Satori PhotoXL 2.5

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Revolutionary graphics technology for the power user - and at a bargain price.

Satori PhotoXL 2.5

Satori PhotoXL is a cut-down version of the state-of-the-art 64-bit animation package Satori FilmFX 64. Judging by the budget price and meagre resource requirements, I was worried that the program must have been so pared down that it could only act as a taster for the real event. In fact PhotoXL is very much a serious program in its own right offering 95% of the features of FilmFX 64 but within a single image, 32-bit framework. This means that it offers some amazing functionality, most notably a resolution-independent object-based approach to bitmap creation, that leaves market-leader Photoshop looking comparatively outdated, under-powered and overpriced.

The difference is immediately apparent when you create your first image. The default image size is 6144 x 4088 pixels which in a traditional bitmap environment would involve handling 72Mb of RGB pixel information - a step guaranteed to bring average systems to their knees. This is nothing to Satori PhotoXL and indeed there is only a notional upper limit on image size of 65,535 x 65,535 pixels meaning that multi-gigabyte images can be created if you have the disk space. For those professional Photoshop users currently weighing up the benefits and disadvantages of a move to dual-processor NT systems with hundreds of megabytes of RAM, here's an alternative that costs around 100 and can run happily on an average Pentium!

Of course there would also be downsides to consider in making such a move, the main one being the shift to a completely new environment. In the past Satori's interface was heavily criticised as being impenetrable, but a lot of work has been done to bring it more into line with traditional Windows applications. Even so, you still have to get used to a completely new way of working built almost entirely around the central Actions palette. In fact, apart from file operations, you hardly need touch the menu system at all as the Actions palette offers access to every aspect of Satori PhotoXL's power. This control-centre approach means that the program isn't going to win any Office-compatibility awards but, once you've acclimatised, it proves logical and efficient.

The power available from the Actions palette is divided into five main modes of operation - paint, geometry, keying, layer and canvas - and clicking on each mode reveals up to eight tabbed pages of tools, commands and options. The two most important modes are paint and geometry. Clicking on the geometry option reveals the shapes page with access to typical vector-based objects such as rectangles, ovals, bezier lines, polygons, stars and text. There are various limitations - such as the fact that objects can't be given a fill and outline simultaneously - that make working with Satori PhotoXL very different to working with a dedicated drawing package. Even so, the control and speed are amazing compared to the shape handling usually available in bitmap-based programs.

Of course the fact that geometric shapes are resolution-independent and can be handled quickly isn't much of a surprise, what is truly amazing is that the various brushes available in Paint mode are also object-based and so offer the same benefits. While brushes in traditional bitmap programs work by changing every pixel they pass over, Satori PhotoXL just stores information on current brush settings and the vector path it follows and only needs to update the pixels in the current screen view. The result is eye-opening speed. Selecting a 1000-pixel wide airbrush in an ordinary bitmap program would immediately slow everything to a crawl. In PhotoXL the brush can be applied as quickly as if it was 10-pixels wide.

So what's the catch? At first I thought that an inevitable result of the object-based approach to painting would be much cruder effects with uniform width, solid strokes based on over-simplified brushes. When I zoomed in on the image this indeed looked to be the case with obvious and ugly pixelization. However clicking on the Zoom palette's Hi-Rez button solves the problem by generating a new screen image for the current level of zoom. Experimenting with the brushes also shows that there's no lack of quality. In fact the range on offer from retouching brushes, such as shadow and highlight, through to artistic brushes, such as chalk and oil-brush, puts Photoshop to shame and begins treading on Painter territory. Even better the transparency of each brush can be controlled manually and if you have a WinTab-compatible pointing, such as a Wacom ArtPad, the brushes respond naturally to pressure.

There is a catch of sorts though. Satori PhotoXL avoids the huge demands of pixel-based processing while you are working on your image, but eventually you are going to want to create a bitmap that can be read by other programs. It's at this stage, when you select the Save As command and select a bitmap format such as TIFF, that all the processing must finally be applied at the 1:1 level. By default the program picks up the resolution you specified when you began the file, but the beauty of resolution-independence is that you can override this to create any size you want. However be warned, as the dialog says, "saving a bitmap of this canvas may be very time consuming". The good news is that, if you save your files in the native *.CVS (Canvas) format, you don't have to update the pixel information every time you close the file as you do with most screen-based proxy systems. Even better, Satori provides a post-processing program that can be used to batch convert CVS files to bitmap at times that are convenient to you.

In any case, the time taken in the final conversion process is a very small price to pay for the benefits of real-time editing and resolution-independent quality. Moreover, Satori's object-based approach to graphics offers another priceless benefit - complete flexibility. As information on each brush stroke is saved as a vector path, PhotoXL is able to offer an interactive undo. Hit Ctrl + Z and you are presented with an undo slider. As you drag backwards, all the strokes you applied with the most recent brush are unpainted before your eyes. This level of control isn't just powerful, it's fun.

