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Affinity Publisher review: can it really replace InDesign?

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Serif has definitely got it in for Adobe. Affinity Photo was a direct strike on Photoshop, Affinity Designer took a swipe at Illustrator, and now Affinity Publisher is gunning for another Adobe stronghold: InDesign.

Affinity’s chief selling point is price. Whilst Adobe wants a £50 monthly stipend for the three software packages listed above, Affinity will sell you each of its products on a standalone, old-school, one-off licence that costs less than a month of an Adobe subscription.

Affinity Publisher launched last week and I’ve spent the past few days playing with its huge range of powerful publishing tools.

This isn’t a regular review. I’m not going to go through the package, describing the key features and their pros and cons. Suffice to say that I think Affinity Publisher is a highly competent publishing package with most of the tools that professionals will seek, let alone the enthusiast market that Serif is chasing. If you want to get a clearer grasp of the main features, I suggest you take a look at the excellent Affinity Publisher tutorials.

Instead, I’m going to focus on the three key questions that I think any Adobe InDesign user would ask when considering whether to move to Affinity. What’s the killer feature that would make me switch (aside from the price)? What’s performance like? And how compatible is it with InDesign files?

Affinity Publisher review: what’s the killer feature?

The biggest selling point of Affinity Publisher – and the big reveal the company held back for last week’s launch – is StudioLink.

StudioLink alleviates one of the pain points of using the Adobe suite, namely having to flick between different applications to make edits to photos and illustrations.

If you want to tweak a photo in an InDesign layout, you have to leave InDesign and fiddle with the brightness etc in Photoshop. With Affinity Publisher, you don’t have to leave the application – select the Affinity Photo ‘persona’ and edit the photo on page, using all the tools you would have in the full-blown application.

Let’s take this spread from a sample magazine that’s provided with Affinity Publisher as an example. Here’s the magazine opened in the Publisher persona, with all the tools you’d expect of a DTP package, such as the option to create text frames, tables etc:

Affinity Publisher Studio Link

Let’s say I want to give the photo of the chap on the right of the page a sepia tint. Instead of having to open my photo-editing application and edit the linked image, I can simply click on the Photo persona in the top-left corner and open Affinity Photo from within Publisher. I can open the adjustments panel and apply a Coarse Sepia filter and then adjust the hue, saturation and lightness from the pop-up panel.

Affinity Publisher Studio Link

You’ll notice how the controls on the left-hand side of the window have changed to the photo-editing tools instead of the Publisher tools. It’s all very neatly integrated. When I want to go back to Publisher view, I just click on the Publisher icon in the top left.

It’s worth noting here that you need Affinity Photo and/or Designer installed on the same computer if you want to take advantage of their personas. That means an overall, one-off cost of around £120 for all three apps, which is still cheaper than three months of a Creative Cloud subscription. On price, there really is no contest. So what about performance?

Affinity Publisher review: what’s performance like compared to InDesign?

The raw performance of Affinity Publisher is impressive. It’s much quicker to load and much more responsive with large documents than InDesign is on the same PC.

The video below shows how well Affinity performs when doing stuff like moving images around a page and reflowing text. My laptop doesn’t have dedicated graphics – it’s a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U and 16GB of RAM. Yet, as you can see from the video, performance is strong on this 50-page document laden with graphics:

While I’ve not tested it myself, performance of all the Affinity apps is meant to be much smoother on Mac than it is on PC, although Serif is working hard on improving the latter. Given that most creatives tend to use Macs, it was sensible to optimise for them first.

On the downside, I’ve seen more than one crash during my few days with the ‘finished’ version of Publisher. Switching between personas has been responsible for one of those, which suggests there’s more work to do on improving the stability of this feature, which didn’t benefit from the stress test that inclusion in the beta would have provided.

There was no automatic document recovery when the crashes occured, either. Any changes made since the last save were lost. That is undoubtedly a concern.

Affinity Publisher review: how compatible is it with InDesign files?

One of the first questions anyone who’s even thinking about trading in InDesign for Affinity Publisher will ask is whether it’s compatible with Adobe’s file formats. The answer here, alas, is a qualified no.

Affinity Publisher cannot open INDD files, the proprietary format that Adobe uses for InDesign files. The same is currently true of IDML, although Serif assures me that will be addressed in a future update.

For professional designers that could be a showstopper. If your colleagues and clients are working with INDD files, you can hardly demand they stop and install Affinity instead. IDML support will make a difference (it’s often used to transfer files between people using different versions of Creative Suite), but it’s still a faff.

That said, Affinity Publisher does import PDFs created with InDesign and turns them into editable pages. Obviously, you’ll need to have the right fonts installed on your system and images will only be at whatever quality they’re captured in the PDF, but it works and it works well.

There are notable limitations of editing with PDFs. Here, for example, is a spread from the Fortnite magazine I edit, which was built in InDesign.

Affinity Publisher review

Let’s say I want to move that caption in the top-right corner of that image to the bottom left. I can do that using Publisher’s Move tool, but Publisher doesn’t know the caption text is linked to the orange box beneath it. I can relink them, but if you’re dealing with pages with lots of different layers (which most professional magazine pages will have) that will soon become tiresome.

Affinity Publisher PDF import

There are other limitations. For example, the table on this page isn’t recognised as a table in Publisher, meaning that you’d need to start from scratch if you needed to do any meaningful edits, such as deleting a row or changing a column width to accommodate new text.

Affinity Publisher review

Affinity Publisher: the verdict

Can I see designers and publishing professionals migrating to Affinity Publisher in their droves? At this point, no.

Rightly or wrongly, Adobe has a strong grip on the industry and the lack of support for its file formats is a big barrier to migration. If the clients you’re working with expect INDD files, it takes a brave – some might say foolhardy – designer to refuse.

That said, INDD support isn’t the be all and end all for every client, especially small businesses who may just want a brochure, poster, newsletter or in-house mag in PDF format. They probably don’t care how it’s made. For those jobs, I’d say Affinity Publisher has everything you need – and comes at a fraction of the price.

Affinity Publisher is astonishingly good value. It’s professional-grade software at consumer prices. If you’re dabbling in DTP for the first time, it’s the perfect starter package and the excellent video tutorials flatten the learning curve.

It’s great to see Serif taking the fight to Adobe in such style. Who knows? In two or three versions’ time, we may be talking about the new standard for professional designers, but not right now.

NOW READ THIS: How do I redact a PDF?

Affinity Publisher review

Name: Affinity Publisher

Price: £38.99

Operating System: Windows, macOS

Application Category: Design

  • Features
  • Performance and stability
  • Value for money

Summary

A hugely powerful piece of publishing software at a very reasonable one-off cost

Overall
4.3

Pros

  • Ridiculously cheap
  • Great integration with other Affinity packages
  • Fast performance, even with big documents

Cons

  • Poor compatibility with InDesign files
  • Stability needs to be improved

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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  • I have used Pixelmator and Affinity Photo fro several years to replace Photoshop, a job which they do well. Pix is easy and quick to use, but does not work in CMYK, so I export in AfPhoto for that final step.
    I am testing AfPub right now to replace QuarkXpress. So far it is going well, but we shall see how it pans out

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