Adobe ImageReady 1

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Adobe has finally recognised the importance and special demands of Web imaging, but its dedicated solution is fatally flawed.

Adobe ImageReady

Because of its dominance in the bitmap-editing arena, Photoshop is the most commonly used solution for creating web graphics despite the fact that it has never offered much in the way of Web-specific functionality. Expectations were high that this limitation would be addressed in the recent release of Photoshop 5, but in the event the mass of new print-based features concealed the fact that Web imaging is still largely ignored. With ImageReady the reason becomes clear. Adobe was working on a dedicated program designed to seize the high ground for Web graphics in the same way as Photoshop has done for print.

Adobe has naturally made use of its existing know-how in producing ImageReady and on first loading it's easy to think that you've opened Photoshop by mistake. The toolbox and menu structure are near identical and the multitude of tabbed onscreen palettes are all there happily consuming large tracts of your working space. The most obvious difference is that the actual image windows are themselves now tabbed with original and optimized views of the same image with their respective file sizes shown immediately below. This process of optimization with its crucial trade-off between image quality and file size lies right at the heart of ImageReady.

The control over optimization is provided through two onscreen palettes. The first of these is the Optimize palette which allows the image in the optimized window to be switched between GIF, JPEG and PNG formats. If the full-colour JPEG option is chosen you can interactively increase the compression setting until the effect on the image quality becomes unacceptable. For GIFs and 256-colour PNG files you can choose between various methods of in-built palette selection. The web option uses the 216 websafe colours, the adaptive option chooses colours based on their presence in the image and the perceptual option is biased towards colours to which the eye has greater sensitivity. Once this main choice has been made you can refine the effect by setting the exact number of colours and also control to what extent missing colours are recreated through dithering.

This is the level of control that most users will already have come to expect, but for ImageReady it is only the beginning. Further power is available from the Optimized Colours palette which shows the actual hues in use in the optimized image. Using the palette's menu it's possible to sort these by hue, luminance or by popularity and, if you select an important area of the image, you can rebuild the colours to favour those in the selection. You can then delete or add individual colours, lock a colour to ensure it doesn't get lost in future optimization, or shift a colour to its nearest web safe equivalent.

This latter is particularly important as it avoids the need for application-based or browser-based dithering. To help cut out browser dithering ImageReady offers a special preview mode which emulates the limitations of 256 colour displays. If you see unacceptable dithering of an area of colour you can quickly shift the original colour to the nearest web safe option. If the effect of colour shifting is inappropriate and so browser dithering is unavoidable, you can even use the supplied DitherBox filter to control how any given RGB colour is simulated with a pattern of web-safe colours.

With such absolute control it's clear that ImageReady hopes to gain the same reputation for high-end web work as Photoshop has for print work. However, it's important not to get carried away. Web and paper are two very different media which makes it impossible to talk about quality in the same way. For example ImageReady offers the option of viewing an image under either a Mac- or PC-based viewing gamma. When the identical image looks completely different on different systems, to talk of absolute colour and consistency is just wishful thinking. New standards like sRGB and profile-based colour management might provide an eventual solution for this, but it's noticeable that these Photoshop 5 features are missing from ImageReady.

More to the point, for the vast majority of everyday web work ImageReady's intensive hand-crafting approach to optimization is simply not necessary. For continuous tone photographic work the obvious solution is to use JPEGs and, after enabling the right compression setting to be made, there's not much more that any program can offer. ImageReady can only really come into its own for images such as logos which are based on cut-down colour palettes. For managing these it will certainly be occasionally useful to ensure that a given corporate colour is kept in your palette, for example, but this is already simple enough with most existing photo editors. More important is ImageReady's ability to ensure acceptable quality with lowest common denominator 256 colour systems, but most users will be relatively happy to achieve this through sticking to the web safe palette. After all it's difficult to be a perfectionist in an imperfect world.

