JASC Paint Shop Pro 7

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Vastly improved drawing capabilities, but the new image enhancement and Web capabilities are disappointing.

Paint Shop Pro has come a long way from its humble shareware roots as the graphics program designed for those users not really interested in graphics. Building on its original strengths in file conversion and image capture, the program has grafted on advanced features, such as CMYK and layer support, to offer near-Photoshop power at a fraction of the price. With version 6's introduction of vector shape handling, Paint Shop Pro even stole a march on the market leader. Photoshop 6 has recently risen to that challenge, but now the latest Paint Shop Pro has another chance to close the gap.

This is immediately apparent in the Paint Shop Pro interface. The new Overview palette is a direct copy of Photoshop's Navigator feature, showing a thumbnail version of the entire image to enable easy navigation when working in zoomed-in close-up. The new support for image grids and customisable user guides is another direct lift. The ability to save and load palette arrangements as named workspaces meanwhile is completely new. In a way though it's an admission of defeat as a clean, streamlined interface, such as the latest Photoshop's or PhotoSuite 4's (see page ), would make workspace support unnecessary. Sadly this is typical of the Paint Shop Pro environment which is looking old-fashioned and in need of a general overhaul.

Grids, guides and the Overview window are all copies of Photoshop features.

One area of the interface that has been given a revamp is the Colour Palette that runs down the right of the screen. As in the past this lets you quickly choose foreground and background colours from the central colour well, but now you can also choose gradients, patterns and textures to apply. This opens up a lot of creative options enabling you to paint with effects such as brick, wood, rainbow and so on. Crucially the dialogs where you choose between the provided presets now display all options graphically which makes life a lot easier at well as boosting creativity.

In terms of new bitmap power, Paint Shop Pro 7 has gone back to basics. One of the most important tasks of any photo editor is making your photos look their best and Paint Shop Pro has completely reworked its enhancement capabilities. To begin with it now offers more customisible control over the information that the floating Histogram palette displays. More importantly, with its new Histogram Adjustment command it lets you visually fine tune the histogram, balancing midtones against shadows and highlights, effectively offering a powerful combination of Photoshop's Level and Curves commands.

Image enhancement options are powerful but intimidating.

Such control is ideal for professional experts, but most of these will already be using Photoshop. More interesting for the majority of Paint Shop Pro users will be the new automatic enhancement options available from the new Enhance Photo section of the new Effects menu. The three commands that JASC is making the most of are the Automatic Contrast Enhancement, Automatic Color Balance and Automatic Saturation Enhancement commands. These can be useful with the colour balance option, for example, changing a photo's apparent lighting from fluorescent to outdoors or vice versa. Generally though the commands fall frustratingly between two stools - offering neither complete control nor total simplicity.

Also on offer are a number of tools designed to help with problem images. The Deinterlace, JPEG Artifact Removal and Moiré Pattern commands are designed to clear up scan line, artifact and interference problems from video, digital camera and scanners respectively. Each is a useful tool but don't expect miracles. There's also an Automatic Small Scratch Removal filter which can be applied to image selections to fill in dust specks and scratches with their surrounding colours, but for fine control you're much better off with the new interactive Scratch Removal tool. Sadly there isn't a similar tool for Red Eye Removal so you have to resort to the dedicated command. This promises much with the ability to target different eye colours and even animal eyes together with control over everything from pupil lightness and glint to iris size!

The Remove Redeye command offers plenty of control but you have to work at it.

The power is there but in many ways the Red Eye Removal command is typical of Paint Shop Pro's new image enhancement features - it promises a lot and can deliver in special circumstances, but it's too complicated and fussy. And it's certainly not automatic. Thankfully there are two commands that do fall into this category. The Clarify command brings out detail while the Fade Correction command restores colour and contrast. Both commands offer just one parameter to set and, crucially, in both cases you can be confident that your image will look better after you've applied it.

As well as its new image enhancement filters Paint Shop Pro offers over twenty special effect filters including options such as Aged Newspaper, Sepia, Rough Leather and Fur. Options such as the Topography filter which "turns your image into a system of terraces" will clearly be less regularly used than the image enhancement commands but their effects can be striking. And thanks to the new Effects Browser, which combines the previous Filter and Deformations browsers, it's possible to quickly see broad effects on a thumbnail to decide if you want to take things further in the dedicated dialogs.

Apart from its new filters, Paint Shop Pro's bitmap editing capabilities are relatively untouched, but its control over vectors has been radically improved across the board. When version 6 introduced the concept, the shapes it offered were limited to the usual suspects - rectangles, ovals, arrows and so on. Now hundreds of preset shapes are provided ranging from speech balloons to aeroplanes and all are now presented visually from the Option palette's dropdown list. You can also add your own shapes to the list with the Export >Shape command.

The formatting options for shapes has also been taken onto a completely new level with the support for patterns, textures and gradient fills available from the Colour palette and customizable control over line styles available from the Tool Options palette. Formatting information can also now be saved with your shapes so that you can ensure a consistent appearance for all your Web buttons, or for a fully formatted company logo. Once you've added your shapes, you've also got far more control thanks to the commands available in the new Objects menu. You can align objects, distribute them, make them the same size and change their stacking order. You can even group them.

Gradient, pattern and texture formatting of shapes is impressive but creating the illusion of depth is complicated.

This is real drawing power and especially useful for creating an accurate Web page layout with consistent buttons. In many ways it's superior to the vector handling in the latest Photoshop with the ability to have differently formatted objects on the same vector layer far simpler than Photoshop's separate layer-based approach. On the other hand, for sheer creative power Photoshop's effect and style-based approach leaves Paint Shop Pro trailing. While Paint Shop Pro offers some impressive looking 3D buttons, for example, these had to be created as groups of texture and gradient-based highlight objects and trying to create your own is a seriously daunting task.

Photoshop also has the edge with its ability to save and print resolution-independent vector information from its high-quality print-friendly Acrobat PDF format files. For the moment PDF isn't one of Paint Shop Pro's 50 supported file formats and the program's ability to read vector information from various file formats - CDR, DRW, DXF, EMF, GEM, HPGL and WMF - and its new ability to output vector information to WMF or EMF format doesn't compensate. Paint Shop Pro's shape handling is useful when working on an image then but it's not intended to lead to high quality vector-based commercial print. In other words Paint Shop Pro still expects its vector shapes to ultimately be output as bitmaps, most obviously for the Web.

It's crucial then that Paint Shop Pro's JPEG and GIF export are excellent - along with its new PNG support. Sadly that's not the case. The GIF Optimizer dialog for example is an awkward tabbed dialog with little control over how indexed palettes are generated and no control over individual colours. Even worse is the fact that you are expected to judge optimization settings based on a single miniscule preview. JASC has clearly recognized the problem and offers the new Preview in Web Browser command to let you choose JPEG, PNG or GIF formats and then compare them full-size in your browser or browsers of choice. This is hopelessly laborious and doesn't let you do the one thing you need to - compare one set of GIF or JPEG settings against another.

Paint Shop Pro's new Web optimization preview is an awkward workaround.

There's worse to come. These days Web users expect to be able to turn their images into clickable image maps or, even better, HTML-based tables to speed download and to set up rollovers. Paint Shop Pro promises to do both with its Image Mapper and Image Slicer commands. In each case though you are presented with another awkward dialog with a too-small preview in which you are somehow meant to draw image sections or table cells with the selection of clumsy tools. To set up different optimization settings for different image slices you then have to call up the inadequate Optimizers. Setting up rollovers is even worse - all that you are presented with is a dialog for specifying alternative files that you are presumably expected to have already prepared for each slice and for each mouse event!

This is a serious disappointment. If Paint Shop Pro is to build on its impressive shape handling to offer Web capabilities - and for its target business users this is a crucial area - it really has to do better than this. Sadly with both its new image enhancement and Web features Paint Shop Pro 7 program has fallen back into bad habits, turning what need to be simple tasks into convoluted technical challenges. The comparison to the user-focused simplicity of a modern package like PhotoSuite could hardly be greater.

Having said this, there's still a lot to admire in Paint Shop Pro from its excellent Image Browser through to its ability to Print Multiple Images. And with its combined bitmap and vector editing there's no doubt that you're getting a lot of power for your money. Sadly though version 7 squanders much of the momentum that version 6 had built up.

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

November 2000

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