Micrografx Picture Publisher 8

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With new effects and web features to add to its existing ease-of-use and  functionality, Picture Publisher attempts to straddle the worlds of office and  studio-based photo-editing. Ultimately, however, it falls between the two.

Micrografx Picture Publisher 8

Micrografx has a long history and strong reputation in the field of PC-based graphics with its Windows Draw suite (reviewed ) more or less sewing up the budget end of both draw and paint-based work. The bitmap editor in the Draw suite is PhotoMagic and for those users who feel they are hitting its limits, Picture Publisher 8 would seem to be the natural step up in power. Upgraders will certainly feel at home as the environments are very similar sharing the same tools, basic menu structure, context-sensitive property bar and so on. As with PhotoMagic, the emphasis throughout is on ease of use and a low learning curve.

In fact many users will probably find the large colourful icons and dialogs rather too friendly for their tastes, but the Picture Publisher interface does also pack some surprisingly professional power. One area that is being talked about a lot at the moment is the importance of multiple undo for bitmap editing. Picture Publisher has offered an infinite undo since version 5. As you work on an image, every action you take is automatically recorded as a list in the Command Centre dialog. If you later regret a step you can simply return to that stage in the editing process or even just de-activate that particular action - Picture Publisher will automatically re-cook the image to the new recipe.

A big advantage of this command-based approach is that pre-designed sequences of commands can easily be applied to images. Picture Publisher now offers 72 of these macros available either from the Effects menu or from the new Wizard Browser. Some of these are seriously useful such as the wizards for creating striking text effects and drop shadows. Unfortunately, however, the majority of the macros are not customisable and the only information that the browser offers about them is that they "apply an artistic effect to your image." The only way to found out exactly what they do is to apply them - which in some cases takes minutes - and then undo the effect if you don't like it.

Considerably more control is offered over Picture Publisher's five major new effect filters. The Light Studio enables different light sources to be applied to an image to give it a dramatic edge. Users can add, position and fine-tune the effect of as many light sources as they want, or they can use any of the twenty pre-sets. The control is comprehensive with four different types of light - directional, flood, spot, and omni - customisable for colour, distance, intensity, ambience and gloss. There is also the option to set a bump map to give the image the appearance of depth. In comparison the new Image Warp effect is very limited with a take-it-or-leave-it set of grid-based pre-sets. This is made up for to some extent by the new warping tools, but it is still difficult to feel in control of the results.

Two more new filters are designed to give scans a professional photography feel. Ironically this is done in both cases by mimicking limitations of the traditional photographic process. The Lens Flare effect mimics the circular refraction patterns that occur when light hits the lens directly. This can be used for adding sun-glinting style effects or for producing deep-space-style galaxies and nebulae. The Camera Aperture effect lets you control the depth of field of your image by setting the f-stop and level of zoom just as you would with a real camera. It might seem strange to want to deliberately lose sharpness in your image but it is a useful way of controlling the viewer's centre of attention.

The last of the new effects is the Bevel Factory which allows the user to select the exact shape and width of the desired 3D bevel, the strength and direction of the apparent light source and even an optional bitmap texture. The dialog remembers the last used settings so, if you only use one style it is possible to create consistent effects, but it would be better if pre-sets were supplied and if customised versions could be saved. When applied to images as a whole the bevel effects are a good way of producing frames, but their most obvious will be for turning objects into 3D-style web buttons.

Of course buttons on their own aren't much use, so Picture Publisher now allows them - and any other floating object - to be given a URL which can then be saved to an image map. As you would probably expect the procedure for this is dependent on an Object Properties command, but the implementation of this is surprisingly cumbersome. Rather than being available from the Object palette or by right-clicking on the object, the command is instead found under the View menu. At least this centralised approach allows access to all current objects, but even within the dialog the procedure for adding the URL and the optional alternative text is unnecessarily awkward. One feature that web designers can be unreservedly grateful for, is the option to view and specify colours as RGB Hex values.

Picture Publisher 8 can be used not just for converting existing images into image maps, but also for designing full web pages. This is done through the new Web Styles wizard which is effectively a dedicated web module within the main program. The wizard allows the user to select a screen size and then offers a range of over 40 different web-based designs. The page is then automatically created complete with the desired buttons, bullets and lines. Each of these elements can then be customised by double-clicking which opens up a tabbed property dialog where the object shape, size, fill and, where appropriate, text can all be customised. This is such a well-implemented and powerful feature that it is disappointing that the same control is not available for those images not created with the Web Styles wizard.

Once the page has been created it is exported to HTML with the Web Output wizard which allows an image format and palette to be set as a default while allowing overrides for individual objects. Once converted, the page opens directly in your browser for checking. Micrografx has done what it can to help keep file sizes down so that the page backgrounds, for example, are created as repeating strips rather than as full size images. Even so the pages are inevitably graphic-heavy and as such will take a long time to download. Ultimately, the fact that all text is dealt with as bitmaps means that text handling within Picture Publisher is laborious and will be just as time-consuming for any potential browser.

While Picture Publisher might be useful for creating a one-off graphical splash screen, it shouldn't be seen as serious web page designer. It can be a seriously useful tool, however, for creating the graphical elements for a dedicated HTML package. The redesigned GIF and JPEG export dialogs are particularly important in this regard, showing an interactive preview of palette and compression settings and crucially the effect on file size and download time. Also very useful is the new GIF Animator wizard which has three tabs for controlling global attributes, the frame order and individual frame settings. Unfortunately, to actually edit the frames each has to be opened separately into its own window and there are no dedicated animation options such as onion-skinning.

Picture Publisher's new web-based control is certainly a major improvement on previous versions and brings the program more into line with competitors like PhotoImpact (though a new version of this is due soon). Where Picture Publisher pulls away from the office-centred graphics programs is in its high-end print support. With advanced features like anti-aliased masking, CMYK support and now full Kodak-based colour management, Picture Publisher claims to take the challenge directly to the likes of Photo-Paint and even Photoshop. Certainly professional features like the ability to save a clipping path in an EPS file and the advanced colour map controls are impressive in a program with a street price well under 100.

In practice, however, I have to sound a warning. A number of high-end features such as the ability to easily swap between an image's channels, to begin painting on a new layer or to conveniently check colour values are simply not there. Even where a feature is in place, it is not necessarily powerful enough. Claiming CMYK support is all very well, but without a preview mode or any input into the RGB to CMYK conversion, the fine control needed simply isn't there. The fact that changing mode made no onscreen difference to the images I tested was particularly worrying.

Ultimately though the one feature that rules Picture Publisher out for professional work is its lack of speed, particularly when it comes to working with effects. While applying an unsharp mask and gaussian blur to an image took 7 seconds in Photoshop, for example, it took 18 in Picture Publisher. This sort of difference might sound liveable with, but it has serious knock-on effects. While Photoshop filters can be interactively previewed on the actual image, for example, Picture Publisher effects are only previewable in a small thumbnail in the dialog. Moreover, when you start dealing with larger images destined for print or with more complex effects, the problem gets worse. Applying the new camera aperture filter to a 2Mb file, for example, took over two minutes on a reasonably fast 200MMX.

In the end, while it's difficult to blame a budget program for trying to offer high-end features, Picture Publisher is really out of its depth when it comes to top-of-the-range print production. If you need this level of control and power you really need a professional package. The problem is that the lack of horsepower is bad enough to affect even Picture Publisher's office and web-based image handling. In short, too much time is spent looking at the screen waiting for an effect to be applied or for an image to be rebuilt. While there's no doubt that on paper Picture Publisher offers excellent functionality and value for money, in practice it proves much less attractive.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

5

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

January 1999


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