InDesign CS4: Bugs big and small

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
February 12th, 2009 • 12:52 pm

For the past couple of weeks, I have been working hard on an academic review for which I have been doing the layout in InDesign for the past 7 or 8 years. I have always used the latest available version of InDesign, and so this time I proceeded to do the layout with the new InDesign CS4.

Sadly, I must say that, beyond the well-documented installation issues with Adobe CS4, InDesign CS4 is, for me anyway, the first version in quite a while that suffers from a significant number of bugs, some of which are much more serious than mere “annoyances.”

At this point, I do not have time to investigate each bug thoroughly and determine whether I can provide Adobe with a 100% reliable way of reproducing them. All I can say is that they occur on my machine with alarming frequency and have already cost me several hours of extra work that I should not have had to do.

Some of the bugs are mostly cosmetic, but significantly annoying nonetheless. For example, because I use the Align buttons frequently, I have added the Align palette to my Control bar, which is customizable and is wide enough to accommodate lots of extra tools beyond the default ones (on my 30″ monitor):

Align buttons in Control bar

However, the Control bar is, by definition, ever changing, depending on what is currently selected. And in InDesign CS4, if I select a text box and then shift-select a placed picture that I want to align with the text box, here’s what happens to my Align buttons in the Control bar:

Disappearing Align buttons in Control bar

They become invisible, even though they are still there, and only reappear when I hover over them with the mouse pointer, as you can see in the picture above, where the first one of the lot has reappeared now that my hand cursor is on it.

InDesign CS4 also has significant drawing problems when scrolling up and down the font menu pulled down from that same Control bar. InDesign’s font menu is a custom-designed menu where each font name has a sample of the font next to it. My font menu is pretty long, because I have a number of fonts in my library. So I often have to scroll up and down the menu fairly quickly, which means that I tend to use the maximum scrolling speed in this menu by pulling my mouse pointer all the way up or down.

When I do that in InDesign CS4, more often than not, there are significantly glitches in the rendering of the font menu. Whole chunks of it start flickering on and off, and sometimes some element of the publication under it (like a placed picture with a drop shadow) seems to interfere with the rendering and InDesign fails to properly render the portion of the menu that is supposed to be on top of that element.

It’s a purely cosmetic issue and the flickering is temporary, but it still does not give a very good feeling of reliability. And of course this font menu is not customizable at all as far as I can tell, so there is no way to turn it into a regular Mac OS X menu instead of the custom version used by Adobe.

Speaking of customizability, I have also been completely unable to assign specific shortcuts to my user-defined paragraph styles. InDesign has long had extensive keyboard shortcut customization facilities. There is a “Keyboard Shortcuts…” command in the “Edit” menu that lets you customize the shortcuts for most InDesign commands.

For styles, however, for some reason the keyboard shortcuts have to be assigned not via this command, but via the “Style Options” dialog box, in the “Shortcut” field. And, for whatever reason, on my machine at least, this field does not work at all. I simply cannot enter any type of shortcut in this field. I’ve tried all kinds of options. All I get is a system beep. So I guess I am stuck with having to use the mouse. (To be fair, the problem is also occurring in previous versions of InDesign. It’s a good thing I don’t rely on keyboard shortcuts for styles too much in InDesign, where my hand is on the mouse most of the time anyway.)

Now on to the more serious bugs. The academic review that I am working on includes articles that almost always include tons of footnotes. These articles are provided to me in Microsoft Word format and I typically clean them up in Word, and then import them into my InDesign publication using the “Place” command.

InDesign (since version CS2, I think) is able to convert Microsoft Word footnotes into InDesign footnotes, which makes managing the placement of these footnotes much easier than it used to be.

Unfortunately, InDesign CS4 introduces a major bug that has caused me a big amount of grief over the past few days. To put it crudely, InDesign CS4 simply deletes some of the footnotes and makes them disappear altogether when placing the Word document. After placing the Word document, some of the footnotes are gone altogether, and the remaining footnotes and footnote references have been renumbered to match the remaining number of footnotes only.

Like I said to my wife, who was inquiring about the strange noises coming from my office, “InDesign ate my footnotes!”

Can you imagine how destructive this is? This means that footnote #3, for example, might now have become footnote #2 and be associated with the footnote reference for what used to be footnote #2, i.e. with a totally wrong section of the text.

There is no rhyme nor reason to this. It is impossible to predict which footnotes are going to disappear. The only sign that something is wrong is that, in some sections of the placed document, since there are now fewer footnotes than in the original document, some of the footnote references have disappeared and have been replaced with a tiny sliver of white space with a pink background, which typically indicates something that InDesign cannot render properly, usually because it does not have the proper font for it.

