Away from the standard group of office desktop applications ? such as the word processor, spreadsheet, graphics package and database engine ? there is a strong market for products capable of producing technical drawings, flowcharts, organisation diagrams, floorplans and so on. Although there are plenty of titles on the market which can cope with one or two of these tasks, Visio is virtually unique in its ability to handle them all ? and a few more besides.
Version 5.0 represents a major upgrade to the product, and there are now three titles in the Visio range. The entry-level version, previously called Visio, goes by the name of Visio Standard, and is aimed primarily at users wanting to generate business diagrams, flowcharts, project plans, marketing strategies or office layouts.
Visio Technical adds technical illustration features to the standard product. Although not a direct competitor to Autocad, it does allow files from version 13 of that package to be imported and modified. It also provides huge libraries of symbols and the ability to generate electrical schematics and mechanical engineering diagrams.
The third member of the family is Visio Professional, the one reviewed here. It is geared towards the IT professional, and includes features for Web site and network design, in addition to the standard product?s capabilities.
Visio Professional 5.0 is supplied on CD, and will take up a minimum of 15Mb of hard disk space using the compact installation option. This rises to about 110Mb for the full application, complete with all help files, samples and templates. Once installed, launching the program brings up an interface that has clearly been designed with a nod in the direction of Microsoft ? the menu options are where you?d expect to find them and the icons are all familiar. This helps to keep the learning time to a minimum.
Since the Professional version of the product contains all the functionality of the Standard edition, it can be used to create business diagrams in a number of categories, including workflow diagrams and organisational charts.
The process of creating these diagrams is a simple one. You simply choose the pre-drawn image or stencil from the menu at the side of the screen, drag it into the diagram and then move and resize it to suit your requirements. There are thousands of shapes and diagrams to choose from, with more available as add-on libraries.
Objects can be linked together with various properties and, once linked, will stay linked even if they are moved to different locations within the diagram. The program will even tidy up your rough flowcharts into neat, publishable designs with all links intact.
All versions of Visio include plenty of drawing tools, specialist shapes, colouring tools and the ability to import graphical images in a variety of formats, making the creation of quite complex charts a straightforward task.
There are numerous differences, however, between Visio Professional 5.0 and the Standard version of the product. While the Standard version is fine for producing flowcharts, workflow diagrams and project timelines, the Professional version goes much further, adding plenty of features that are likely to please IT managers and Web developers in particular.
For example, it is easy to automatically create a schematic diagram of a Web site, showing how pages are linked to each other. It is possible to build Active X controls and hyperlinks into diagrams, and to export finished diagrams as GIF, PNG or JPEG files for publishing on the Web or including on a company Intranet.
IT managers are catered for with the extensive network planning tools, which ease the creation of schematic or diagrammatic representations of LANs and WANs. Visio Professional ships with more than 600 stencilled shapes from companies such as 3Com, Cisco and Hewlett Packard, making finished diagrams look highly professional. These, and the thousands of other Smartshapes, represent a comprehensive list of virtually all office-related objects, from chairs and desks to hubs and servers.
Not only are there plenty of wizards in Visio Professional 5.0, but there are also lots of templates, allowing you to easily modify an existing diagram to suit your needs. To show what can be done with a little effort, a range of sample diagrams is included.
The developers of Visio Professional 5.0 have chosen to provide good levels of integration with Windows 95/NT in general and Microsoft Office in particular. If you have either the 95 or 97 version of Office installed, Visio can add a menu icon to Word, allowing you to quickly incorporate charts and diagrams into your documents.
A clever utility is the database design tool, which allows you to create the schematic structure for a database in Visio Professional, and then invoke a wizard to generate that database automatically in Microsoft Access. For anyone with more demanding requirements, it is possible to create third-party applications using the built-in Visual Basic for Applications, or via hooks that exist for C and C++ users.
The new 32-bit Windows 95/NT Visio engine ? which is common to all three products in the range ? has been enhanced and streamlined to provide improved performance, but this is still a resource-hungry product.
If you plan to work with simple box and line structures then a 75MHz Pentium system with 16Mb of RAM will suffice. But, if you make use of the program?s ability to import graphics files ? and if you?re using it to, say, communicate with clients you will almost certainly use this feature ? things do tend to slow down considerably. As with any graphics manipulation package, 32Mb of RAM becomes essential, as does a 166MHz or faster processor.
Several hefty, well-written manuals accompany the product, and there is extensive online help available too.
Case study: Explora untangles web pages
Web development company Explora uses Visio Professional to communicate with its clients more effectively.
Vincent Goree, senior project manager, says: ?What we need to do is put together lots of documentation for the customer to provide a good overview of how their Web site will work.
?Visio comes into its own in particular with its ability to generate what we call a ?Web-flow diagram? ? a flowchart of how the Web site is structured. This helps the customer understand how their site will be laid out, and how one page links to another, to make sure that the site we build is perfectly matched to their needs. Customers like that, because a flowchart is easy to understand.?
Goree says the product is also useful internally, because it helps the graphic designers arrange the navigation system for the site, ensuring that they get the look and feel of the various Web pages just right.
?As with any product,? says Goree, ?there are easy ways and hard ways of doing things in Visio Professional, but it doesn?t really take long to discover the shortcuts. This program helps the business to run that little bit more smoothly and improves our communication with the customer.?
Visio pro 5.0 facts
R Contact: Visio International on 01372 227900 or www.visio.com
R Price: #249 (upgrade: #149).
R Applications: Creation of flowcharts, workflow diagrams, Web site plans,
business process management diagrams, network layouts and database structures.
The business verdict
Although it may seem expensive for a flowcharting product, Visio Professional 5.0 is much more than that. Its ability to generate virtually any type of relationship diagram makes it a real timesaver. Integration with products such as Microsoft Office means that it is a very powerful and easy-to-use planning tool.
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