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PaintShop Pro 7 10th Anniversary Edition
Publisher: Jasc Software 
Purchasing: Jasc Website
Reviewed: 16th June 2002

Introduction

As we all know, graphics are essential to almost all multimedia applications. Not just the graphics programming either - the art assets will make or break any engine (good or bad). So whether you're doing 2D or 3D graphics you're going to need art-work to back you up, and you're going to need some software to do this.

Paint Shop Pro has been a long running favorite piece of software for me - it's always been relatively cheap (particularly when compared with the competition) and it's always done what I want it to do. Over the 7 versions it has changed from being a relatively simple graphics tool, to a now fully-fledged vector/layer-based/photo editing piece of software. As you may well have guessed, it recently passed it's 10th 'birthday' thus Jasc released the Anniversary Edition - intended to give us something back. Bare in mind that the Anniversary Edition's core program isn't hugely different to the original release of Paint Shop Pro 7, it's more a case of some added extras (as you'll see in a minute).

The User Interface


Click to Enlarge

The above screenshot is the basic PSP7 window as you'd see it shortly after starting up. It looks very simple initially - but this is one if it's many bonuses. Unlike other graphics programs which even in their most simple views have several 100 buttons, sliders and toolbars on display PSP7 just shows you the important parts. Everything else is there, and easily accessible from drop down toolbars/menus as shown in this next screenshot:


Click to Enlarge

You'll fairly quickly find which toolbars you use the most, and learn to customize those if you need to. In the above screenshot, the 4 windows appearing in the main workspace all have a little toggle next to the close gadget. Clicking this will toggle whether the window is always open or whether it hides after a period of inactivity. You can see two hidden tool windows in the first screenshot.

Getting used to this system can be a little tricky at first - if you let the windows hide themselves they tend to do it just when you don't want them to / just when you were looking at something.

The 'Tool Options' window as shown in the screenshot adapts itself depending on what tool is currently selected - offering all of the various options/settings that come with each tool.

Menu's are the next important part - and this is where PSP7 is most confusing - there are lots and lots of menu's, each one is quite long. It's not just PSP7 that's like this - lots of professional tools tend to have crowded menu systems, but it's a slight shame given the brilliant work that they've done with the rest of the interface. Use of the menu's centers mostly on 'Image', 'Effects' and 'Colours' - the majority of other menu's (such as layers) are covered by their own tool window. Each option on these menu's will usually open up a separate dialog box which allows you to fine tune the effect/function.

The above window shows a typical effect window (Motion Blur in this case). Almost all of the windows have the same top part - the two separate view ports, the zoom options and the preview button. The left window allows you to see the image as it was originally, and the right window lets you the image after the effect is applied, clicking on the preview button (the button that looks like an eye) will apply the effect to the whole image such that you can see it behind the window in the main workspace. Adjusting any of the effect controls in the bottom part of the window will be updated immediately in the right-hand preview window. This is a very useful method of working - particularly the real-time aspect, I've found that I choose some basic parameters check to see how it looks then you can make minor adjustments up/down and see which looks better in the viewport straight away.

PSP7, like previous versions, is fully keyboard-shortcut compatible. All of the major effects and functions have direct short cuts (Ctrl+...) and the majority of others are relatively simple - Alt+T+N+A gives you the noise effect for example. Many of the keyboard shortcuts remain the same as with previous versions of PSP (if you're familiar) however quite a lot of them have changed. When you're either doing lots of repetitive work or just in a hurry using the shortcuts will make your life a lot easier.

Photo Editing

PSP7 is primarily marketed as a photo and web-graphics tool. Whilst web-graphics aren't necessarily going to be of particular interest to the majority of multimedia programmers (except when building websites), the photo editing is interesting.

Photo editing doesn't just have to mean family-photo's, it can also be very effectively used to manipulate original data sourced from photo's/digital camera's (more on these later). In the case of multimedia work this can be anything from background shots to textures for 3D applications. Typically these will often require a fair amount of subtle reworking and/or correction. To do this at a professional level you'd need quite a lot of experience and training - you're not realistically going to purchase any graphics package and become a master and photo-editing.

