JASC Paint Shop Pro 5

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High-end features, such as the introduction of an advanced layering  system, multiple undo and CMYK-support, look impressive but ultimately  fail to deliver.

Paint Shop Pro 5

Despite all the excitement over Photoshop 5, there is another bitmap editor that can legitimately claim its latest release is more important. As the press release says, "With an installed base of over 12 million users, Paint Shop Pro is easily the most popular graphics and image editing software available today." Of course this glosses over the big difference between "installed base" and "customer base". In fact it is exactly this difference that explains the program's huge popularity, as the majority of users have managed to live with their consciences while ignoring the reminders to pay up. With Paint Shop Pro 5, however, the stakes have been raised as the program now ceases to function after a 60-day trial period. Given this, the program must now be compared on equal terms to commercial packages such as Picture Publisher and PhotoImpact. This doesn't seem to worry Paint Shop Pro's developers at all as they have a bigger gun in their sights. They are promoting Paint Shop Pro as Photoshop power at a fraction of the price.

The major justification for the claim is the introduction of an image layer system that is almost identical to Photoshop's - in fact so identical that Paint Shop Pro can now open, edit and save multi-layer PSD files. Each layer acts rather like a sheet of acetate on which objects or brush strokes can be placed independently of the background image. This immediately makes the production of photo-montages simple as each layer can be positioned, scaled, stretched, skewed and rotated with the new Deformation tool. The system also opens up a lot of creative options allowing a layer's opacity or the way it interacts with underlying pixels to be changed.

To create a layer is simple. You can either copy an existing selection to a new layer with the Promote to Layer command, or you can create a blank new layer with the icon at the bottom of the new Layers palette. As soon as you have created a layer you'll have to work with this palette open, as each layer must be selected before any editing actions can be applied to it. This is unfortunate as the palette is ugly and intimidating. Rather than showing easily differentiated preview thumbnails of the layers it only shows their names and then complicates matters with numerous icons, gauges and dropdown lists. It's certainly not pretty but it is powerful, allowing the visibility, editing mode, grouping, opacity, blend mode and layer mask status to be changed for any layer without the need to select it first.

Apart from photo-composition, the major use of layers is to enable experimentation without the risk of making permanent unwanted changes. This is less important now as Paint Shop Pro, like the latest Photoshop, has brought in a multiple-level undo. Simply clicking the undo button on the toolbar, or hitting Ctrl + Z, will progressively undo all edits up to the limit of the undo memory buffer. Alternatively, selecting the Edit menu's Undo History command shows a list of all actions that can be undone. The system certainly works but there are a couple of quirks. In particular, all brush strokes with the same tool are treated as one action and there is no way to immediately redo an action that has been undone. After some searching, I found that individual strokes can be recorded by changing the program's undo preferences, but I couldn't find any way around the redo problem. This is a major limitation as one of the main uses of a multiple undo is to toggle between two states when deciding which is preferable.

Another limitation is the omission of a Photoshop-style History Brush but, apart from this, Paint Shop Pro's tool set is extensive. The new Smart Edge option for the Lasso tool allows selections to be automatically made around objects with clear contrast. The Line tool can now be used in bézier mode to create smooth curves and the Crop tool's selection can be resized before being applied. The various Retouch brushes have also been enhanced with pressure-sensitivity and new options such as "hue up" and "hue down" which move colours through the colour wheel and "push" which picks up underlying pixels and paints with them. The most striking new tool is the Picture Tube which lets you paint on the image with existing bitmap objects. The tool comes with a range of image sets to apply, such as butterflies and flowers, and you can also create your own.

With a wider range of tools and greater control over them, Paint Shop Pro embarrasses Photoshop when it comes to painting and image retouching. The same is true of the programs' image management. While Photoshop offers next to nothing in terms of visual file management, Paint Shop Pro offers its excellent Browser window. This now offers an Explorer-style interface with an easily navigable disk outline in the left-hand pane. As you select a directory, the Browser automatically - and very quickly - extracts image thumbnails from all supported image formats so you can see exactly what you're working with. It's then possible to copy, move, rename, delete or open the files, though it's not possible to drag-and-drop files into other applications. Even so, the Browser window is Paint Shop Pro's one unique selling point.

