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Visio 2010: An improvement over 2007, but still flawed

The latest version of Microsoft's diagramming program offers a plethora of new features -- and reintroduces a former flaw.

Microsoft Visio has matured greatly through the years. Today, the application is used not only by IT folks, but by anyone in a business setting that wants a visual flow or diagram. However, while the latest version of Visio -- Visio 2010 -- has a plethora of new features and fixes, certain parts still need work.

Visio 2010 was released with Project 2010 and SharePoint Workspace as an addition to Office 2010. There are three editions of the product -- standard, professional, and premium. The professional version has integration with SharePoint for shared drawings via Visio Services; however, you can only get workflows for SharePoint with the premium edition.

Some of the best changes made in the latest version of Visio are the improvements to the ShapeSheet formulas. These formulas work similar to Excel formulas, and the size and content of a shape can be modified based on one of them. In Visio 2010, IntelliSense technology has also been added, which makes for better lookups and greater extensibility.

Visio 2010 flaws
I talked with a design architect who works for a Midwestern financial advisory firm about Visio 2010, and he said the best thing about the product is that it lets you turn out drawings quickly from templates and create your own stencils. This is important if you are just starting to design something with vendors. But the architect noted some pitfalls.

"The drawback is that it, after many years and revisions, still has issues that can make my life difficult with a project deadline approaching," he said.

Aligning lines to grids and snapping to gridlines -- a problem that was fixed in Visio 2007 -- has resurfaced in the 2010 version. And, if you open a drawing from an earlier version that did not have this problem, the lines will be off because they are snapped to the new grid. This is a serious flaw when dealing with very intricate and detailed technical drawings. I spent four hours redoing lines on one workspace. While a Microsoft forum post shows that this is a known issue and offers a workaround, there is still no permanent fix.

Another point of contention around the new Visio version -- and all Office products in general -- is the ribbon bar, part of the Fluent user interface. In previous versions, even in 2007's introduction of the bar, the location of commands changed very little, and it was always easy to find the command you needed. The new ribbon bar seems to be a step backward in usability, and finding settings and options is now more of a task than ever. It has reduced my productivity and increased how long it takes me to complete a drawing. While I'm not the only user with gripes against the ribbon, Microsoft is standing firm on the feature and has said we just have to adjust to the new RibbonX technology.

Where have all the stencils gone?
Microsoft used to have an Enterprise Network Tools pack with hundreds of stencils from manufacturers and access to an online library, the Visio Network Center. But the product ended in 2002, and the online version faded out a few years later. Microsoft now has the Visio Toolbox, but no stencils are available. Therefore, for quality stencils, you have to go to either the manufacturer, the Visio Café (which is a great resource, but some stencils are seriously outdated) or buy an expensive Visio add-on like NetZoom. Microsoft should make stencils available for free and accessible within the user interface or from the Internet.

Even with its problems, Visio 2010 is a good improvement over 2007 version. I recommend upgrading. I also suggest, however, that you keep a spare 2007 version installed if you don't want to spend hours fixing your lines.


Mike Nelson has been in IT for over 20 years, with exposure to a very diverse field of technologies. He has devoted over half a decade to virtualization and server-based computing. Nelson is currently a senior analyst at a Fortune 100 company in the U.S. Midwest.

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