Originally published in the February 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.

First impression

Visual Thought reads your mind

By Dalia Freeman

The unofficial motto for Unix is "Do one thing well." Like Digital Insight's Robochart (see "Robochart: Charting made easy," December 1994) Confluent's Visual Thought 1.0 succeeds by doing one thing -- creating charts, diagrams, and simple drawings -- quickly and easily. There's a lot to like about Visual Thought, especially for developers roughing out ideas for object-oriented programs. Alas, Visual Thought 1.0 is available for Solaris 1 and 2 only.

The staff at Confluent possess a keen eye for detail. Installing Visual Thought from its CD-ROM is easy and complete, thanks to a thoughtful installation and deinstallation script (mon dieu!). Securing a license (floating or node-locked) is quick and easy, too, thanks to a clever script that gathers up available system information, badgers the rest it needs from the human installer, and sends an e-mail message to Confluent requesting a license key.

Visual Thought's RAM, storage, and CPU requirements are modest. Confluent constructed the program's GUI with Visix Software's Galaxy, which allows use of Visual Thought with a Motif, Open Look, Microsoft Windows, or OS/2 look and feel. We used the default, Motif.

Overall, the program is intuitive and a joy to use. Visual Thought opens with four items: a menu bar, an Inspector window, a Palette window, and the main View window. Most of the action takes place in the View window. Here users create objects, link items together, add text and lines, and conduct other affairs of WYSIWYG art creation.

The Palette window displays various collections of Confluent-provided and user-created objects (otherwise known as "widgets"). Confluent includes 10 palettes, including several for general-purpose use and specialized palettes for Booch and Rumbaugh OO programmers. To add a palette object to a drawing, the user need only drag the item from the Palette window to the View window.

The Inspector window controls the attributes of selected items in the Palette window. For example, a user can rotate objects either by using a dial, which turns the object 45 degrees at a time, or in one degree increments. The ability to align objects along a diagonal (where alignment is calculated from the center of the objects) is also an appealing feature. Powerful text handling, including subscript, superscript, and strikethrough, is readily available. Again, user (and printer) preferences being important, color mapping can be accomplished through a variety of methods. Visual Thought is intelligent enough to inspect /etc/printcap on its own in order to get a list of available printers.

Confluent, big on deferring to the whims of its customers, lets users issue commands via the keyboard or mouse. We nurtured our inner klutz, then reigned it in with Visual Thought's 100 levels of undo and redo. Viewing our larger creations was easy when we used the responsive pan and zoom features. It is also easy to attach files; the user can create links between external applications, audio files, other documents, or shell scripts, and associate them with Visual Thought objects.

Visual Thought imports images in GIF, XWD, and Sun Raster formats. It exports Encapsulated PostScript and GIF files. Confluent claims to save its files in a Lisp-like file format and suggests using Visual Thought as a graphical development front end for Lisp programs. While hale and hearty, the Advanced Systems Tests Center's staff is a C-faring crew, so we couldn't verify Confluent's claim.

The user manual is clear, well illustrated, indexed, and cross-referenced. Of note is a lucid chapter for folks wishing to create interfaces to other tools. The on-line tutorial provides clear guidance for the more advanced features and also serves as a complete help desk. Visual Thought itself was used to create the hypertext links to index entries. Despite the simplicity of the tool and its intuitive design, we wish Help was a more accessible menu option.

We recommend Visual Thought for the creation of charts or diagrams, whether for business presentation graphics or technical engineering diagrams. Other tools, such as FrameMaker and WordPerfect 6.0 for Unix, offer similar tools in their word processing applications, but neither are as feature-rich nor boast the specialized palettes. Visual Thought costs $1,295 for a floating license and $695 for a node-locked license.

Visual Thought 1.0, Confluent Inc., 132 Encline Ct., San Francisco, CA 94127-1838, 415-586-8700, 415-586-8838 fax, info@confluent.com.

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Last updated: 1 February 1995.