JASC Paint Shop Pro 8

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With its new interface, layer handling, paint engine, tools, effects and scripting, Paint Shop Pro goes professional.

When you think of photo-editing on the computer the chances are that you think of Adobe Photoshop. However the vast majority of non-professional users don't need Photoshop's high-end power and can't justify its cost. That's where Paint Shop Pro (PSP) comes in, offering a budget alternative. Its low price is definitely PSP's initial attraction but that's never stopped it aiming high. In fact at times, as with version 6's introduction of vector layers, it has even left Photoshop trailing. Version 7's minor fiddling was a serious let-down however and, as time has passed, it began to look as if PSP had run out of steam. Version 8 shows that's not the case at all.

You begin to realize just how fundamental the overhaul has been as soon as you load the application. Paint Shop Pro began life as a shareware package and its interface had changed little over the years. Frankly it looked old-fashioned, ugly and amateurish. Now everything has changed. The menu structure has been completely reworked, but it's the changes to the palettes that are most obvious. These are no longer free-floating but are conveniently docked down the right of the screen while the former Tool Options palette has been turned into an ever-present context-sensitive Options ribbon bar running under the menus.

The new interface provides streamlining, customizability and plenty of assistance.

The changes are so radical - even the keyboard shortcuts have been changed - that it takes quite a bit of getting used to. Fortunately assistance is always at hand. PSP's online help is good and there's a comprehensive Product Tour which shows you just what PSP can do. There's also the new integrated Learning Center docker window which provides HTML-based Quick Guide tutorials to walk you through common tasks. The interface certainly isn't perfect - it's still too technical and fussy - but you'll soon come to appreciate the new more streamlined way of doing things. And if you don't like the default set-up, you can now customize your menus, toolbars and shortcuts and save and load your own preferred working environment.

The interface changes are far more than skin-deep. The most obvious difference is to the former Colour palette which has now been transformed into the Materials palette. This lets you seamlessly switch between handling solid, gradient and pattern-based paint and fills. The control over these has also improved: you can rotate gradients and you can rotate and scale textures and load new textures from any supported file format including those containing transparency information. And once you've got your material just the way you want it, you can save it as a reloadable swatch.

The Layers palette looks comparatively untouched but its use has changed just as dramatically. The big difference is the introduction of Layer Groups which are sets of layers that are treated as a unit. This is handy for arranging your composition, but the PSP implementation goes much further and affects rendering. In particular you can change the opacity of all grouped layers simultaneously and any adjustment layers apply just to the current group rather than to all underlying layers. The same is true of masks which are no longer treated as an attribute of a given layer, but as layers in their own right. Again it takes a little getting used to - the former Mask menu has been incorporated into the Layer menu - but the new system is more logical and more powerful. PSP 8 goes even further. In Selection Edit mode the current selection also appears as a layer which means that you can use any tool to fine-tune it.

The handling of materials and layers has been revamped.

It's not just the main docker palettes that have been revamped. The toolbar now provides seventeen main tool icons giving fly-out access to related alternatives. In some cases there's been consolidation such as the incorporation of the Line and Node Edit tools into the Pen tool, while in the case of the main Retouch tool variations, such as Dodge and Burn, these have all been promoted to tools in their own right. And you can now switch between opposite options such as Dodge/Burn, Darken/Lighten simply by using the opposite mouse button.

Again the changes are more than just cosmetic as each of the major tools has been rethought and updated. The Zoom tool in particular is far more flexible offering percentage zoom levels rather than fixed ratios and the main zooming options have also been added to the Overview docker. The Crop tool now lets you crop to standard photo sizes while automatically updating the resolution value to match the desired size. And the control over text is now handled via the options ribbon bar (though text is still edited in a window rather than in situ).

The biggest change is to the brush handling for PSP 8's various paint and retouch tools. The underlying engine for these has been completely overhauled producing smoother results and offering two new options: Continuous Paint, where all inputs count as a single stroke (important for laying down textures); and Wet Look which simulates the effect of water-based paint where edges are darker than the centre. The control over the brush shape has also been improved and you can save your customized brushes as presets alongside PSP's in-built range of creative options such as crayon and charcoal. And while you're painting you can gain far greater control over your brushes, especially if you are using a tablet, via the Brush Variance palette.

PSP 8 also offers a number of completely new tools. The Straighten tool lets you straighten scans or digital photos simply by marking a line that should be horizontal or vertical. The Perspective Correction tool is a very useful variation on the same theme, letting you mark the four points of an object that should be rectangular. If you want to add distortions rather than remove them, PSP can oblige with its new Mesh Warp tool, while local effects such as twisting, bloating and pinching are handled with the new interactive Warp Brush - great for producing Goo-style caricatures. Finally there's the new Background Eraser which lets you paint away the background around objects - the more clearly-defined the better.

