Adobe FrameMaker 11 Review (Full): The Good, the Bad, and the Structured Author


A FrameMaker review (structured) for first-time buyers or those considering an upgrade from a self-confessed FrameMaker devotee and DITA-ite.

FrameMaker 11 Review - the Good, the Bad, the Structured Author

FrameMaker 12 is now out - Check out our first look review

Adobe FrameMaker 11 Review if you are you considering:

Buying FrameMaker for the First Time?

First-time buyers are always hesitant about FrameMaker and I’m never sure why (aside from cost, and I’ll get to that shortly). FrameMaker is as close to an industry standard tool that we technical communicators have. Sure, those of us who have been using FrameMaker for a long time might tear our hair out at the sight of “internal error” messages, but then we go right back to launching FrameMaker because we literally can’t do our jobs efficiently without it.

As you consider whether FrameMaker 11 is the right tool for you, first ask yourself:  how much is your time worth? If FrameMaker can get you doing your daily job ten times faster or better than another tool, then it makes sense to invest in it. FrameMaker isn’t for everyone in every circumstance, but absolute cost should be the last factor to consider; value for your money should be the first. I can honestly tell you that I have four different versions of FrameMaker installed on my machine, and I see the value in every upgrade.

Pros

FrameMaker is an established tool that has a lot of support and available integrations (people, DITA-FMx from Scott Prentice at Leximation is a godsend). Probably most importantly, FrameMaker has a huge user base, which means training, documentation, and tips/tricks abound.

Next question to ask: Should you buy Support? Yes,  I do recommend purchasing a support package from Adobe, especially in combination with an upgrade package (with the mind-numbing name of Adobe Bundled FrameMaker Improved Upgrade Plan). It’s well worth the money and can get you out of potential tight spots,  and you will absolutely want to upgrade to new versions when they are available. Buying the upgrade package always saves you a bundle when the next version comes around—and yes, you will want it.

What makes it worth the investment? In short, the major upside is that the FM 11 runs faster than  ever before. I found it to be on par or better than other leading XML editors, and especially now that it handles very large XML files well.

If you’ve been on the fence about buying FrameMaker for some time, I can recommend this FM 11 version to you. It works faster and better than any version I’ve seen in quite a while. In addition to speed, all the little upgrades in functionality add up to a nice little user experience for you.

Cons

There’s no getting around it, FrameMaker is expensive. Of course, it’s expensive for a reason. It has many years of development behind it. The Adobe team has taken the time to listen to what the users and the leaders of technical communication want out of a tool, and they’ve done their best to deliver it. Of course you probably could use a free or cheaper XML editor (and, yes, that might be right for you), but you do get what you pay for. If you want an authoring tool that can handle whatever you throw at it, then FrameMaker should definitely be a contender.

If you want to remain tool-agnostic (to be able to switch XML editors whenever needed), there are some gotchas with FrameMaker. I won’t go into them in detail, just be aware that the integrations and functionality can sometimes be a one-way street or at least require some effort to backtrack from.

Upgrading from a Previous FrameMaker Version?

If you’re planning on using FrameMaker in 2012, I would suggest you upgrade. The time you’ll save purely on faster application response makes it worth your while on its own. There’s nothing really earth-shatteringly new, but a lot of little nice touches makes it (almost) a smooth ride.

  • It’s faster. Noticeably faster.  A 28-page reference topic (DITA XML) with graphics:
    • Open: 3 seconds, but then it was raring to go
    • Close: Instant
    • Scrolling and keyboard shortcuts are easier to use. Adobe actually went back to an older way of managing scrolling and keyboard shortcuts. The scrolling is useful primarily if you’re using the Paragraph or Character Designer…so not much of a change when using Structured FrameMaker. But the keyboard shortcuts are back to being awesome.
    • Insert a new element easily by pressing Enter. This will drive you mad unless you learn the trick: turn your tags on. Cursor placement between tags is essential.

Turn tags on to take full advantage of Enter Element in FrameMaker 11

  • The structure view can expand as far as you want it to. No more limitations there! But it still only shows you the first half a sentence of text, so you can only use this as an aid, not to work in exclusively.
  • The new pre-configured workspaces are nice, but you could have done that yourself without too much work.

    Pre-configured workspaces in FrameMaker 11

  • The element list and attributes are still annoying to use. I’m not sure how to fix it, but I know I have to scroll and click and click more than I’d like to. This was unchanged in this version.
  • The Smart/copy paste works… sort of. You’re supposed to be able to copy content from Word or Excel and have it paste into the right elements (hint: it’s a special command, it is not CTRL+V). A nice simple table pasted in very nicely, but otherwise the results were underwhelming:
  • A simple title + bulleted list in Word pasted in as a section followed by an ordered list. That ordered list should have been part of that section.
    • One of my tests (Word to FM) was very slow for just a few lines of text.
    • It couldn’t tell the difference between an ordered or unordered list (bullets were pasted as an <ol>).
  • It couldn’t tell that I had a list within a list (pasted them in as one list instead of one list within another list).
  • A complex table (merged cells, drop-down values, etc.) pasted in with all sorts of invalid elements. I wasn’t surprised but wasn’t pleased either.

Smart Paste handles simple tables well, but complex formatted tables produce unpredictable results.

  • The XML view is my personal favorite. You can expand/collapse elements easily and use the line numbers to troubleshoot easily. It’s even color coded. Plus you can use the tree view on the right for a quick view of the structure of elements. As a side benefit, anyone moving from other XML editors will have no problem using FrameMaker in this view. It’s a bit hidden (button is near the workspaces at the top of the UI), but once you find it, you may never go back.
    • The one problem with it is that there’s no element list in this view. You have to code everything. It does give you quick insert (start typing your elements and it will give you suggestions you can quickly choose from) but when building a table this way I had to insert each element separately (grumble grumble) , which is ridiculously inefficient. The parser checks for validity when switching between views, so switching views with a half-built table was not a good idea (although I did get to meet the new Console…hello there). 

Once you try working in the XML View in FrameMaker 11, you may never go back.

  • ·         I haven’t crashed it yet! I only crashed it once.

FrameMaker 11 Review: Overall

As I mentioned in my first look review, FrameMaker 11 isn’t one of those mind-blowing updates that requires you to relearn an application from scratch because of the changes to the interface. Adobe succeeded at one of the core goals for this release —helping authors work more efficiently. You’ll find that Adobe implemented (or tried to implement) those little things you’ve been asking for. Best of all, the entire application is noticeably faster, which makes it worthwhile in my universe.

Jacquie Samuels

Jacquie Samuels is the owner of Writing Wise, sharing business solutions in technical communications. She endeavors to help everyone create documentation that is stronger, faster, and smarter. You can connect with Jacquie through her Google Plus page.

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