JASC Paint Shop Pro 4

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The latest version of the popular try-before-you-buy  program is hitting its limits and showing its age but, if your graphic demands  are few, it's worth a look.

Paint Shop Pro 4

If asked which is the UK's most popular paint application, most people would instinctively think of the big names like Adobe's Photoshop and Corel's PhotoPaint. In fact the program that's almost certainly made it onto more hard disks than any other would have to be JASC's Paint Shop Pro. The reasons are simple: a fully working version of the program is easily available via the Internet and countless cover disks and, if you can live with your conscience without registering, it is effectively free.

Of course JASC are not giving away software out of the goodness of their heart. The try-before-you-buy system offers them excellent distribution and market penetration and most people, if they regularly use and genuinely appreciate a program, will eventually own up and pay for it - well maybe not most, but presumably enough. The latest 32-bit version of Paint Shop Pro is intended to build on this existing user base and move the program firmly into the mainstream of the market. The question is just how good is the program when compared to the competition?

Paint Shop Pro's origins were as a humble graphic file converter and this remains its big strength. 33 file formats are supported including all the bitmap standards and a number of vector ones, such as WMF and CDR, for good measure. The list has been expanded and brought up-to-date particularly through the support for Web page graphics such as the GIF 89a and PNG. Welcome reminders of the old days include the batch conversion facility, a godsend if you regularly have to convert multiple files, and the simple capture utility which is generally sufficient for producing screenshots.

Once you have loaded or scanned an image, it is possible to crop, flip, resize or rotate it. It is also possible to enhance the quality of the photo by adjusting its brightness, contrast, gamma correction and so on. However the dialogs that allows this to be done are all frustratingly restrictive. In particular, by relying on outdated numeric spin controls to adjust settings, rather than the more common and more intuitive sliders, the user is discouraged from experimenting.

Even more disappointing is the management of colour within an image which is again achieved through these crude numeric controls. Most competing packages allow complete control over the full tonal range of a picture through the use of graph-based dialogs that allow, for example, the red component to be boosted at low levels while reduced at higher levels. In Paint Shop Pro, however, any changes made affect the entire image's tone map uniformly across the board. The option to independently control highlights, midtones and shadows offsets this to some extent, but again the management is inflexible and limited.

It's the same story with the filters. The important photographic filters for controlling exposure such as sharpening are there, but again the input offered to the user is basic. The special effect filters, meanwhile, have a heavy emphasis on coarse distortion effects such as pinching and punching which are rarely useful in practice and only serve to highlight the omission of any artistic effects. Compensating for the weakness of its own filters, Paint Shop Pro 4 supports external Adobe compatible plug-ins and even allows the user to define their own - though you would have to have the brains of a rocket scientist to create anything even half useful with this.

For hand editing of images, Paint Shop Pro offers a fairly comprehensive tool set. New features are the inclusion of photo-retouching tools to darken, lighten, soften and so on and the ability for brushes such as the chalk or charcoal tools to paint with a texture. Version 4 has undoubtedly improved in this area, but it is still playing catch up. The 'artistic' brushes, for example, are still very rudimentary compared to the realistic oil and watercolour effects of some competing programs, while the new ability to add linear, radial and sunburst gradients pales in comparison to some of the latest freeform fills.

Paint Shop Pro is even further out of its depth when it comes to photo compositions. A lot of work has been done to improve this area, with the ability to build up a selection made up of multiple sections of an image together with new controls over its transparency, opacity and the feathering of its edges. Unfortunately without the use of 'objects' - multiple floating sections of an image that can be activated and worked on separately as required - the user is forced into saving the outline of any selection to disk and then reloading it when needed. This is not only cumbersome, but simply does not work for montages of overlapping sections.

Overall, Paint Shop Pro is an adequate basic photo-editing and paint package for the occasional user. It doesn't offer anything that sets it apart from the competition and, despite the improvements in version 4, in many areas it is falling further behind. If you consider the program to be free, then there's no doubting its value for money, but at its full price this is certainly not the case. Compared to the power, flexibility and ease-of-use of PhotoImpact or even of the comparatively priced Windows Draw, Paint Shop Pro starts to look dated and much less of a bargain.

Features

3

Ease Of Use

3

Value For Money

5

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: 486 or higher, 16Mb RAM, 10-40Mb of disk space, Windows 95, 98 or Windows NT 4.0, SVGA

Paint Shop Pro
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Tom Arah

Jan 1998


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