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Create diagrams in Pencil

Create high-quality diagrams and GUI prototypes with this open-source freeware.

So you'd like to be able to illustrate your reports and documents with top-quality charts and diagrams. You've got MS Paint, or maybe something better. You open a new document and...yikes. It's not as easy as it looks, and you end up trying to draw straight lines with your mouse. Why not try creating diagrams in Pencil? This free, open-source diagramming and GUI prototyping tool has a huge range of stencils and preconfigured elements to drag and drop into an intuitive interface. Pencil works as a Firefox add-on or a standalone tool using XULRunner, which is included in the download and requires no extra action on the user's part.

Pencil's unique interface blends the usual Explorer-style layout with browser-like elements, which reflects its evolution into a Firefox-based application. A left-side tool and navigation panel is tabbed Collections, with a wide range of Shapes, Elements, Widgets, and other objects to drag and drop into diagrams, and My Stuffs, which lists projects and files (and also shows the work-in-progress nature of open-source freeware in "Stuffs," not "Stuff"). The program's main window even uses browser-style tabs for documents, though many developers have caught that wave. Pencil's Firefox-style Start button accesses the program's Document, Edit, View, Shape, Tools, and Help menus, though the Help file only contained an About dialog, without as much as a Web link. This is strange since the Pencil Project's Web site contains lots of information about the tool (though it's easy to find by searching). This site offers not only User Guides, screencasts, and screenshots, but also Developer Guides and downloads such as stencils and export templates.

But Pencil is so easy to use that we just started dragging and dropping and linking and labeling. Linking objects is easy:just hook one end of a straight line to one object, grab the other end with your cursor, and drag it like a gate to the target. We could click on objects to enter or edit text, change shapes and colors, add stuff, and much more. The tool menus include everything from embedded Web links to radio buttons. And that's just the start of this highly recommended freeware.

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