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Impressive range of creative effects - but only for professionals.

These days with hundreds of Photoshop plug-ins on the market it's increasingly difficult for developers to make their filters stand out from the crowd and for users to tell the wood from the trees. AutoFX has succeeded in drawing attention to its new DreamSuite collection if only for its price - at $299 it's one of the most expensive options around.

To be fair the program also stands out for its interface. Where most filter sets act purely as plug-ins called from a host program, DreamSuite can also act as a standalone application. The application's appearance is also eye-catching and clearly inspired by the Kai Krause/Metacreations school of thinking - slightly hippyish for my taste. When you get down to it though, apart from the occasional irritating idiosyncracy and rough edge, it's perfectly functional with a control panel to the left of the screen and a large image preview on the right.

So what power do you get for your money? Essentially there are 18 main filters offering over 440 preset effects each of which can be infinitely fine-tuned. There's no single theme to the collection, but there are six main areas of focus - distortion, surface, depth, metallic, photographic and framing effects

In terms of distortion, the Putty effect offers similar brush-based bulging, reduction and twisting as Photoshop's own Liquify command. What makes the DreamSuite version different, and superior, is that it also offers bezier-based envelope distortions which can be more closely controlled and refined. The Ripple effect will be less regularly useful but is certainly striking. It lets you add realistic, rippled water to your image or lets you treat the image as a whole as if it was liquid.

For its surface effects DreamSuite's Crackle filter covers your image with realistic cracks. There are two main types: Paint Crack for a subtle aged canvas effect and Mud Crack for a more noticeable image break up. The Cubism effect meanwhile is built on breaking the image up into separate solid or semi-transparent triangles, squares, pentagons or hexagons - especially effective for giving a background a diffuse artistic look.

The three depth-based effects all work best with image selections such as text. The Hot Stamp filter adds creative glows and blends to an object's outline. The Dimension X filter uses bevel profiles to give the illusion of depth - especially good for buttons. And the Chisel filter is used to make an object look as if it has been carved. In each case the presets are an excellent starting point but the real power of the filters comes when you explore the separate Surface Effect and Lighting tabs where you can control features such as reflection, refraction and texture maps.

This advanced control and interaction of reflection, refraction and lighting is particularly important when creating realistic metallic effects - an area in which DreamSuite excels. The Liquid Metal filter lets you turn selections into pools of mercury that you can then interactively paint with the brush tools. The Metal Mixer tool goes even further letting you combine silver, gold, blue silk and chrome to produce some stunning pseudo-3D effects.

Many of the DreamSuite effects add depth and realism.

Giving the illusion of depth is also important to three of DreamSuite's photographic effects. The PhotoDepth filter allows you to interactively paint on raised areas that accurately reflect the current lighting. The Crease filter goes further to let you add clear fold lines and crumple zones that intelligently interact with each other. The Deckle filter even lets you add tears to your images that let the fibres of the underlying paper show through! Working together you can turn a flat image into a realistic photograph with added dimension and real character.

Two filters concentrate on photographic processing effects. The PhotoTone filter lets you add blurred and mottled halo-style effects around the subject of your photo. The Focus filter lets you retrospectively adjust the focus of a picture after it has been taken. Different options include soft focus, rotational, zoom and directional effects each of which can be seamlessly blended into the original to subtly - or not so subtly - focus attention onto one area of the image.

The Focus filter allows the focus of a photo to be changed retrospectively.

The final batch of effects are all designed to frame your image. The PhotoBorder effect lets you apply one of 22 repeating geometric borders - ideal for example for turning your image into a stamp. The 35mm and Instamatic Frame filters make your photo look like a slide or Polaroid and the Tape filter lets you make your image look as if it has been stuck to the page with masking tape. Frankly I wasn't expecting a lot of these effects but the sheer depth of control, such as the ability to age and add dirt, means that the effects really spring to life - the end results don't look like an image surrounded by an artificial frame they just look like the real thing.

Unfortunately there's a serious price to be paid for this level of realism - processing your images with DreamSuite can be incredibly slow. You can partially work around this by fine-tuning an effect on a smaller version and then applying it to the original, as all the filters are resolution-independent and support Photoshop Actions, but really you need as powerful a system as you can lay your hands on.

DreamSuite certainly isn't the right program for the average user - an effects-heavy application such as PhotoImpact would be a much better bet. For the professional designer however, the sheer depth of creativity and realism of the DreamSuite filters could be well worth the wait - and the price.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Price: $299, individual filters $50

Supplier: AutoFX, www. autofx.com

System Requirements: Pentium II or higher, 128MB RAM, 30MB disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 or NT 4, SVGA

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