Macromedia xRes 2

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Capable photo-editing software given an edge through its artistic brushes and  the ability to edit very large images

Macromedia xRes 2

As with all the other programs in the Macromedia graphics stable - FreeHand, Director, Fontographer - xRes was originally developed on the Mac, but has now been ported to the Windows environment. Surprisingly for a photo-editing program with high-end pretensions, its system demands are generally small. xRes is happy on a Windows 3.1 system and does not need vast amounts of RAM just to get the program up and running. There is one downside, however, the small matter of a 500Mb swap disk recommended for reasons we will come on to later.

When xRes is loaded for the first time it is immediately clear which program has inspired it. The screen is so full of on-screen windows that, when an image is opened, it immediately disappears under the plethora of palettes for selecting brush size, channels, objects and so on. To the uninitiated this would be intimidating, but for those experienced with the market leader, Photoshop, everything will seem reassuringly familiar. xRes clearly wants to attract existing Photoshop users, but this raises the question of whether it is intended as a serious challenger or merely as a complementary add-on.

As in Photoshop, the use of palettes in xRes is taken to the extreme and, since these do not work as standalones, even simple procedures will often involve a combination of palettes and even the menus. Also typical of the extravagant approach to valuable screen space is the Info Inspector, a whole palette used just to indicate a pixel's values when it is selected with the eyedropper tool. If anything was ever intended for status bar feedback, surely this is it.

At least xRes has dared to offer one interface innovation - if it deserves that name - which is the use of a button bar. This allows quick access to the most common commands, for example those for floating, dropping and removing selections. The instant improvement this makes to the speed and ease of use of basic operations shows the importance of a good interface, but also highlights how little MacroMedia have achieved on this front. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but xRes represents a missed opportunity to bring the Photoshop interface up-to-date.

Using the first set of commands on the toolbar, new files can be created and existing files opened. The major colour modes of RGB, CMYK, Grayscale and 256 colour are offered, but the file format options are surprising. Most of the standards such as TIF, GIF, JPG and TGA are there but, while the Mac standard PICT is supported, the common PC format PCX is not. Macromedia have also tried to jump on the Web bandwagon with support for the lossless PNG format, but there is no support for the creation of image maps.

Once an image is loaded, there are all the common commands for controlling its overall colour. Again the three most common options that offer the most comprehensive management over the input and output values of an image - the Levels, Curves and Brightness/Contrast commands - are available from the toolbar. By default, changes made in the dialogs are previewed on the picture as a whole, but if this is too slow there is an option to limit effects to a preview box. Irritatingly this decision cannot be made on the fly, but must be set in the Preferences dialog.

As well as preparing single photographs, a professional program like xRes must be up to the job of creating complex photomontages. This is where the Photoshop influence is even more apparent. Areas of an image can be selected with the marquee tools or sections based on similar colour with the magic wand tool. Floating a selection turns it into an object and adds it to the Objects palette. This allows precise management of opacity and blending modes. Imported files and text are automatically treated as objects.

xRes also offers full channel control through its Channels palette. Primary channels contain the colour information in a file, so that a RGB file will have separately editable channels for each of the red, green and blue components of an image. Alpha channels are additional channels added to an image to store selections and to create masks. Masks are used to protect selections of an image from editing and also for the creation of fade effects between objects. xRes offers a number of editable gradient shapes including advanced effects such as folds and satin which can produce some very striking cross-fades and backgrounds.

For advanced prepress work it is possible to work on any of the CMYK plates and to control exactly how the black plate is created. Pantone colours can be used, but there is no option to create duotones. Also disappointing are the lack of lighting effects and, more fundamentally, a clear dithering of the image in any monitor mode other than true colour. In other words, for high-end photo editing, xRes is capable but unexciting. If this was all xRes had to offer it would certainly not justify its price and Photoshop could rest easily on its laurels. However there are two big weapons in the xRes armoury.

