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Visual image management, creative new brush handling and improved Web capabilities - but still a sense of anticlimax.

Adobe Photoshop has always dominated the world of computer-based photo-editing and following the seminal release of version 6, which added vector-based shape handling and an enhanced interface, its grip is stronger than ever. Now there's a new version designed to extend both Photoshop's capabilities and its lead over the competition.

Not much has changed in Photoshop 7's look-and-feel compared to version 6's radical revamp. The most obvious change is purely cosmetic with new shaded tool icons that become subtly coloured when the mouse moves over them - fussy and ugly to my eye. Otherwise there's little new in the interface, apart from the ability to save your preferred arrangements of palettes as named workspaces that you can then load from the Window menu. It's a capability worth having but doesn't make up for the fact that the control over open documents has been moved to a submenu which adds an unnecessary step each time you want to change image.

As soon as you go to open a file, however, you'll appreciate Photoshop 7's first major advance - the introduction of visual file management. The new Browse command opens a File Browser palette which lets you view thumbnails of all your graphics files. In Expanded View the File Browser offers an Explorer-style view with a panel down the left hand side containing a tree pane where you can choose which folder to view, a preview pane which shows an enlarged preview of the currently selected file and a metadata pane which provides details such as image mode, file size and resolution along with any text information stored in the file such as digital camera EXIF data. Alternatively you can save screen real estate by just viewing the main thumbnail pane.

The File Browser offers visual image selection and some file management.

The main purpose of the Browser is to select images and there are a number of options designed to help. You can view your thumbnails in three sizes and sort them based on eleven parameters ranging from filename and creation date through to copyright and colour profile setting. You can also create your own order by quickly applying a "Rank" setting - handy, for example, when separating finished images from ongoing work. Additional file management capabilities include the ability to create a new folder and to rename and delete files - though irritatingly you can't copy and paste them.

The File Browser also offers two capabilities particularly suited to digital camera users. The Batch Rename command lets you quickly apply meaningful names to multiple files based on a naming template, while the ability to rotate images by 90 degree increments is essential for re-orienting portrait photos. Disappointingly though, only the thumbnail is rotated until you actually open the image - presumably to avoid JPEG deterioration. This can't compete with true lossless JPEG rotation and generally the File Browser doesn't match up to dedicated solutions like CompuPic. If you haven't already got yourself some form of image management however, the File Browser will radically improve your working life.

By default the File Browser is stored away in the Palette Well so that it is only ever one click away. The same is true of the second major addition to Photoshop 7, the new Brushes palette. Photoshop is so dominant in the field of bitmap editing that it might seem strange that its brush handling should need improving, but in fact its controls have always been surprisingly weak. Essentially all you had access to were a few rudimentary brush variations and the ability to change basic settings, such as dab size and spacing.

That's certainly no longer the case. When you select the new Brushes palette the first thing you'll see is a scrolling list of over fifty brush presets. These start off fairly traditionally but by the bottom you've got brushes that look like charcoals, chalk, watercolours and others that look like stars, grass and nothing on earth. And these are only the defaults. There are eleven more libraries of brushes that you can load ranging from Dry Media and Drop Shadow through to Special Effects and Wet Media.

Brush handling is far more powerful and creative.

And the control over each brush is astonishing. To begin with you can change the brush Tip shape and sets its size, angle and spacing just as you could in the past. What's completely new is the control offered by the eleven settings - Shape Dynamics, Scattering, Texture, Dual Brush, Colour Dynamics, Other Dynamics, Noise, Wet Edges, Airbrush, Smoothing and Protect Texture - running down the left of the palette. Each setting has a check box next to it and, if you select one, you'll see the behaviour of your brush change radically. Select Noise for example and the brush stroke becomes grainier; select Airbrush and your paint pools if you keep the brush static.

This is impressive enough, but for the first six settings the control is in a different league altogether. Click on Shape Dynamics, for example, and you can control the "jitter" or amount of change in the brush's size, angle and roundness and tie these in to factors such as the pen pressure, tilt and direction. Select Scattering and you can control the limits within which each dab is positioned along the stroke, select Colour Dynamics and you can control the limits within which each dab is coloured.

