Microsoft is understandably worried about competition from the likes of Google and Apple, due to their dominance of the web and mobile markets. What they should really be concerned about, however, is the slew of open source programs that threaten their monopoly of the office software sphere. In many ways, Open Office is just as full-featured and capable as Microsoft Office. Likewise, Microsoft Visio has a direct and potent competitor in the form of Dia from GNOME, a powerful vector graphics editor designed from the ground up for crafting stellar diagrams and flowcharts. Dia is free, open source and have small footprint in memory.
Much like MS Visio, Dia is a raster and vector graphics creator and editor that allows users to craft stunning flowcharts, diagrams and models. Unlike Visio, Dia is 100% free, as it’s released under the GNU Public License. It replicates the functionality of Visio while consuming fewer resources and providing a far smaller installer that weighs in at just 20 MB. At a whopping $249.99, Microsoft Visio Standard 2010 is a tough sell for many. Dia’s low cost of zero is far easier to stomach, and it turns out that users don’t have to sacrifice performance by making the switch.
Features & Capabilities
Dia relies on several distinct categories of shapes and tools that enable users to craft circuit schematics, flowcharts and network diagrams. It boasts the standard, predefined objects like polygons, ellipses, circles, stars and more, as well as custom entity-relationship modeling tools. Aside from basic vector graphics modeling utilities, Dia boasts support for a wide range of formats including XML, UML, SVG, PNG, JPEG and EPS. One clutch feature is VDX file format support, which makes it easy to import diagrams created in Visio and work with them directly.
Thanks to the fact that Dia is written in C, it provides impeccable support for Python scripting. Many independent users and developers have coded handy, third-party plugins to extend the functionality of the base installation. By default, Dia gzips files for disk space conservation and saves them in the XML format for convenience and ease of transportation. Though Dia is a favorite of Linux users, it’s available for both Windows and Mac OS X as well. In a nutshell, Dia offers everything that every other vector graphics program on the market offers.
Dia In Action: Shapes & Tools
When you first launch Dia, you’re greeted by a blank diagramming canvas and a Tools & Shapes sidebar to the left, a la GIMP or Photoshop. You can array your available symbols by selecting either Assorted, UML or Flowchart from the drop-down menu in between Tools and Shapes. By clicking “Other sheets” within said menu, you’ll be able to select dozens of other symbol packs for modeling networking diagrams, electronic circuits, civil engineering diagrams and more. The Sybase and Cisco objects in particular are useful for professional-looking network schematics.
You can see more example diagrams here.
Symbols from different sheets can be mixed and matched on the same canvas without conflict. Dia also supports layers, which can be added and removed via the “Layers” menu along the top border of the window. As with many other image and diagram manipulation programs, any object within your model can be outlined, magnified, flipped horizontally and vertically, snapped to a grid and more via keyboard shortcuts for efficient work flow and productivity. There are few surprises when it comes to the interface, which is a good thing. If you’re even remotely proficient in drawing up diagrams or working with Visio, Dia will fit like a glove.
Pros & Cons
Compared to Visio, Dia has quite a few advantages and very few drawbacks in everyday usage for tasks both simple and complex. One of the biggest pros is the fact that Dia is lightning-fast and lean, using scant system resources to accomplish the same things as Visio while consuming less CPU power and RAM. It also doesn’t cost a dime to download, which is arguably the biggest selling point. Though a minority of users complain that the UI is “tough to learn”, this is a common refrain from loyal Microsoft and Adobe fans. Dia sports the same basic layout and UI as any other vector diagramming suite on the market.
The Dia versus Visio argument is reminiscent of the age-old Adobe Photoshop versus GIMP debate. Can free software developed by dozens of independent programmers actually compete with and even surpass expensive, proprietary software? If Dia is any indication, it would appear that it’s more than possible. Dia may lack one or two minor features that Visio possesses, but for all intents and purposes it’s every bit as good as Microsoft’s flagship diagramming tool. On top of that, the price is hard to beat. If you need a quality graphics editor and don’t have money to burn, Dia is a prudent option.