What is it: diagram software supplied with a wide range of standard shapes for common business and IT requirements.
Applications: can be used to draw such things as business process diagrams, office furniture layouts, computer networks, and to represent Web sites as diagrams.
The basic drawing packages included in office suites are usually unsuitable for business, professional and technical PC users who want to draw diagrams. They are often difficult and fiddly to use, produce unpredictable results, and make it extremely awkward to change diagrams later on.
With software vendor Visio Corporation?s range of drawing products, it should be quicker and easier to draw and modify complex diagrams. Visio 4.5 Professional ? the package reviewed here ? is aimed at business and professional users. It comes with standard shapes and wizards for a wide range of business and professional diagram solutions.
Visio is extremely easy to use. Drawing a complex diagram is just a case of dragging and dropping the appropriate shapes onto your drawing and connecting them.
Visio?s library has thousands of shapes, suitable for a range of different drawing types, such as block diagrams, business diagrams (from office layouts to project timelines), flowcharts and maps.
On the technical side, Visio Professional includes shapes for database diagrams, network layouts and different types of software diagram. It even has shapes for designing Windows 95 user interfaces.
The shape library is split into groups ? or stencils ? so you can easily find what you want. Opening and selecting stencils is done using a somewhat quirky interface, although you do get used to it quickly. Stencils can also be floated on the desktop, which makes life easier.
With some packages, it can be tricky to position shapes accurately. To overcome this, Visio has a variety of ?Snap and Glue? options. As shipped, the default settings for these features make it easy to line up shapes for most applications ? power users can tune the settings to whatever they want. If your diagrams need to be particularly precise, you can set accurate measurements directly in the Shape Sheet ? the modifiable spreadsheet-style list of parameters that exactly defines every shape in your drawing.
Adding text to a shape is straightforward ? you just click on it and start typing. You can change the size of the shapes in the diagram, but Visio won?t let you re-size elements, such as doors and windows which come in standard sizes.
Although diagrams are easy to create with most packages, it can be difficult to change them later on. This is where Visio scores particularly well, with a clever device called Intelligent Connectors. Instead of drawing a line to link two objects, you use a connector to join each end to hot spots on the other drawing objects. When you move a shape, any connectors that are joined to its hot spots automatically follow it around the page, and are resized as necessary. Intelligent Connectors come in a range of shapes, from simple lines to fancy arrows.
This idea is used for other shapes, as well as lines and arrows. For example, the status bar shape (for Windows 95 user-interface design) is automatically resized if you change the dimensions of the window it lies in.
Visio also allows users to set up templates. This means that a business can set up standard templates for certain types of drawing so that only a particular paper size is used. And very large paper sizes can be selected. For example, if your printer isn?t big enough, Visio splits the document into segments for printing.
One of the major advantages of Visio is that it is easy to customise. As well as simply resizing shapes, you can change any aspect of a shape?s appearance by modifying the Shape Sheet. For example, if you don?t like the look of the standard arrowheads, you can program in your own design. You can even make this new design appear as an option on a right mouse button menu. You can also use the existing shapes as a basis for designing entirely new shapes, to include in your own shape libraries ? useful for company logos.
For the most complex needs, you can create entire new applications using the built-in VBA language (Visual Basic for Applications). This is useful for improving drawing productivity in certain circumstances. For example, every time a user selects and uses a particular shape, you could program Visio to pop up a window to request the data needed with that object ? such as the number of people and cost associated with a business process.
One of the problems with drawings such as network diagrams is that there is a large amount of information, typically stored in a database, associated with each object on the drawing.
Another example is an organisation chart: the names and job titles of employees, and who they report to, will already exist within some database. Obviously, it would be a tedious job entering this information again to annotate the drawing.
Visio solves this problem in two ways. For creating something such as an organisation chart from a text file or Excel spreadsheet, wizards automatically read the data and draw the complete diagram as a one-off process.
For other applications, such as a network diagram, you can establish links between individual drawing objects and records in a database, using the ODBC database interface standard. You can even go the other way, and create a Microsoft Access database file from a drawing.
Visio is compatible with the latest version of Microsoft Office, Office 97 and, although it works perfectly well as a standalone application, it is well integrated with Office and the Windows desktop.
For example, Visio uses the Word 97 spell-checker (if available); and the Windows Explorer Quickview feature can be used to preview Visio documents. The installation program optionally puts a toolbar button in both Word and Excel so that it is easy to insert Visio drawings into Office documents.
In Office 97, the Office binder metaphor has been improved in several ways ? for example, so that page numbering extends throughout all the parts of a document. It?s useful that Visio drawings can be incorporated into an Office binder.
Version 4.5 of Visio has not escaped the clutches of the Internet ? drawings can be saved in Jpeg or GIF formats ready for incorporating into Web pages. And, within a drawing, you can associate a hyperlink with a shape ? a drop-down menu allows you to follow the link.
Visio versions Visio Technical and Visio Professional differ only in the stencils and wizards they come with. Professional is suitable for business and IT applications, and Technical for various different types of engineering drawing, including electrical and electronic.
Contact: Visio on 00 353 1 6611 2036 www.visio.com.
Price: Visio 4.0 costs #99 for 16-bit and 32-bit versions; Visio 4.5 Technical is 32-bit only, and costs #219; Visio 4.5 Professional is 32-bit only, and costs #239. Visio is available only for PC Windows platforms.
Verdict: Easy to use and can save a considerable amount of time compared with other drawing packages. It can be customised and is programmable, so can be adapted to suit almost any requirement. For many people who need to draw charts or diagrams in a business context, this package could soon repay its cost.
Visio is used by 500 employees at Sainsbury?s supermarket. According to Bharat Popat, senior manager, IT Services: ?We needed a very good drawing tool so that we could produce data and process models quickly and easily. The Visio platform was chosen because it is easy to use, versatile and cost effective. Also, you don?t need much training before you can use it.?
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