In a way you get the feeling that ImageReady would like the web optimization process to be more difficult than it is to justify its existence. Worse the program's working method seems to have been designed to add the missing complexity. This is particularly true of the central decision to make the approach to optimisation an ongoing one rather than to leave the whole process to an export dialog. ImageReady's double window certainly highlights the importance of optimization but it actually makes it more difficult to compare the optimized version to the original. You can drag the tabbed windows apart to see them side by side but then the lack of screen space becomes a serious issue. To compare different optimization settings side by side is even worse as you actually have to create copies of the original file. This is awkward enough, but far worse is the fact that the actual optimisation settings aren't shown on the image so that you have to select each in turn to inspect the settings in the Optimize palette. In comparison, a dedicated Export Preview dialog like that in Fireworks makes it far simpler to compare different settings while offering 90% of ImageReady's palette optimisation control.

At least ImageReady does recognise that you won't always want to handcraft each image. Once you have made your settings in the Optimize palette you can save the settings to a "droplet". This is a small exe file that you can then drop any supported image file or folder onto. This will automatically open ImageReady and convert the files to the new settings. It's also possible to drag the optimization settings onto the Actions palette which means that more complex macros can be built up and again saved as droplets. You can create an action that resizes and sharpens images before saving them to medium quality JPEG format for example. The combination of simple droplets and advanced actions certainly has the potential to be a major boon in busy web production cycles with ImageReady acting as a behind-the-scenes conversion engine.

ImageReady's emphasis is very much on optimization but that is only part of successful Web imaging. The resulting images must also be integrated into the HTML that makes up the final Web page. ImageReady allows image maps to be created by assigning URLs to an image layer. These hotspot links can then be exported to an HTML file when saving or copied to the clipboard for directly pasting into your HTML code. You can also slice a large image into smaller sections to speed up browser display by setting ImageReady to cut along guidelines, although it's not possible to set different optimisation settings for different sections.

Disappointingly, this ability to automatically create HTML tables is the limit of ImageReady's HTML capabilities. The inability to produce server-side image maps is particularly surprising for a dedicated tool and there is no question of advanced features such as Javascript support for creating image rollovers. Even more unsatisfactory are the basic limitations for specifying links. There is no option for setting a target frame and the fact that URLs are limited to layers leads to unnecessary complications. It's possible to set the hot spot to be either a rectangle, oval or polygon, for example, but the fact that layers can have holes and varying transparency makes their exact shape and positioning difficult to predict. Worse, you might want a single hot spot to cover multiple layers or to apply a filter to the image as a whole, effects which can only be achieved through unnecessary merging and recopying to layers. The ability to draw your own hotspots would solve the problems instantly.

At first sight the use of Photoshop layers for URLs seems an obvious solution, but in practice complications ensue. Exactly the same is true of ImageReady's approach to GIF animation. Again this is built on layers with each image layer able to act as an independent animated cel. To create a simple banner ad with text scrolling across the image, for example, you could use the Frame palette to add new frames and manually reposition the text layer on each. In fact ImageReady makes the process even easier by offering tweening. After repositioning and changing the opacity of layers on a following frame you can get ImageReady to add as many intervening frames as you want and it will automatically work out the correct positioning and opacity on the "tweened" frames.

This makes creating simple animations straightforward but you soon begin to hit limitations and problems. There's no capability to tween size or rotation, for example, or to have different beginning and end points for different elements in the animation as tweening can only be applied to consecutive frames. Worse you can't edit the layer on individual frames so the only way to produce flick-book style animations is to have as many layers as there are frames with only one layer visible on each frame. This clumsy combination of frames and stacked layers is also what you end up with if you open an existing animated GIF for editing.

Through their use for hyperlinks and animation it's clear that image layers are being forced into service for functions for which they are less than ideal. Even more fundamental is the whole question of whether a bitmap environment is actually the right choice for creating web images in the first place as both Corel Xara and Macromedia Fireworks have instead gone for the speed and flexibility of a primarily vector-based approach. The obvious question is why has ImageReady taken its bitmap layer approach? The obvious answer is Photoshop compatibility.