However, PSP7 makes it pretty easy to get some good results (I'm no artistic genius). A combination of the preview windows as discussed above, and the range of tools / help files make it easy to play around with effects and judge for yourself whether it's doing the right thing. If you really want to get serious about photo editing you'll be wanting to buy yourself a text book / additional manual to go with your software.

Given that almost everyone wants to write a 3D engine these days, textures for 3D worlds have become an even more important part of an artists job. Taking, for example, a photo of a brick wall and creating a generic tiling texture that can be used on possibly 1000's of brick-walls featuring in the final product. This is probably where the majority of photo-manipulation techniques will be used as far as 3D multimedia work will be concerned - adjusting color balances, for example, is essential to remove any lighting constraints/effects imposed by the original photo. PSP7 provides us with more than enough ways to manipulate the color balances/levels in images, and as with all other effects they are reasonably easy to "guess use" with the preview window.

Painting

It definitely seems that you're not going to get any major releases of "painting" programs anymore - presumably the market is more in favor of photo-editing now. However, over the years I've often needed to do pixel-level work and Paint Shop Pro is one of the only graphics packages that I've always been able to do this with.

Take a recent example: I've been messing around with terrain rendering for years now, and one of my latest tests has involved using height-maps as a base template for the landscape geometry. These are essentially just 2D greyscale bitmaps where the color of each pixel (X,Y) represents the height at that point (Z). I have several algorithms that I usually use to generate these maps, but I still like to be able to manually alter them to add some additional characteristics not capable with my algorithms. Using PSP7 I can open up the image, select a 1-pixel brush and a greyscale palette and go about my editing with no hassle.

The other photo-editing suite that I've used in the past is Adobe Photoshop (considered by many as the industry standard), this is pretty much useless for these simple little jobs. It's almost entirely geared towards manipulating large images/photo's, with no substantial support for small adjustments.

Other examples of using PSP7 for this include simpler tasks - setting/correcting color-keys for 2D graphics (DirectDraw based in particular) and tidying up rough edges on GUI buttons/icons.

Other Simple Uses

Following on from the painting section, I wanted to outline a couple of other specific uses for PSP7 that I really like using, and more importantly are fairly unique to this piece of software.

The little tools that you don't really think about work very well in this software - 3 in particular:

Browsing - the package comes with a dedicated "media center" for organizing photo's which is useful. However the more useful feature is the file-browser feature built into the main program, it's similar to that included with Windows XP, all it does is display a grid of thumbnails for all graphics in a selected directory. Hardly a ground-breaking feature (and nothing new to PSP7), but it's amazing how useful it can be - my game project Formula 1 Championship Manager has several 1000 supporting graphics often with several 100 per directory. Using the browse feature can let me find graphics I want very quickly, and check for duplicate/similar images amongst other things.

Input/Output formats - PSP has always been good as far as loading/saving to different file formats. There are no less than 44 different formats supported for loading and saving; which has proven to be very useful when it comes to developing multimedia applications. Whilst you can usually get away with only needing about 6-7 major formats (JPEG, BMP, PSD, TGA etc...) it is useful to have a program that can view almost every file currently being used.

Batch-Conversion, this is also a very simple tool - select your input files, set the output location and format and off it goes... I don't use this so often, but it can prove to be very useful at times. Jasc ship an additional program, Image Robot, which is a more advanced version of this.

There are also quite a lot of plugins available for PSP7, and it can also use some Photoshop filters/plugins as well - which opens the door to a lot of expansion. Unfortunately there isn't much documentation regarding making your own plugins included on the disk.

Input

As already mentioned, many people will use this program to generate art resources based on photo's from the real world. Therefore it's useful to be able to get the program to communicate with these devices.

PSP7 provides good all round support for TWAIN devices (Scanners) and digital cameras, so whilst it will still be using the drivers/software provided with the hardware you can still access it without having to leave the program.

Happy Anniversary

As I mentioned right at the beginning of this review, this version is the 10th Anniversary edition. The bonus features are nice, but may or may not interest you that much - the best meat is the actual program. 