And it's only the beginning. Running down the left-hand side of the screen is the Edit toolbar. If you choose the toolbar's Select Top Object command the last paint or geometric object you added is automatically selected. You can then delete it, move it, recolour it or change the width of stroke and, for geometric shapes, you can even edit individual nodes. More than this, if you select the Action Palette's Object command, the Object List palette appears in which all objects in all currently open images are shown. This allows any object to be selected and edited right back to the first brush-stroke. Only one object can be selected at a time and the effects of such editing can be slow to process as Satori has to recalculate how each object interacts with those below it, but the ability to retrospectively edit all pixel-based effects is still incredible.

Effectively each object in Satori PhotoXL is automatically placed on its own layer in a vector-style stacking order, but the program also offers the benefits of Photoshop-style layer handling through its Layer palette. New layers can be created and named and all new objects are then added to the currently selected layer. It's then possible to temporarily hide each layer or to change its overall opacity or to select between four basic blend modes. PhotoXL also offers user masks to enable transparency to be painted onto each layer. Alternatively, using the Keying mode of the Actions palette, you can automatically generate such masks based on the colour or brightness of the layer. Such compositing control is essential for Satori FilmFX's video editing but it is also ideal for creating advanced photomontages.

Layers have another trick up their sleeves in Satori PhotoXL as they are also used for colour correction. It's possible to change overall brightness and contrast or to globally shift colours while the Curves option offers similar functionality but greater tonal control. The major strength of this layer-based method is that the changes are non-destructive and so can always be fine-tuned in future simply by recalling the dialog. Even so, global colour correction is one area where Photoshop certainly outshines PhotoXL with far more adjustment options, greater control and more feedback.

To begin with I also thought that Satori PhotoXL was slightly lacking when it came to local retouching. While there are blur, lighten and darken brushes, for example, there is no sharpen option. In fact sharpening, along with a range of other filters, is dealt with as an option of the geometric shapes. Rather than a colour fill, each geometric shape can also be given an "FX" fill which affects all underlying objects rather like a lens. As well as sharpening, Satori PhotoXL offers access to controllable blur, emboss, lighten, darken, tinting and even drop shadow effects. In addition, via its CanvasFX technology, it offers access to over 60 one-off filters, such as vignette effects, with more available from the Satori website.

Satori PhotoXL's method of applying colour correction and filters as layer and shape properties is generally flexible but it hits problems when you want to deal with selections based on colour. To colour correct the blue in a cloudy sky in Photoshop, for example, you would simply turn to the magic wand tool to build up a selection which could then be used to create an adjustment layer. Satori PhotoXL's magic wand tool is very different, however, as it works more like a tracing tool to produce a polygon object which is inevitably cruder than a pixel-based selection. Also, while you can apply a fill or FX effect to the resulting object, you can't colour correct it as currently this is only dealt with on a layer basis.

Generally speaking then, while Satori PhotoXL's radical object-based approach opens up new possibilities, it can't yet offer the total colour control that direct pixel-based handling can. Rather than as a replacement to Photoshop, PhotoXL is therefore best seen as a complementary tool. While the program does offer scanning support, most target users will still prefer to use Photoshop to prepare their images. When they have created their composition they are also likely to turn to Photoshop for its professional control of CMYK output and for its advanced blend mode-based effects. Satori PhotoXL recognises this likely workflow and allows both the import and, more importantly, the export of PSD files with layer information intact.

The huge potential problem that such a workflow raises is that working with large scanned files would immediately bypass the benefits of Satori's object-based approach, eat up RAM and reduce performance back down to a crawl. PhotoXL's developers have appreciated the danger and come up with a brilliant solution. When you import a bitmap you are automatically given the option to convert it to RIR (resolution independent raster) format. This bitmap format has been specially optimised to work with PhotoXL by providing instant access to screen resolution versions of the image. The result is that creating montages with 200Mb files is as quick and easy as if they were 2Mb.

In fact the name "resolution independent raster" is slightly misleading as strictly speaking there can be no such thing. Ultimately the quality of the bitmap image depends on the pixel information it contains and Satori PhotoXL can't produce detail that wasn't there in the first place. This means that while its brush and geometric objects can be scaled to any resolution, imported bitmaps will degrade when they reach their actual pixel resolution. Satori PhotoXL can't quite do magic but, for those users currently struggling to edit huge files in a traditional bitmap environment, its combination of object-based tools and proxy-based bitmap handling certainly comes very close.

Having said this, there are still areas in which the program could be improved. Colour correction, colour management and CMYK-handling are all essential features for the professional user. Text handling and alignment features are also surprisingly poor for an object-based application where these should be a strength. Reliability is an important issue too with a number of unexplained crashes on one test system though this might be due to the worrying beta status of the shrink-wrap version sent for review. More fundamentally, despite all its strengths, Satori PhotoXL isn't the right program for all users. For simple scanning and image preparation any of the traditional bitmap programs from Paint Shop Pro to Photoshop would be a better choice and certainly easier to get to grips with.

However, for those professional and advanced users currently hitting the limits of traditional bitmap processing, Satori PhotoXL's completely new approach to graphic creation offers the best of vector and pixel worlds with the huge advantages of resolution-independence, lightening performance and total editability. At around 100 here's your chance to see the graphics engine of the future.

Tom Arah

Features

6

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

6

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

December 1998


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