The secret of the Browser's success is Paint Shop Pro's ability to read a huge range of graphic formats. This has now been expanded to over 40 file formats including support for EMF, Photo-CD, FlashPix and Kodak digital cameras' native KDC. Paint Shop Pro can not only read a huge range of formats, it can also write to them and one of the program's main uses is as a glorified image converter. The Batch Conversion command is straightforward and allows all the files in a given directory to be reliably converted to a new format - a capability that many users have found invaluable over the years. The same can be said of the Capture command that allows screenshots to be taken of the full screen, current window, given area or selected object.

The browser, image converter and screen grabber are all neatly integrated into the main program, but the latest Paint Shop Pro also comes with a separate utility, Animation Shop. As its name suggests, this application is used for creating animated GIFs. It offers filmstrip-style editing where individual frames can be retouched with the basic brush, eraser, flood fill and text tools. However, Animation Shop's main strength lies in its ability to automatically create animations through its wide range of customisable frame transitions and text effects. Once the animation has been prepared, the Optimization Wizard allows fine control over the number and choice of colours and also allows comments and non-visible elements to be removed to reduce file size.

This control over animated GIFs is another feature that Paint Shop Pro offers but Photoshop doesn't. To really compete head-on with Photoshop, however, Paint Shop Pro needs to be able to offer professional colour handling. It claims to do just this with its new monitor gamma correction, its support for ICM colour management in Windows 98 and in particular its ability to work with CMYK images. This latter is a crucial feature for users who are preparing images for final colour-separated output through a publishing program like PageMaker. To create an image for colour separation, you simply check the CMYK selection box in the Options dialog when saving and the RGB information is automatically converted based on the current profile. This profile can be modified with the CMYK Conversion Preferences command which offers control over ink calibration and how the black plate is generated.

At first sight it looks impressive, but in practice Paint Shop Pro's CMYK support proves inferior to that found in Photoshop. To begin with Photoshop offers finer control so that you can take into account the dot gain of the press you are working to. Far more importantly though, Photoshop actually offers a dedicated CMYK working mode with access to the separate cyan, magenta, yellow and black channels directly through its Channels palette and indirectly through its various colour correction dialogs. In Paint Shop Pro, the only way to work with the CMYK plates is to use the Split to Channels command to create separate grayscale versions of each channel and then to recombine them. In other words, apart from when it saves the file, Paint Shop Pro is always working in RGB mode. This means that Paint Shop Pro can't show an out of gamut warning or an ongoing CMYK preview. In fact, it's not even possible to specify colours by their CMYK percentages.

In any case, for professional work, Paint Shop Pro would soon prove inadequate. Colour correction lies at the heart of professional imaging but Paint Shop Pro's control over levels and curves is poor with its histogram functions, for example, only offering the two options of stretch or equalize with no interactive fine-tuning. The program's filters are equally disappointing outside the core sharpening and blurring effects. In fact, when the program is really put to the test, it soon becomes clear that it promises more than it delivers. There is no support for vector-based clipping paths, for example, or adjustment layers, editable text, automatic layer effects, spot colour plates, duotones or scriptable actions.

In short, there is not going to be a rush of Photoshop users moving to Paint Shop Pro. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and, ultimately, Paint Shop Pro's attempt to move into Photoshop territory simply highlights just how exceptional Photoshop is. More importantly, the whole idea is misguided. Photoshop is aimed at high-end users willing to pay to ensure that they have the most powerful program for preparing images for professional print. That actually leaves a much larger market of office-based users who want to be able to quickly and easily create striking images without spending a fortune. In spite of the claims made for the new print-orientated layers and CMYK support, these users would actually have benefited more from features like image map creation and improved web graphic support. After all, a lot more people are going to produce their own web site than their own full-colour magazine.

Rather than wishing it was something it's not, Paint Shop Pro would be better off playing to its many existing strengths and catering to the audience it already has.



Ease Of Use


Value For Money




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

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Tom Arah

Jan 1999

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