Once again, Microsoft has taken the lead in software design with its flowchart software, Visio. In terms of features and tools, there is very little that Visio does not offer. And what it lacks, it makes up for with unique bonus features found in few – if any – other flowchart makers. Pair these exceptional tools with an easy-to-use interface and a strong set of help and support options, and it’s no wonder Visio earns our TopTenREVIEWS Gold Award.
Visio earns a perfect score in this category; though we did find another application with all the features on our list, Visio stands out thanks to its unique master shapes tool. With this, you can create a master figure that works much like a master page in illustrator software. That is, you can create a figure with certain properties, then create other figures that are based on the master. When you make a change to the master, the change is reflected in all the figures that are based on it. This makes universal changes across a flowchart easy and worry-free.
All of the tools we looked for in this category are present in Visio, and some even have special modifications or features. For example, rotatable figures are important to visual design. Visio has them, and you can even change the rotational center of a figure so it rotates around a corner or other arbitrary point on the figure, rather than just the true center. In addition, you can also rotate the text boxes that appear within figures.
If you have too much text to fit into a flowchart figure, it will automatically scale up in size to accommodate your text. And you can create multiple text boxes within a figure by using the Insert Text Box command; this will help you create columns or sections of text for better organization. You can also use these text boxes to create connector line labels.
Connectors join to figures via predetermined connection points, but you can add points anywhere on a figure manually for extra control. And the shapes of the connectors themselves can be changed to right angles, straight lines or curves.
The symbol gallery contains scores of figure shapes in every category imaginable. There are also rectangle/square and ellipse/circle cookie-cutter shape creators for user-drawn shapes. While you can’t change an existing figure’s shape once it’s been placed in the flowchart, replacing a figure is as easy as creating a new one and dragging or copying text from the old figure to the new. We deducted points for this minor drawback, but felt that the presence of master figures compensates for this.
Visio snags another perfect score in this category, and is the only flowchart software in our review to do so. It lacks nothing from our list of important tools, and even goes beyond what we considered “standard” in terms of file format saving options. In addition to the standard and expected HTML, PDF and image (JPG, TIF, GIF, PNG, BMP) formats, Visio can also save files in SVG, AutoCAD and EMF formats, to name just a few of the many available options.
Many of the key changes to the Microsoft products in the 2010 software overhaul fall into the organizational category of software use, and this flowchart maker isn’t missing any of them. Specifically, the grids and guides are new to Microsoft's Visio, and they work beautifully. There are even smart guides that appear when you’re aligning items by hand, then disappear when you “drop” the item into place. The snap-to-grid function is available, and what’s more is you can even adjust the strength, as well as what part of the figure (center, edge, etc.) snaps.
Standard organizational tools typically found in drawing applications are also well-integrated into this flowcharting software. These include the ability to arrange objects in front of or behind others in a single layer, add multiple layers and group multiple objects so they move as one unit. Microsoft takes it a step further with a unique flowchart function: containers. These graphics act as a combination figure and grouping device – just drag your figures into the larger container graphic, and all the items within will resize and move together with the container.
You can achieve automatic alignment and spacing with a simple button click, though we found the auto-align function to be a bit less predictable than expected. You can also add comments to individual figures, thanks to the handy Review tab that Microsoft 2010 users have come to know and love.
Your canvas automatically expands as you add figures, providing you with a limitless workspace, though you can set it up to lay out over multiple pages if you will be printing your flowcharts. Need to scale the entire diagram up or down? Just use the mouse to select all the elements (by Shift+clicking or by dragging a selection marquee around the whole diagram) and scale away.
Visio’s lack of a clipart gallery and 3D shapes was quite surprising, and this lack of features was the only reason we did not award the software a perfect score in this category, too. Without these two options, users are forced to embed or import images and graphics from their own computer hard drives. Of course, the application does make up for itself a bit with its great spell check and thesaurus tools, which are standard in Microsoft products but not necessarily in the world of flowcharting as a whole. There is even an automatic function that reformats the layout of your page, just in case things get a bit too convoluted.
As we expected, text and paragraph formatting options for your flowcharts are exceptional, up to par with even the best word processing applications. As for visual design, we loved the themes, color schemes and graphic styles available. There are 30 themes to choose from that include graphic and color presets, or you can choose from one of the 33 color schemes or 16 graphic styles alone. If you want, you can create your own theme, color scheme or graphic style, then save it for future use. There are 16 object effects to choose from, and they are applied to every figure within a document. To apply one of these effects to an individual figure, just use the graphic styles.
Perhaps the best part of these visual effects is that you can preview them before applying them to your document; just hover your cursor over the effect in question and your document will display as it would if you applied it. Remove your cursor from the effect and the document returns to normal.
You can fill objects or shapes with gradients, as well as with preloaded textures and patterns. For background fills, you can use a solid color, gradient or one of many preloaded sample images and designs. For connector line styles, you can adjust the weight and color, or choose from many dashed line styles.
We found Visio to be an incredibly easy-to-use flowchart software, as long as you’re familiar with the new Microsoft 2010 interface. It differs greatly from previous Microsoft products, but overall contributes to a more streamlined and efficient workflow.
With the exception of the slightly strange auto-align function, all the tools and features work exactly as you’d expect. The overall design of the software is intuitive and makes creating flowcharts a breeze.
Big companies often have convoluted help and support systems. While Microsoft’s isn’t the easiest to navigate, it is quite packed with options and features designed to help you. You can contact support staff directly via email, telephone or even live chat. The website also offers FAQs and a user forum section where users can help each other. And in the in-application help menu, there are some video tutorials to get you started. The help manual itself connects to the online help database, though there are quite a few help articles available even if you don’t have an internet connection.
Despite lacking a few convenient tools, Visio remains the top contender and best option in flowchart software. Easy enough for beginners and advanced enough for seasoned pros, with a number of unique (or nearly-so) tools, Visio is certainly your best choice for creating flowcharts.
Visio has a nearly flawless feature set that includes tools like master figures.
A few graphic elements, like clipart and 3D shapes, are missing.
Visio's extensive features and intuitive design make it a great option for beginners and experts alike