MGI PhotoSuite III

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A next generation application that makes good use of its browser-based architecture to provide a focused SOHO solution for the PC Photography market.

MGI PhotoSuite III photo tapestry

In the crowded budget photo-editing market, MGI PhotoSuite stands out a  mile. Its difference lies in the fact that it is built on an Internet  Explorer-based architecture combining ActiveX controls, scriptlets,  javascript and dynamic HTML. For many readers this will immediately be  reason enough to stop reading. Network and Navigator users aren't going to  be keen on a program that could upset their existing systems and I have to  admit that I played safe with a test machine. Thankfully the installation  went smoothly and, for the intended market of standalone Windows 98 SOHO  users looking for a modern application to take full advantage of their new  set-up, PhotoSuite's tight integration with Explorer isn't likely to be a  problem. In fact it's going to be a huge benefit.

The first way in which this becomes apparent is the interface. PhotoSuite acts very much like a dynamic Web site complete with the occasional animation and plenty of interface-based sounds (though these can be turned off). Much more important is the fact that the program is structured like a well thought-out site. Running across the top of the screen is a navigation bar offering clear access to the program's seven main "activities" along with Back and Home buttons. Within each activity the browser-based metaphor again comes into its own with a side panel that allows you to drill down to the particular task you want and then provides all the options and advice you need to accomplish it. This logical workflow is ideal when you are getting to grips with the program, but more experienced users can also access tools directly from the toolbar.

MGI PhotoSuite III interface

PhotoSuite's logical workflow, ongoing assistance and considerable power ensures that even beginners are productive.

The first activity PhotoSuite offers is Get. As you would expect this allows you to access your images in the first place either from your hard drive, digital camera, scanner or the Internet. Users of digital cameras are clearly a prime target and so, on top of its general TWAIN support, PhotoSuite offers direct API support for various models of Agfa, Epson, Kodak, Olympus and Sanyo cameras. If your camera is supported you will be able to take advantage of additional functionality such as the ability to save sound files, delete files as well as copy them and so on. Of more universal benefit is the addition of an image preview on import so that you can see which file you are about to open.

In fact if you are dealing with multiple images you are actually much better off using the Organize activity. This allows you to quickly turn whole directories of images into albums of preview thumbnails. Each album can then be opened in the Library panel that runs down the right of the screen and images can be opened by double-clicking on their thumbnails. Text descriptions can be added to images as property fields, such as title, place and so on, and these can be used for searching. Multiple albums can soon build up, especially as removable disks and CDs can be catalogued, which is where the new Master Album dialog listing all albums comes into its own for restoring order.

Once you've opened your image, you edit it in the catch-all Prepare activity. This allows you to rotate and crop your image, colour correct, retouch, paint and draw on it. To begin with the power looks limited but as you explore more becomes apparent. When retouching, for example, there are nine different brushes available for softening, sharpening, burning and so on. PhotoSuite III also now offers unlimited undo so you happily experiment with all the options. The one major disappointment is the lack of any masking control to limit changes to sections of an image. In fact there are some serious selection tools, such as the new Edge Finder tool which even allows later node editing, but these are only intended for the creation of cut out objects for later compositing.

As well as for making the best of your images, the Prepare activity is also used for applying special effects with a whole range of filters divided into categories such as natural, geometric and a new range of painterly effects. The filters work well and quickly but there is no real control over them so if you don't like what you see there's little chance of fine tuning it. Rather more control is offered with the warping effects and especially the interactive warps. These work like Metacreations Goo to allow you to pinch, push, pull and generally manhandle your images - ideal for the creation of embarrassing caricatures.

Even more impressive are PhotoSuite III's two new special effects. Photo Stitch works by mapping together a sequence of up to five images into a single panorama, you can even set up a 2 x 2 square. All you have to do is to drag your images onto the onscreen grid in the right order, choose the cylindrical or perspective options for wide or narrow scenes respectively, click Apply and then crop down to the scene you want. It's a testimony to the underlying technology that the results of my tests were seamless - even more striking as in one case I had the images in the wrong order!

MGI PhotoSuite III panoramas

Automatic stitching can be used to create seamless panoramas.

The effect that will undoubtedly grab the headlines, however, is Photo Tapestry. This works by replicating any photo as a mosaic of tiny image thumbnails based on the underlying hue, saturation and brightness. You can set the total number of tiles, their orientation and also the final image size. PhotoSuite then creates the image in front of your eyes one thumbnail at a time. The results can be stunning and the whole process is a lot of fun but take care - PhotoSuite is a very popular program so it's only a matter of time before the tapestry effect becomes a cliché. Having said that, everyone I know will still be getting one for Christmas.

Once you've finished preparing your individual images you can turn to PhotoSuite's Compose activity. This enables you to create photo-based projects, such as calendars, greetings cards, business flyers and stationery, using over 1,200 templates supplied on a dedicated content CD. Projects can be refined by adding borders, props, word balloons and text and, by saving projects to the PZP format, all objects are kept separate and editable. With control over opacity, drop shadows and edge fading and the new ability to Edit objects the capabilities are surprisingly impressive. On the other hand, objects can only be edited individually and only by loading them back into the Prepare activity so we're not really talking about creating advanced Photoshop-style layer-based photo-compositions. Much more typical are the body swap templates for cutting and pasting heads onto inappropriate bodies.

When you've finished producing your image or project you'll want to show them off to others. The Share activity lets you create slide shows complete with full control over order, duration and transitions. You can even add music or your own soundtrack. Slide shows and individual images can also now be emailed using any MAPI-compliant e-mail software. Two nice new features are the ability to set an automatic target JPEG size or to combine files and an embedded viewer as a standalone EXE. For an even wider potential audience you can automatically turn albums into Web pages complete with links and post them to MGI's free password-protected hosting service. Of course if you're one of those Luddites that still believes in paper you could always use the Print activity instead. This enables direct outputting of multiple copies of a single image to the same sheet - a trick that Photoshop 5.5 still hasn't fully mastered.

The final activity in PhotoSuite III is Browse. As its name suggests this takes full advantage of PhotoSuite's architecture to allow the program to act as a full-blown Web browser. As you visit any site you can drag and drop graphics from it onto your Library panel for future use. In practice this is probably of limited use due to copyright and quality concerns. Much more useful is the tight integration with MGI's own site which can offer access to photo-related services and other links, tips and tricks and plenty of new content. Even better is the way in which updates can be downloaded and are seamlessly integrated into the program thanks to its modular architecture.

MGI PhotoSuite III internet browsing

PhotoSuite can act as a fully-blown Web browser and integrates well with the MGI Web site.

Ultimately, in addition to its logical structure, it's this integration with the Web and the program's seamless extensibility that really marks PhotoSuite out from the pack. PhotoSuite and its connected Web site are by no means perfect - and hopefully version IV will see more concentration on core editing power and on the program's most surprising blind spot the production of Web graphics. Compared to traditional rivals like PhotoDeluxe, Paintshop Pro and Picture Publisher, however, PhotoSuite's radical engine makes it look like a next generation product. Rather than an aging bitmap editor that's been forced to reskill, PhotoSuite III is a dedicated PC Photography package that knows exactly what it's doing and is looking positively to the future.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

5

Value For Money

5

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

October 1999


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