The anniversary edition freebies basically consists of the latest version (7.04), which is freely available if you have 7.00 anyway. It also includes a few additional filters/plugins for you to use (although some are limited license only), in total there are around 60 new filters of which half are complete/unlimited use. The following image is one that I put together in about 45 seconds using a new filter (although the text is just standard PSP7 functionality):

Perspective Shadow and Text

Hardly an amazing piece of art, but it looks almost professional...

Versions/pricing

There is only one version of Paint Shop Pro 7 but there are two ways in which you can purchase it. It's actually quite an interesting strategy put forward by Jasc - you can either purchase a standard boxed edition (which is the version I've been reviewing) or you can download an electronic copy.

The only difference between the two is that the boxed edition has manuals (which are quite useful) and a nice box / CD. The downloadable version obviously won't have these (it will still have the electronic manual/help files). The boxed version is $10 more (add shipping and tax) than the downloadable version, In my opinion it is worth the extra $10 to get the full package with manuals, but obviously you'll have to decide. Presumably there is no limitation to burning the downloadable version to a CD for safe keeping, so if you have a CD-Writer and you're happy just reading acrobat-format electronic manuals then the $10 saving is probably worth it.

The Details:
Boxed Version: $109
Downloadable Version: $99 (~77mb download)
Click here to visit Jasc's online store.

Another useful feature that Jasc have always been good for is providing trial versions of their software, all of them tend to be limited to a 30 day trial, at which point you have to order it or uninstall. Even if you think this software is the right choice for you, I'd suggest downloading (33mb) the trial version and having a play around - unless you have a pathetic narrow-band internet connection (like me) it's not going to be much of a problem. Jasc have organized all of their trial versions onto one page for their site, so follow this link and then select Paint Shop Pro 7 from the list and you're ready to go...

Given that this software can cost you as little as $99, it clocks in at almost a third of the industry standard software (such as Photoshop). This software won't nudge Photoshop off it's top spot just yet, but it's getting closer with every version. However, if you factor in the fact that it is a close rival at a third of the price (Photoshop will set you back at least $300 or more) then it's already miles ahead. It is very rare for a program that is so much cheaper to be so close to it's main rival.

Conclusion

PSP7 packs a considerable punch as far as features is concerned, but is far from being a heavy-weight application in terms of system resources. Obviously, large images require plenty of system memory (I recommend 128mb as a minimum) but the program itself is relatively fast loading and has a small memory footprint. Other programs I've used (such as Photoshop) take a long time to load - to the extent it has a proper loading screen. I've setup PSP7 to be the default program associated with graphics files on my computer - double clicking on a file in explorer will launch PSP7, but I'm not required to wait ages for the program to load up. Memory efficiency also becomes useful if you're a programmer and find it useful to have Visual Studio and PSP7 open at the same time (as I often do).

As I've already mentioned, you can't expect to become a master-artist/photo-editor just by buying this (or any) software. However, the help files and tutorials included with this package are very good - the tutorial on advanced color theory taught me a few things I wasn't aware of. The help files are made up from fairly obvious statements, but can prove useful if you're not sure exactly what a slider/property does.

So far I've only really mentioned using this program with respect to those with professional training / experience, but whilst reviewing this program I checked it out with a friend of mine. This friend happens to be in the middle of professional training at the local art-college, and whilst he doesn't actually use this program as part of his course he did say it had all the functions/effects that he'd been taught to use properly. So either way - this program will be a good choice for the professional, semi-professional and an average guess-work based home user...

Good Points Bad Points
Very quick to get up and running May well be one of the cheaper packages available its still a significant outlay for some people.
Simple and fast interface, without making it too hard to access more advanced features Some of the more professional/technical sources provide better support for Photoshop
Interface is not intimidating  
Retains the ability to "paint", and is not just another photo-editing package  
Good selection of filters/special effects  
Includes the functions/features you'd expect of a professional package  
Good input/output file format selection  
Excellent Price to feature ratio  
Trial version available for download  
DirectX 4 VB 2000 Jack Hoxley. All rights reserved.
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