ImageReady's one unique strength is its connection with the dominant market leader and so above all else it must integrate well with Photoshop. At its most fundamental this means complete PSD file support but it also comes down to the familiarity of the working environment and the tools on offer. With the plethora of floating palettes it's initially difficult to imagine that any functionality is missing and in some ways ImageReady seems more advanced than its older sibling. For text handling, for example, not only does ImageReady support editable text layers, it also offers a text palette for changing properties without calling up the text dialog.

Longer use though soon reveals limitations. One area that I assumed would be strong considering Adobe's extensive experience was colour correction, but in fact this is very disappointing with crude Brightness and Contrast dialogs compared to Photoshop's advanced Levels and Curves handling. Areas that seemed strong at first also prove less impressive in practice. Unlike Photoshop 5, for example, ImageReady's implementation of text layers does not offer a font preview in the dialog, the ability to reposition text with the dialog open, or the ability to mix multiple fonts and point-sizes within the one layer. As text is such an important part of web imaging these irritations soon become infuriating.

Even more frustrating is the fact that ImageReady does not offer Photoshop 5's layer effects at all. This is unforgivable as the drop shadow and bevel effects they offer are absolute staples of web graphic and web button creation in particular and, without them, ImageReady's credentials as a standalone web-imaging program go out of the window. The irony is that ImageReady actually does support layer effects, but only if they are created in Photoshop. This is a bizarre state of affairs as the non-destructive nature of the drop shadow, glow and bevel effects were clearly designed primarily with web imaging in mind so that if any program should have them it should be ImageReady. In fact the presence of a grayed-out Effects command on the Layer menu shows that this was once the intention, presumably before Adobe realised they were in danger of giving the baby away with the bathwater.

The only solution then is to open the current file in Photoshop for any serious editing. This is simple enough with ImageReady's Jump to Photoshop command, but there is no equivalent Jump to ImageReady command in Photoshop where it would actually make more sense. Worse, the loading inevitably takes time, requires more RAM and system resources - which might explain ImageReady's general lethargy and tendency to fall over - and essentially adds a new step to a web image production cycle which is already complex enough.

There's worse to come. For some inexplicable reason when you try to edit the text on a text layer you created in ImageReady within Photoshop or vice versa you find that it's impossible. When the file is re-imported into the originating program the text layer is recognised as such and is editable again, but this gratuitous incompatibility makes working unnecessarily difficult. Far more damaging is the incompatibility between the two programs over colour management. Because Photoshop 5 is built on an entirely new colour management system, all pixel values in the original ImageReady file are automatically converted when they are first loaded. This colour shifting is clearly visible when the file is re-imported into ImageReady and makes a mockery of the program's emphasis on quality and consistency at all costs. More to the point it can even mean that an original choice of web safe colours is no longer safe at all!

This really is ridiculous. The tight integration with Photoshop which should be ImageReady's one unbeatable strength its is in fact an awkward and potentially dangerous botch. What makes it all the more unforgivable is that it is so unnecessary. All ImageReady's problems stem from the decision to try and make it a standalone program but one that is based on Photoshop technology. A truly dedicated web imaging program designed from scratch would almost certainly be based on vector technology as Corel Xara and Macromedia Fireworks have shown. In comparison, ImageReady's dependence on PSD format bitmap layers immediately renders the program slow and awkward. Worse, the need to differentiate the program from Photoshop means that ImageReady has had to be left deliberately under-powered in crucial areas which has in turn led to serious incompatibilities.

If fully integrated into Photoshop, either as a chargeable add-on or preferably as part of the program's core functionality, ImageReady's unmatched image optimization and emphasis on Web quality would work well by complementing Photoshop's existing paper-based strengths. As it is, ImageReady highlights Photoshop's web imaging limitations but is too flawed to offer an acceptable solution.

Tom Arah



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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 32Mb of RAM, 60Mb of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 4.0, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

January 1999

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