The creative possibilities opened up are absolutely phenomenal particularly as exactly the same brush options are available for use with the history brushes, retouching tools and especially the Clone Stamp tool - perfect for quickly turning an existing photo into a work of art. There's not quite the same range of power as there is in a dedicated art program like Corel Painter but it's a close run thing. And Photoshop 7's power is more self-contained, easier to get to grips with and, best of all, provides a brush preview so that you can instantly see what sort of brush you are building.

With so many creative options, the danger is that things can easily get out of control. How for example can you find a particular brush that you created earlier in your work? Photoshop's solution for this is its new Tool Presets palette. This lets you save favourite brush variations - including their current colour if you want - that you can then access either from the Tool Presets palette or directly from the context-sensitive Property Bar. The capability is available for all tools so that you could create different Crop tool presets for creating different image sizes. You can also create and load libraries of presets so that you could have separate collections for your favourite artistic and retouching brushes.

Brushes can be saved as tool presets for easy access.

One consequence of Photoshop's new handling is that the former Airbrush tool is now treated as a pooling variation that can be used with all brushes. This means that there's a hole on the Toolbox that needs to be filled and the replacement Photoshop 7 provides is its new "Healing" brush. It's a slightly disconcerting tool since it works in two passes - as you paint, the brush acts like the Clone Stamp tool but, as soon as you stop, the cloned area is processed and merged into the underlying pixels. By preserving lighting, shading and texture, the Healing tool's main function is for removing dust, scratches and wrinkles - hence its name. The Patch tool is a variation on the theme designed to work on selections

Another new feature that should please photo editors, especially the more occasional hit-and-run user, is the new AutoColour command. This is a one-off command with no parameters, much like the existing AutoContrast and AutoLevels options, that instantly brings out the full colour range in an image. It doesn't always come up with the goods, but sometimes it's a revelation, and in many cases it will be the only colour correction command you'll need.

The AutoColour command offers one-click colour correction.

For distorting images, the existing Liquify dialog has been given a make-over with new zoom, pan and undo capabilities that practically turn it into an application in its own right. New power has also been added with a Turbulence brush that acts like a cross between the bloat, pucker and twirl tools, ideal for producing smoke-style effects. You can also load and save meshes which is useful for applying the same distortions to multiple images, for saving ongoing projects and for experimenting on low-resolution versions of an image.

The Liquify and Extract commands have both been relocated to the Filter menu alongside the new Pattern Maker command. Again this takes the form of a full dialog with its own tools and parameters, but its function is much simpler. Essentially you select a rectangular area of the image and hit the Generate command to have Photoshop turn the selection into a repeating pattern. You can change factors such as size, offset and smoothness but the results are largely out of your hands. Hitting Generate repeatedly comes up with variations that are automatically stored as a Tile History that you can then review to pick your favourite. As well as applying the tiled effect to the image as a whole, you can save the individual tile as a pattern preset for use with other tools.

The Pattern Maker command generates tile-based patterns.

It's a useful utility but that's just about it in terms of major new creative additions. Minor enhancements include the redesigned and more accessible Text tool and palettes and the ability to find-and-replace and check spelling across text layers. Digging around I also came across a number of tweaks that Adobe isn't highlighting but which should prove useful, including five new blend modes and some extra Style libraries. The vector tools also now work in a slightly different way with the Pen options more integrated and all tools defaulting to adding multiple objects to their own layers. Each change is welcome but, after the explosion of creative functionality in version 6, I certainly expected more.

In terms of output power, Photoshop's printing capabilities are largely unchanged although the Print Options dialog has sensibly been renamed Print with Preview and there's a new Print One Copy command with no dialog at all. The big disappointment is that you can still only print one image at a time. You can work around this using the Automate>Picture Package command to cut and paste multiple resized photos into a new image. This now offers different page sizes, the ability to overlay labels and - at last - the ability to produce multiple copies on the same page. The Automate>Web Galleries command has been given a similar revamp with more templates and watermarking capabilities. Frankly though it's embarrassing that Photoshop relies on crude macros to perform such central tasks - especially as they both fall over if they come across file types that they don't recognize!

The Picture Package workaround enables output of more than one image per page.

When outputting images to file, the major advance is the new ability to set 40-bit or 128-bit encryption when outputting to Acrobat format so that the PDF can only be opened by a user with the correct password. You can also control whether the image can then be printed or changed - though these settings only apply within Acrobat which rather defeats the point! The PDF format - alongside the other Photoshop standards such as TIFF, JPG and PSD - also supports metadata such as captions and keywords embedded within the file. This information is now stored in XMP (extensible metadata platform) format which, as a recognized standard, will enable easier file retrieval and management as well as enabling automatic workflows.