When I first saw these slivers of white space with a pink background, I thought it was just a glitch in the importing process and I just erased them. It is only later that I realized that these were the remnants of footnote references for footnotes that had disappeared altogether!

Needless to say, this means that I have to manually rebuild the entire sequence of footnotes (and their associated references) for each article after placing the corresponding Word document. What a pain!

Out of curiosity, I tried converting the Word documents to RTF files before placing them in my InDesign publication. But the only difference it made was that InDesign didn’t eat the same footnotes, and didn’t eat as many of them. But it still ate some of them, so there was no real solution here.

And it’s not like this only happened with one or two Microsoft Word documents. It happened with most of the documents I had to place. The number of footnotes swallowed alive varied from document to document, but very few of them survived unscathed.

This is a major destructive bug, and I am hugely disappointed that Adobe was careless enough to let this one slip through.

Another similarly frustrating bug in InDesign CS4 involves placing Microsoft Word documents that contain embedded pictures. Now, I know that Word documents and pictures are like oil and water, especially on the Mac, but I have no control over the form in which people submit their documents. Some of them think that Word is a decent page layout application and actually use its features for inserting pictures, graphs, etc. Argh.

I have no choice but to deal with it. (And good luck trying to extract the pictures and graphs back out of the Word documents in question. Has anyone at Microsoft ever actually tried the “Save as Picture…” contextual menu command that you get when you right-click on a picture in a Word document? For most pictures I have tried it with, it produces a horribly pixelated, low-resolution version of the embedded picture that is totally, utterly useless. But that’s another story…)

The new thing in InDesign CS4, at least on my machine, is that such MS Word documents with embedded pictures are actually enough to cause InDesign to completely seize up. I am talking about a complete application freeze here. Instead of just warning you that the document contains embedded pictures and that it might have trouble importing them along with the text, it just freezes with the Spinning Beach Ball of Death.

And then what do you do? You force-quit InDesign and relaunch it. Of course, like Word, it has one of those lame “recovered file” feature that only a mother could love… And what does this file recovery feature do? It causes InDesign to seize up for another 30 seconds to 1 minute or more each time you try and launch it after a crash.

At some point, it got so bad that, even though I was no longer getting crashes (because I was avoiding the MS Word documents in question), each time I launched InDesign CS4, it would still take 1 or 2 minutes before the starting palette with the various shortcuts would appear and become functional. I search through all the places where I thought InDesign might be keeping temp files or “recovered” stuff that might be causing this delay at startup. I couldn’t find anything. Eventually, I just told InDesign CS4 not to show that starting palette at startup anymore—and the delay at startup disappeared, just like that.

I also found that, if I saved the Word document with embedded pictures as a RTF file and tried to place that instead of the Word file into my InDesign CS4 publication, everything worked fine, and the embedded pictures were even preserved in all their Microsoftian glory. But should I really have to go through all this just in order to be able to place a file? And shouldn’t InDesign have safety mechanisms that protect it from application-wide lockups when trying to place foreign files of dubious integrity?

If all this paints a picture of far less than satisfactory usability and reliability, I am afraid it is probably a fair reflection of reality. InDesign CS4 simply is not a very good piece of software. It’s become very big and unwieldy, not very Mac-like at all (with all kinds of proprietary controls and interface elements), and now it is not even able to do its job as reliably and securely as it used to be.

Add to that the fact that none of the long-standing issues have been fixed—it’s still impossible to bring up the “Keep Options” dialog box by right-clicking on a paragraph of text, for example—and you get a very disappointing upgrade for existing InDesign users.

I sincerely hope that the most glaring issues will be fixed in incremental updates in the near future, but the general trends here are not reassuring at all: buggier, less Mac-like, slower, more unstable… Adobe is quickly becoming another Microsoft, and it’s not good news for the Mac platform at all. (I suppose Windows users are used to all this and consider it par for the course.)

UPDATE: A reader writes to let me know that keyboard shortcuts for styles can only consist of keys on the numeric keypad combined with modifier keys. This is why I was unable to assign any shortcut to my styles. I never thought of trying the numeric keypad. Of course, this is a very frustrating (and far from obvious) limitation, especially for people who use laptops without access to a numeric keypad. It’s almost as bad as Pages’s own very frustrating keyboard shortcuts limitations for styles… And it makes little sense in light of the high customizability provided elsewhere in the application with the “Keyboard Shortcuts” dialog.

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