using FlightCheck Professional 5.0 to scan its new electronic edition, dubbed the 'e-dition', to make sure the correct image mode and compression are used.
The prepress quality assurance checks, an integral part of the paper's documented workflow, "save us hours in productivity each week by streamlining our workflow systems," Duran says. "We don't have the time or money to stop our workflow and fix files late in the game. [By using FlightCheck], we never get those horrific three-in-the-morning prepress calls."
ERROR CONTAINMENT STRATEGY
Sam Cox is preflight engineer for Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation, Carol Stream, Ill., a U.S. manufacturer and global distributor of paperboard and paper-based packaging. The company operates some 260 manufacturing facilities, employing 38,000 employees.
Cox and Smurfit-Stone Container also beta tested FlightCheck Pro 5 from Markzware. Having worked with several earlier, buggier prerelease versions for the past 12 months, Cox is confident the final shipping product is ready for demanding projects in real-world production environments.
So much so, he's signed the p.o. to upgrade his version 4.0 license to version 5. "We're using FlightCheck  to preflight all [customer-submitted] files before they go into our production stage," Cox says.
As with fellow beta testers Frank and Duran, Cox says the upgrade's Mac OS X support is his most sought-after new feature. He's been pestering the company about it for over a year.
Having recently migrated to Mac OS X, Cox kept bugging Markzware for a version compatible with Mac OS X. "They said it was under development," Cox says. "After I nagged them enough times about this and that and various features, they invited me to be a beta tester."
Cox also found FlightCheck's 'collection' function to be a valuable tool for Smurfit-Stone's designers. "Once a job's completed, we run it through FlightCheck, and it gathers all the fonts and images into a single package [for upload]," Cox says. "It saves them a lot of time."
The production team's days are filled with an array of customer-supplied digital files; mostly Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia's FreeHand, Quark's QuarkXPress, and Adobe PDFs; other file formats, such as Word DOCs also arrive occasionally.
Regardless of the file type received, they're scanned for errors on receipt by the preflight operator. They won't be passed on to customer service, according to Smurfit-Stone policy, without first clearing this preflight check.
"We scan all formats [on arrival]," Cox says. "Once a job clears preflight, it's returned to customer service, where the information collected during preflight is compiled, and a work order is written up." Then the job travels to production, and is used to drive plates or film.
Having been through several upgrades of previous FlightCheck versions, Cox expected FlightCheck Pro 5 to pick up where version 4.0 left off. But he also had some specific features in mind, which he wanted to see in the upgrade. After all, Markzware isn't the only preflight tools vendor in the industry.
Competition among preflight tools vendors to land customers like Cox is heated. If FlightCheck Professional 5 didn't serve up the features Cox deemed crucial for a modern preflight file validation tool, he could easily switch to Enfocus, Agfa, Adobe, or some other tool vendor.
Obviously Cox wasn't disappointed in Markzware's response to his feature ideas and requirements. "The previous version [4.0] was an important tool for us," Cox says. "But with our move to OS X, it was important that we have a compatible preflight tool."
The beta test is over. The market test is just getting under way. As with all pre- and post-flight tool vendors, the biggest challenge facing Markzware and its rivals is convincing publishers and printers to invest in preflight file validation tools and time.
While the benefits of avoiding glitches on the way to press appear obvious, the market remains far from saturated. The opportunity for firms such as Markzware and Enfocus, Adobe, Agfa, etc., is great.
Bad content—digital files with bugs that can stop the presses—continues to be uploaded to printers at a prodigious rate around the globe. Before file validation tools can have any benefit, more publishers must first accept the fact that preflight file validation is a required goalpost in modern workflows.
That's certainly the gospel all preflight vendors are preaching. It behooves any publisher to check into the various offerings, including the new FlightCheck Pro 5, and see how well the various products integrate into a robust publishing production workflow.
- Max Lamont