The most important file output capability is Photoshop's web image optimization as here every byte counts. The Save for Web dialog offers a number of improvements including the ability to output to the basic bilinear WBMP format for use in wireless Web pages. Much more advanced is Photoshop's ability to apply different GIF lossiness and JPEG quality settings to different areas of an image so that less important areas of an image are more highly compressed. In version 6 this involved creating an alpha channel mask, but version 7 now lets you automatically apply higher quality settings to text and vector shapes which, by their nature, are likely to be the focus of attention.

The most welcome optimization enhancement is the new transparency handling for GIFs. In the past you were expected to set up transparency before calling up the Save for Web dialog. Now you can simply select colours from the colour table and mark them as transparent. And as all settings are remembered, you can continue working non-destructively on the original. In fact this index-based approach is how most other applications already handle GIFs but Photoshop 7 breaks new ground with its dithered transparencies. If you set up a partially transparent layer, Photoshop can mimic the effect with pattern, noise and diffusion-based dithers which you can then set to be transparent. The resulting semi-transparent GIF will appear to blend - more or less - with whatever background you place it over.

You can now non-destructively map GIF colours to transparent.

So what's the overall verdict? Photoshop has been crying out for years for visual image management and better brush handling and version 7 does finally deliver. After waiting so long it's a bit of a case of better-late-than-never but, even if you've turned to dedicated alternatives such as CompuPic and Corel Painter in the meantime, it is always better to have such power integrated into your main editor. Throw in some enhanced Web capabilities and the odd tweak here and there and Photoshop 7 should keep most users happy.

While it's a much smaller leap than that between 5.5 and 6, version 7 does do enough to maintain Photoshop's lead over the competition.

Tom Arah

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System Requirements :  Pentium or higher, 128MB of RAM, 100MB of disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP, NT 4 (SP 6), CD-ROM, SVGA display.

Tom Arah

April 2002

ImageReady 7

One of the surprises with Photoshop 7 is that it still includes the separate ImageReady application. With Photoshop offering plenty of in-built Web power, including slicing and the ability to output HTML, it seemed natural that ImageReady should be merged. That's not the case and ImageReady 7 (promoted from version 3 last time) is there to provide extra Web-oriented power.

One of ImageReady's primary functions is to enable the creation of rollovers and it's here that the major changes are apparent. The Rollover palette has been redesigned so that, where previously you could only inspect one slice at a time, now you can see all image slices and states simultaneously. In fact all image maps and animations are also listed so that ImageReady's Rollover palette acts rather like Photoshop's Layers palette as the centre of your editing work. The palette also offers more power with a new Selected State option for creating navigation bars where different rollover effects occur simultaneously.

The second major advance is the introduction of variables. In ImageReady's new Variables dialog you can now set up the layers of your image to be variable. All layers can be switched on or off, text can be changed and pixel-based objects can even be replaced. You can also capture and save current variable settings as data sets which you can then step through within ImageReady. The real benefit though comes when another program such as GoLive takes control of the variables. This is especially the case with Adobe's new AlterCast server software which can tie in the ImageReady PSD template to a database to batch produce image variations - ideal for large scale Web imaging workflows.

ImageReady's variables work on the same general principles as they do in the recent Illustrator 10, but compared to Illustrator's palette-based approach the ImageReady dialog is incredibly awkward. Sadly this is typical of the program as a whole. And while differences between working methods in ImageReady and Illustrator are just about forgivable, differences between ImageReady and Photoshop aren't. Unfortunately while the two environments look superficially similar they offer completely different capabilities so that while most vector shapes can be added, for example, they can't be edited. And, if anything, the two programs are pulling further apart. When none of the new features in Photoshop 7 from the File Browser to the AutoColour command have made it through to ImageReady, you have to wonder if the development teams ever meet for coffee.

ImageReady 7 offers a new central Rollover palette and variable control.

The contrast between the two applications could hardly be greater. While millions of users jump on every new feature in Photoshop, only a fraction will ever load ImageReady. And the vast majority of those that do will soon be driven away by its idiosyncracies and half-baked handling. This is now the fourth release of ImageReady - hopefully it will be the last.


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