The first great strength is the control over brushes. In the past there has tended to be a general divide between photo-editing and painting, but xRes seamlessly merges the two. Like Photoshop it offers all the normal retouching brushes such as the dodge, burn, sponge, contrast, smear and tint tools. In addition it offers over 30 digital brush variants arranged into 11 major categories such as airbrush, watercolour, charcoal and calligraphy. Each of these mimics its real world equivalent so that the oil brush paints with multiple bristles while the pointillist brush paints with translucent, multi-coloured dots.

Each brush can be easily modified. The Shape Inspector allows basic changes to the size, shape, angle and edge. More advanced control is available from yet another palette, the Brush Options window. This allows the user to get to grips with every detail of the brush from opacity, flow, blackness, ink level to amount of bleed. Each of the default brushes is based on a different combination of these settings and the user can either modify these or create their own variations.

It is also possible to relate the size, concentration, blackness, angle, hue, lightness, saturation or scatter of a brush to its behaviour. An example of this would be to tie size, concentration and blackness to pressure sensitivity or speed so that, if you pressed harder on your digitizing tablet or moved your mouse more slowly, the brush would release more ink. It is also possible to set up direction-based or random relationships so that the current hue can depend on the direction of the brush stroke or just change each time you apply a new dab of paint.

Brushes can also be set to paint with a texture which is useful for special effects or for giving the impression of an underlying paper. Inevitably this has some effect on the speed of operation, but generally the responsiveness of all the xRes brushes is excellent. All in all, Macromedia have done a good job of translating the freedom of digital painting into a photo-editing program but, if you are serious about computer-based art, it still can't compete with the dedicated -and cheaper - Fractal Design Painter.

The feature that ultimately sets xRes apart from all competitors is its ability to handle large files of over 20Mb. At first, this might not sound that special. A number of programs can edit files of this size either by loading sections of an image or, more commonly, by loading a cut-down version and then post-processing the original. The problem with proxy systems like these is that, without the actual pixel values, it is impossible to work on details or to mask accurately. In effect the user is working half-blind.

xRes takes a completely different approach. When the user changes to xRes mode the file is converted to a new format. These LRG files are not cut down 72dpi proxies, but dedicated files built up of several versions of the main image saved at different zoom levels. xRes can work with these files through selective processing which means that operations are only performed on the current zoom level and on the current number of pixels viewed on screen.

It's useful to think of an example. To apply a filter to a 5000 x 5000 image would mean changing the values of 25 million pixels. Even if the system had the necessary 200 Mb of RAM, this would inevitably take some time. In xRes on the other hand, to alter the current screen view of say 500 x 500 pixels, it would only be necessary to change 250,000 pixels which would take just a few seconds. Of course there's no gain without pain and, if you change your zoom level or pan to a new area, the same process will have to be repeated on the new screen view. Likewise, at the end of the day, all changes will have to be brought together when the whole file is finally rendered, a process that can take up to ten minutes on the largest files.

These are small prices to pay, however, for the advantages of being able to work on the actual pixel data of large files in a system that takes an acceptable, and identical, time whether editing an image of 20 or 200Mb. Even better, because only the screen data is being processed at any point, the RAM requirements of xRes are meagre - though the use of LRG files does explain the recommendation for the huge 500Mb swap file. When you think of the costs a repro house could save, both in terms of time and RAM, it immediately becomes clear how xRes can justify its price tag.

This is certainly true, but for the average user it causes a problem. Unless you regularly edit files of this size, the advantages of xRes mode are lost and all you are left with is a competent photo-editor that costs more than it should. In a way, xRes is a victim of its own success; having to price itself out of the majority desktop market because of its one unique strength. With its capable compositing and advanced brushes, xRes definitely has the potential to become a serious challenger for the heart of the market, but at the moment it falls between the two stools of a professional, high-resolution niche product and a mid to high-end, general purpose solution.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

3

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

April 1998


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