Poor Person's Photoshop-- Paint Shop Pro 4.0

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, August 16, 1996

Among graphics professionals, a whole culture has grown up around Adobe PhotoShop? sure, there?s the core program, available in Mac and Windows versions, but there?s also an entire sub-industry, devoted to serving the needs of PhotoShop users. There are PhotoShop software enhancements, known as plug-ins, and hardware optimized for PhotoShop users.

PhotoShop users even have specialized vocabulary. Gamma correction. Alpha channel. Masks.

But all that power comes at a price. $10,000 is not out of the question to outfit a serious PhotoShop user with all the hardware and software they want.

Most of us, however, don?t have the budget and don?t really have the need. We may work with graphics from time to time, but we?re not full-time graphics professionals. In particular, we may be working with Windows PCs? and while there?s a Windows version of PhotoShop, there?s far less of the PhotoShop add-ins, both hardware and software, for that platform. Most graphics pros continue to stick to their Macs.

Still, we may need to work with graphics. And PC graphics can be pretty confusing. For instance, there are probably a couple of dozen common file formats and sub-formats. PCX, GIF, TIF, BMP, WMF, CGM? the list goes on and on. Your application may only support a few of them?Web pages, for example, typically want GIF or JPG files only? inevitably the wrong ones.

The shareware graphics program, Paint Shop Pro, from JASC, started life modestly a couple of years ago, allowing users to convert between raster graphics types. (Raster or bitmapped graphics store information about the colour and position of individual dots, as opposed to vector-draw graphics, which store math formulas for shapes and outlines). It also included the ability to resize and flip pictures, change the number of colours used, and included a nice screen-capture feature. It was a handy way to capture input from a scanner, and clean up the edges of the picture.

Later versions added formats supported, including being able to read popular vector-draw formats. And last year?s version 3.0 added basic drawing tools, and support for standard Adobe filters. Now users could put a mustache on Sir Wilfred Laurier, after scanning a $5 bill. But even though there was a 32-bit upgrade, it lacked basic Windows 95 support.

The new version 4.0 is a real Windows 95 version? it uses the Win 95 standard file open and save dialogue boxes, for example, and only runs under Win 95 or the new NT 4.0. Windows 3.1 or NT 3.5 users will have to be satisfied with the previous version. It adds features, taking it closer to becoming PhotoShop for the Rest of Us, while keeping the modest $69 (US) cost of previous versions.

In addition to Adobe filters (and it comes with over a dozen basic filters), it now supports sophisticated masks. These allow users to apply effects to carefully selected portions of a picture, while leaving the rest untouched. The painting tools are enhanced, as is the user interface. Two pictures can be combined mathematically?adding or subtracting pixels to create a unique combined result. Gradient fills, subtly blending two colours, can be applied in a variety of ways.

JASC sells a separate Media Center, which creates thumbnail collections of multimedia files. A version, with fewer features was included with the previous PaintShop version. In this upgrade, it?s integrated right into the main program?rather than opening files one at a time, users can choose the Browse command, from the File menu, and view mini-versions of all the graphics in a folder? opening, renaming, or deleting pictures right from the viewer. The thumbnail view can be saved for faster opening in the future. Other nice graphic features include a Print Preview, and the ability to view the effect of many of the plug-ins, before they?re applied.

New special effects include drop-shadows, hot wax, cutouts, chisels, and 3-D buttons. It?s easy to select circles and ovals, in addition to the standard rectangle-shapes. Selections can be deformed into  cylinders and circles, along with motion blur or pinched, punched or skewed. Another nice feature, carried over from previous versions, allows for batch conversions?

And a couple of new features will be especially useful to people designing Web pages. Seamless tiles can be created, to be used as tiled backgrounds behind your pages. And finally, you can set a colour in GIF files as ?transparent?, so your graphics will appear to grow right out of the background of your page. (Also handy is interlaced GIFs, which appear on the page more quickly?this feature has been supported since version 3.0).

As a shareware program, users can try it before buying it?the shareware version is fully-featured, adding just a modest reminder that this version is not yet registered. The latest version can always be obtained over the Internet, directly from JASC, at http://www.jasc.com.

If you register the program, using their Internet secure server, you can also order a limited-version of Kai?s Power Tools (ver 3.0). KPT is probably the best-known of all the PhotoShop add-ins, and it works just fine with this shareware program. KPT-SE 3.0 includes four plug-ins: Spheroid Designer, Video Feedback, Texture Explorer, and Gradient Designer. This special edition is available for $29 (US), only when ordering the main PaintShop Pro package, (or the $24 upgrade for registered users of earlier versions).

With its additional features, along with its better Windows 95 implementation, JASC?s PaintShop Pro version 4.0 is a better deal than ever for PC users who need to work with graphics but don?t need to become full-time members of the Adobe PhotoShop subculture. And as shareware, it?s easy to try it out and see if you agree with me.

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