MGI PhotoSuite II

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Second generation consumer-orientated photo-editing package makes good use of its browser-based architecture.

MGI PhotoSuite II screenshot

MGI is not one of the household names of graphics software like Corel or Adobe, but in the world of consumer-based PC Photography it can legitimately claim to be the biggest player. With little fuss it has now shipped over 10 million copies of its PhotoSuite product, most of them bundled with scanners and digital cameras. With the release of PhotoSuite II the company hopes to raise its profile and to expand into the burgeoning SOHO market.

PhotoSuite II isn't just an update of the existing PhotoSuite 8. The program has been completely rewritten from the ground up and is now based on an entirely new browser-based architecture combining ActiveX controls, scriptlets, javascript and dynamic HTML. I must admit this set alarm bells ringing for me, and for many users the need to install Explorer 4 before you can run PhotoSuite II will immediately rule the program out of contention. On a Windows 98 system, however, installation was painless.

The new architecture is apparent when you first load PhotoSuite from the introductory video and the completely different fake leather look-and-feel of the program. Essentially running the program feels like visiting a modern web site - though thankfully much faster. The major difference in working practice is that the program is structured in a navigable way. In particular the application is divided into six major modules - photo, projects, album, slideshow, internet and guides - that you enter by clicking on a button in the top corner of the left-hand panel.

As you enter each module, potential activities are shown as icons down this left-hand panel. In the main Photo module, for example, there are five options from Get Photo through Edit Photo, Rotate and Crop, Touch Up and Transform to the final Save, Print and Send. Click on one of these, such as Touch Up and Transform, and further options, such as Special Effects or Warp, are shown in a fly-out menu. When one of these is selected, all of its relevant options appear as a scrollable list in a horizontal panel under the picture. When one of these final options is chosen, such as posterisation, changes are automatically previewed in the picture and you can apply them or simply carry on exploring.

The range of filters supplied is on the whole good, with the special effects particularly impressive - though with disappointing scope for customisation. The tools on offer are also generally strong with the main brush tool used not just for painting, but also for retouching effects such as sharpening and softening and now dodging and burning. The assistance on offer to help the user make the most of the tools though is surprisingly poor. When isolating elements of an image for manipulation using the magic wand tool or the new smart edge finder, for example, there is no clear help on how to use the tools or how to add to or subtract from the current selection or how to invert it.

In fact PhotoSuite II does offer more help though its Guides module which walks users through common tasks such as removing red eye. Thanks to the program's browser-based and modular architecture it is possible to offer the relevant zoom and brush tools together with the necessary sizing controls and advice all from the one panel. This really demonstrates the advantage of the PhotoSuite II browser-style interface, so it is particularly disappointing that there are so few guides available with just three options for helping fix photos.

As well as enhancing single images, PhotoSuite enables the creation of photo-based compositions through its Projects module. To help the composition process, PhotoSuite II now offers multiple layers within each project, anti-aliased text and automatic drop shadow effects. In its pitch for the SOHO market, MGI has also provided a range of business templates including letterheads and business cards. At a push these could be useful, but it makes more sense to produce work like this in a vector rather than bitmap environment. In any case MGI's heart doesn't really seem to be in such mundane office work with the dedicated tools for adding humorous props and speech bubbles giving the game away.

A more practically useful aspect of PhotoSuite's emphasis on the consumer photography market is its recognition that nowadays users are dealing with multiple images. With the Album module you can add as many images as you want to a visual catalog complete with searchable keywords and descriptive text. Once set up, you can load the album in the main work area to visually select images by their thumbnail or you can set it to appear in a panel down the right-hand side of the interface. The difference between working with Windows' normal file dialogs and PhotoSuite's albums is immense.

Organising your photos to your own satisfaction is all very well, but eventually you want other people to see them. The PhotoSuite Slideshow module allows you to drag and drop images into a running order and also to drag and drop transition effects between them. By adding wav files and running the result full screen you can create some quite striking multimedia presentations. To get the maximum audience for your photographs though you need to take advantage of PhotoSuite's Internet capabilities. The Save As Web Page command will automatically turn your slideshow into a navigable web site complete with connecting links.

The final module and the one that really sets PhotoSuite apart from the competition is the Internet option which allows the main work area to be used as an Internet browser. This is billed as providing access to the world's largest online gallery through the ability to drag and drop any image you find on the Web into your current album for future editing. In fact the claim is slightly misleading as the only link provided to a source of free images is to the openly accessible Lycos Pictures and Sound search engine and trying to raid other sites is both legally dubious and hopelessly inefficient.

The system does work, however, and while the browsable content currently provided is disappointing it is clear that MGI is committed to building up its Internet-based value through its own PhotoStreet site. This offers users a photography-based magazine, tips and tricks, a gallery for users to post their own work to, competitions, a guide to other related sites and links to online photographic services. Moreover it allows users to download upgrades whether of new device drivers or new effects. Thanks to PhotoSuite's extensible architecture these are automatically installed and integrated. The MGI vision of software sees users not as one-off purchasers but rather as ongoing subscribers, which has to be good for customer and provider alike.

Despite my initial reservations and doubts, I have to say I was won round to PhotoSuite's new browser-based technology with its ability to provide a richer and more productive environment through guided activities, browsable content and access to a wide and ever-expandable range of added Internet value. This first release has yet to realise the system's full potential, but the benefits are already clear enough to make the traditional competition, such as Adobe PhotoDeluxe, look hopelessly outdated.

For the moment PhotoSuite's radical approach and consumer-bias will limit the program's appeal to photography hobbyists with Windows 98 systems. Eventually though all programs will look and act something like PhotoSuite II.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

4

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

March 1998


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