When it comes to filters that affect the image as a whole, PSP8 now follows the majority of its rivals by splitting the commands into two camps: the main colour corrections available from the new Adjust menu and special effects which remain under the Effects menu. The handling of these effects has also been updated. The Effects Browser now generates pages of thumbnails at a time not just for every effect but for every preset! You can also now create presets from just about every filter dialog. The support for third-party filters has also been improved.

PSP 8 offers several new effects.

Not that most users are going to need them. Paint Shop Pro has always provided an extensive range of filters and this has been further expanded. Again a number of these offer distortion-based effects: Polar Coordinates maps pixels from cartesian to polar coordinates, Spherize wraps an image around an imaginary sphere and Lens Distortion simulates pincushion, fisheye or barrel distortion. Further creative options include Soft Focus which softens the image focus, Magnifying Lens which blows up a portion of the image, Halftone which simulates the screening process used for commercial print, and Balls and Bubbles which lets you add realistic spherical objects to your image.

In terms of new functionality the biggest single change in PSP 8 has to be the introduction of scripting. Using the new Script toolbar you can now record any sequence of actions as a macro ready for playback (plenty of samples are also provided). The whole process is very straightforward and you can even automatically record brush strokes - something Photoshop doesn't allow. And if you need further control you can load your recorded script into PSP's built-in script editor, for example to set up conditional processing. And with the ability to apply scripts via the Batch Conversion dialog you can automatically apply the same changes to multiple images.

The functionality is certainly impressive but there is a catch. PSP's scripting is built on the open source Python programming language which majors on power rather than ease-of-use. That's no problem if you're recording your macros, but editing is far more demanding (for example you have to be careful when indenting as this determines scooping). There's also a serious security issue - a malicious Python script could format your hard disk. PSP's solution is to limit those scripts that can run disk-based commands to a trusted directory, but it would still be wise to be cautious.

PSP's new scripting is surprisingly powerful.

Once you've finished your editing, it's time to output your files. One of Paint Shop Pro's longstanding strengths is its ability to print multiple images on a single sheet - essential for digital camera users. Printing generally has been updated with the ability to output images at a specific size or scale and positioned anywhere while multiple image printing can be based on a range of grid-based templates with images scaled or cropped to fit their cells. PSP's Browser also uses output templates so that you can control the printing of image thumbnails.

When it comes to exporting and importing files, PSP 8 again sees major changes (though surprisingly little to its Web capabilities). There's new support for a range of file formats such as AutoCAD Drawing (DWG), Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and Wireless Bitmap (WBMP). More regularly useful will be the support for Portable Document Format (PDF) and the increasingly popular JPEG 2000 (JP2) which offers lossless compression. Best of all for digital camera users is the fact that EXIF data is supported for PSP, JPG and TIFF so that you can edit files without losing embedded information such as date, time, f-stop, ISO speed and so on.

That's it for the major changes but there are plenty of smaller advances scattered throughout the program. There's a new Black and White Points image adjustment that lets you colour correct an image by specifying highlight and shadow colours and the Histogram filter now shows charts for both original and adjusted images. There's a new Info tab on the Overview window that provides feedback on the current image and tool and support for lossless JPEG rotation from the Browser. I particularly like the fact that when you close the application you are presented with a list of all open images and can conveniently specify whether changes made to them should be saved or discarded.

The changes in Paint Shop Pro 8 are evident from first opening the application right through to closing - there's hardly an area that's been left untouched. There's no question that this is a major release - but I still have to admit to a strange sense of disappointment. I know that if Photoshop underwent a similar transformation I'd be raving - but in a way that's the problem. Too many of the core advances such as the new layer handling, paint engine, and scripting will really only benefit professional users and, let's face it, they aren't going to desert Photoshop for PSP. More to the point, those users looking for a cut-down Photoshop are now well catered for with the real thing: Photoshop Elements.

Rather than trying to out-Photoshop Photoshop, I can't help feeling Paint Shop Pro would be better carving out its own territory in the same way as PhotoImpact and PhotoSuite. Having said that though, there's no doubt that PSP offers an amazing amount of advanced photo-editing power at an amazing price.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: Pentium, 128MB of RAM, 200MB of hard disk space, Windows 98 (SP2), SE (SP1), ME, NT4 (SP6a) 2000 or XP, Internet Explorer 5, 800 x 600 display

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Tom Arah

June 2003

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