Graphics programs offer something to everyone

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, April 1999

Microsoft Graphics Studio Home Publishing Suite 99
US$85 (approx $130)
(CDN$45 mail-in rebate if purchased by 9/30/99)
Windows version only

Adobe Image Syler
US$144 (approx $210)
Mac and Windows versions

Adobe Illustrator 8.0
US$412 (approx $600)
upgrade: US$129
competitive upgrade: US$199
Mac and Windows versions

I remember working on a local newspaper in the late 1970s?sending articles and illustrations to the typesetters and getting back columns of computer-generated text and screened photos. Laying out the paper, using hot wax to stick the copy onto large sheets, to produce camera-ready pages.

The graphics and desktop publishing revolution on the late-80s changed all that for good. At first, jobs that had been sent out could be done in house. More recently, capabilities that once required a graphics professional moved in-home, coming in easy-to-use versions aimed at amateur home users.

Here are looks at three products, each offering advanced graphics capabilities, but aimed at a different segment of the market.

Graphics professionals have been relying on Adobe Illustrator for over a decade. At first a Mac-only vector-draw product, early Windows versions were far-inferior to the Mac original. As has been true for several generations, however, the latest, version 8.0 offers virtually identical features and interface for both platforms.

It?s still aimed at pro-users. They will find that the newest version offers some 100 improvements, while making the interface and operations more compatible with Photoshop, Adobe?s industry-standard photo-editing software. The neatest improved feature is the Brush tool, which can now paint with patterns and artwork. If you have a graphics tablet, the brushstrokes are pressure sensitive, for a nice, natural-media touch.

Also new is the Gradient Mesh, providing a smooth gradient fill to an object. Live blends let you smoothly combine two objects. Finally, you can resize type by dragging its handles. A pencil tool simplifies creating paths. (Users of competitors Freehand and Corel Draw will recognize these features).

Photoshop users will welcome the Action palette to automate repetitive tasks and the Navigator palette to help find your place on large drawings. The program also borrows PageMaker?s Links palette for better control of imported graphics. Missing, however, is Photoshop?s useful History palette. Still, 15 palettes can lead to a pretty cluttered screen.

Add all this to improved performance, and high end graphic pros will want to add this one to their toolkit.

While Illustrator is a venerable classic, Adobe ImageStyler is all new. It?s aimed at web designers and non-professionals looking to spice up the look of their web pages. As the name suggests, it allows users to apply styles to images?easily adding combination of colours, textures, and effects.

This is a powerful notion, making it easy to create pages with a look that is rich and sophisticated, but consistent throughout.

Built using Adobe?s PhotoShop technology, ImageStyler also shares that products now-standard interface. But don?t expect to use it to create or edit raw graphics. Instead, its power lies in taking graphics (both bitmap and vector), and spicing them up by applying styles?either pre-made or user-created. Its power is easy to use?draw a square, then drag and a graphics file and drop it onto the shape?the contents of the graphic file the shape, neatly cropped off.

It?s easy to create Javascript rollover effects?make your graphic or text change when the mouse passes over it, for example, without knowing any programming. Easily link text, shapes, or graphics to web addresses. Create multiple aliases?clones of an object that are connected so that changes to one are repeated in all of them. Then detach the aliases, so you can edit each separately. Active Preview lets you see how your image degrades as you shrink file size.

Aimed primarily at non-professional users faced with creating web sites that need to look professional, the product succeeds admirably. And its power should prove attractive to many professionals as well.

In contrast, Microsoft?s Graphics Studio Home Publishing Suite 99 is aimed squarely at the home user. It offers a huge amount of content in its five CDs?70,000 graphics, 3,200 video clips, 8,400 templates, and more. The suite combines the company?s Home Publishing 99 with Picture It! 99.

The two product are not particularly integrated, coming on separate disks with separate manuals. Despite this, they work well together. Picture It!  aims at taking scans or digital photos, and offering the most used photo-enhancement features: red-eye reduction, cropping, rotating, tinting, colour adjustments, and so forth. Automatically clean up scans of old, cracked photos. Add effects like posterization and embossing. Twist and distort. Output into templates for greeting cards, calendars, or more.

Yes, lots of other programs offer these features, including Adobe?s PhotoDeluxe. Picture It! offers an easy to use interface, doing a good job of making lots of power easily available.

The Home Publishing part of the package lets you take those photos, or any of the thousands of bundled graphics, and use them in projects?extending the range and sophistication of the templates included with Picture It! Custom stationery, flyers and posters, animated greetings for web pages, and more. Coordinate all the elements of a project, matching your party invitations to your banners to your thank you notes?and the program can automatically remind you, in advance of birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

From professionals through to home users, there?s something for everyone in one of these three programs.

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