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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Free graphics programs provide useful tools

    by Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #699  March 18-24 High Tech Office column

    Few four-letter words lead to more debate these days on the Internet than ‘free’. You’d think it would be a simple concept but that’s far from the case.

    Free open-source operating systems and applications like Linux or Open Office are good if you want to break Microsoft’s quasi-monopolies in these areas. According to Microsoft, widespread adoption of open-source will destroy business as-we-know-it. Of course, free is good, if you’re Microsoft releasing Internet Explorer to undermine Netscape’s $50 browser.

    Free MP3 music is good if you ask any teenage music downloader, and bad if you ask representatives of the recording industry.

    And free downloaded programs and utilities are good until you discover that they have filled their hard drive with adware and spyware that reports home on every place you visit on the Web, sapping computer performance at the same time.

    Nevertheless, there are some programs available that are simply free and useful with have no bad side. Here are some that I use for working with graphics.

    None of these freebies make any claim to replace power-hitters like Adobe Photoshop. Then again, most of us don’t need the power (and complexity) that Photoshop provides. (Open source fans may promote the oddly-named, but free The Gimp (www.gimp.org) for Windows and Linux, boasting much of the power (and complexity) of Photoshop).

    Most of what I do with graphics is much simpler; I rotate or resize images convert from one format to another and so forth. Irfanview (www.irfanview.com) does all that and much more. The name comes from its creator, Bosnian Irfan Skiljan. He keeps tinkering with his creation; new versions can now create slideshows and screen savers from sets of photos, for example, and it boasts the ability to print images in any size you want. Unusual for a freebie, Irfan personally answers e-mailed questions, providing prompt technical support as needed.

    Digital cameras and scanners often produce images that are too dark or too light, too red or too green. Digital Camera Enhancer (aka Free DCE from www.mediachance.com) is the free version of the company’s more powerful DCE AutoEnhance. As the name suggests, it’s a simple way to enhance your digital photos (and scans). It lets you compare your original with the results of any changes before saving, making it easy to improve (rather than ruin) your images.

    Increasingly, people are using the Web to display sets of photos, whether their vacation or wedding shots or their new product line. Since loading large photos slows down web pages, a standard technique is to make a page of small thumbnails, with each mini-image linked to a larger version of the photo.

    Microsoft has released a free PowerToy to make what they call ‘HTML Slide Shows’ but it’s for Windows XP users only. More flexible, and available for users of any Windows version is the free Web Album Generator (www.ornj.net). Drag the photos you want to display, answer a few quick questions, click a button, and you’ve got mini-thumbnails, larger versions of your photos, and the HTML pages that link them all together, ready to upload to the Web or to edit, adding your own text and design.

    While these three are for Windows users, Apple has rolled most of the features of all three and more into its freebie iPhoto, pre-installed on all new Macs, available for download, or included on its new $75 iLife CD. There’s a catch, however. As Apple is encouraging Mac-users to migrate to its new-generation OS X, iPhoto runs only on that new operating system. (Imitation being a sincere form of flattery, Adobe has done its best to copy iPhoto for Windows users with its just-released Photoshop Album. Definitely not for free. More on that in a few weeks).

    Irfanview, Free DCE, Web Album Generator, and iPhoto. All free, with no harmful side effects. Worth everything you pay for them, and more.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan