Review: Extensis Suitcase Fusion

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You might call Extensis Suitcase and DiamondSoft Font Reserve the Odd Fellows of the software world. Once competitors with very different approaches to font management, they became uneasy roommates when Extensis acquired Font Reserve in 2003. It's taken Extensis almost three years to merge the two into one, called Suitcase Fusion.

The big question about the merger was, "Will it work?" Now that I've tested Suitcase Fusion, I can answer the question with a relieved, "Yes." Veteran Font Reserve users (I'll call them Font Reservists) may miss aspects of their old font manager, but Suitcase Fusion is as fast if not faster than earlier versions, and it's added features that creative professionals -- even Font Reservists -- will appreciate.

The $99 Suitcase Fusion ($50 upgrade from Suitcase X1 or Font Reserve 3) is Mac-only software, but it is not yet a Universal application and therefore doesn't run natively on the new Intel-based Macintosh models. Extensis expects to deliver the Universal version of Suitcase Fusion in the first half of this year.

The Best of Both Worlds
Suitcase Fusion keeps some of the best features of its namesake predecessor and still finds room for some, though not all, of the best features of Font Reserve.

Suitcase users will appreciate that the familiar one-window browser interface hasn't changed much since the previous version, Suitcase X1. Suitcase Fusion's interface is a natural next step in the evolution of font management: Simple, powerful, and easy to understand (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. The Suitcase Fusion three-pane window interface is fast and easily understood. Font Reservists shouldn't have a problem adjusting. For a full-sized view click on the image above.

Above the three main panes is the Toolbar, which includes the buttons New Set, Add, Remove, Activate, Deactivate, and Attributes. A Quickfind search field is on the right. The main Sets pane is on the upper left, the Fonts pane is below that, and the Preview pane is to the right. The Attributes drawer appears only when you click on the Attributes button; it focuses searches by Classifications, Foundries, Keywords, and Styles (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Searching for fonts can be very specific. With customized keywords, you can even qualify them by project or client name.

The Vault
Suitcase's addition of a Font Vault adds a layer of organization to the program (Figure 3). Font Reserve users who remember the Vault will recognize it as the core of easy and professional font management. The Font Vault allows you to consolidate all your fonts into organized libraries, keeping them in one easy-to-manage place. If you choose the Copy to Font Vault Preference, Suitcase Fusion will copy your fonts in one place.

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Figure 3. You can choose to either copy your fonts to the Vault, hence giving you more control over them, or just leave them where they are. As long as they're in a font set, Fusion will know where to find them.

One of the great advantages of employing the Font Vault is the vault's strict organizational structure. Suitcase Fusion will not allow true duplicate fonts into the Vault. Conflicts become a thing of the past. The Vault also ensures that any fonts deemed corrupt or at the very least problematic are not allowed entry. And finally, the Font Vault automatically separates fonts into their separate faces, organizing them on-the-fly, as it were.

The Pandora's Box Button
One of the most powerful features of earlier versions of Suitcase, and one which I was loathe to touch for fear of bollixing up my workflow, was the Manage System Fonts control. It was not so much a bad feature as it was a powerful one that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Suitcase Fusion still lets you handle fonts that are controlled by the operating system so you can activate or deactivate them if a font conflict occurs. In the Preferences under Activation, you'll find several choices for what to do when a font conflict occurs. If you choose to "Allow Suitcase to override system fonts" (I call this the Pandora's Box button), you then have access to "Manage System Fonts" through the Tools menu. BE CAREFUL. When you choose this tool, Suitcase Fusion moves your System fonts from their original location to a new location inside the Vault. That means Suitcase must be activated at all times for your system to function properly.

Call me superstitious, but I'd much rather be conservative with the location of my system fonts. Applications can crash, so I'd rather not rely on an app for my system to work correctly. If you feel the same way, uncheck the Manage System Fonts menu to move them back to their original location.

The Beauty of the Database
Previous versions of Suitcase and Font Reserve used databases to track where your fonts lived, what kind of fonts they were, which foundry created them, what their kerning pairs were, and so on. Fusion has increased the depth and power of the database from earlier versions of Suitcase with unique font-identification information.

We all know that fonts can have the same name, sometimes even when they're from the same foundries, but since the fonts were developed at different periods, they can have slight variations in kerning pairs and metrics. Say you have a brochure that used a version of Goudy OldStyle from pre-millennium days, and now you want to update that project. If that older version of the font was, for instance, a PostScript font, and you're now using an OpenType version of Goudy, you may run into problems with reflow. With the in-depth font identification employed by Suitcase Fusion, you can minimize conflicts.

Suitcase Fusion uses what Extensis calls "Font Sense" technology to scour each activated font for information about name, version, kerning pairs, Font ID, Outline Size, and other ultra-specific criteria. If a concrete match isn't available, Fusion will offer a list of best choices of alternative fonts. It stores the information within the database and ties the data to the document name as well so future use won't be problematic.

I'm very happy with these professional-level features and improvements, and with how well Font Reserve's Vault and database aspects have been integrated into the easy Suitcase interface. It's not all happy news, though. Now I have to discuss one of Suitcase Fusion's main missteps: its auto-activation scheme and reliance on application-level activation.

Not Seen, Not Heard
One of Font Reserve's greatest innovations was its invisibility. You didn't need to turn it on for it to work. You didn't need to see it bounce in your Dock before you knew your fonts would be there waiting for you.

Font Reserve worked quietly in the background, almost like a system-level utility. The only time you needed to see it was when you opened its browser to manage fonts. If you turned it off, your fonts were still active. Suitcase, on the other hand, has always needed to be on for it to function. If you quit Suitcase in the middle of your work, all your currently active fonts shut down as well.

Unfortunately, Suitcase Fusion uses the same old Suitcase model. Some people may argue that on installation, Suitcase Fusion becomes a default log-in application that starts up automatically at log-in. However, it also means that Suitcase sits in your Dock and can be switched off just as easily (Figure 4). I've always much preferred the Font Reserve (and Font Agent Pro) method of just being there.

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Figure 4. Since Suitcase Fusion runs as an application from the Dock, quitting it in the middle of your work will deactivate any currently active fonts.

Nor have I ever been a fan of auto-activation XTensions and plug-ins. Certain applications (Adobe InDesign, Adobe Illustrator, and QuarkXpress, to name a few) rely on Suitcase Fusion's plug-in method of auto-activation. It's an extraneous and clunky feature for what is a very modern and robust font-management application.

Congratulations, It's a Healthy Application!
Thanks to the efforts of the Extensis software engineers, Suitcase and Font Reserve transformed from Odd Fellows into a married couple with a healthy child. Font Reservists should be pleased that most of the best aspects of their favorite font manager expressed themselves in the new generation. Fans of previous Suitcase versions should be happy that Suitcase Fusion is more than the sum of its parentage. It is at once fast and easy, comprehensive and robust.

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