MGI PhotoSuite 4

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Recommended

A modern, user-friendly, good value and surprisingly powerful PC Photography package.

Photoshop is so dominant that it has almost come to define its field - but it's certainly not the right photo editor for every user. To begin with it's expensive and its high-end power is overkill for the average home user. More importantly, for this largest market of all, Photoshop fails to provide any functionality in the most important area of all - dedicated handling of digital camera images. While Paint Shop Pro (see page ) tries to match Photoshop's functionality across the board at a budget price, MGI PhotoSuite has instead chosen to try and fill the gap by targeting the more focused needs of the home photographer.

It's not just PhotoSuite's intended use that is so different. While Paint Shop Pro slavishly tries to copy the traditional Photoshop-style interface, PhotoSuite breaks new ground. Running down the left-hand side of the screen is the Activity panel which provides guided assistance to all commands and tools, while across the top of the screen is the navigation bar with buttons for accessing the program's seven main modules - Get, Prepare, Compose, Organize, Share, Print and Browse. In many ways using the program is like visiting a well-structured and well thought-through Web site. This shouldn't be too surprising as PhotoSuite is actually built on an embedded version of Internet Explorer 5.

The first of the PhotoSuite modules is Get which is used to access your images from your computer or scanner or digital camera. The number of cameras PhotoSuite 4 supports directly - Agfa, Epson, Kodak and Olympus - has been increased, but you should be able to access most models through the generic TWAIN interface. One limitation, especially compared to Paint Shop Pro's excellent image browser, is that the standard Open dialog can only show one image preview at a time. MGI has thrown in a simple standalone Viewer utility to help you quickly identify files but again this is restricted to showing single images.

This is disappointing, but PhotoSuite makes up for it with its Organize module. This lets you store multiple image thumbnails in named albums- ideal for handling all your holiday or product shots for example. It takes a little work to set up compared to Paint Shop Pro's instant browsing, but it offers more power. To begin with you can add keywords for searching and sorting. More importantly, albums can be used as the basis for slideshows, printing and Web display.

PhotoSuite specializes in dealing with sets of images - ideal for PC Photography.

Albums also come into their own in the Prepare module as their images can be displayed in the Library panel down the right hand side of the screen and dragged and dropped onto the central image window for editing. The Prepare module is itself split into separate modules, such as Rotate and Crop, TouchUp and Paint and Draw, to cover all editing tasks. The level of power on offer isn't quite up to Paint Shop Pro levels, but more users will feel comfortable with PhotoSuite's simple Brightness/Contrast, Gamma, Fix Colour and Image Enhance commands than with Paint Shop Pro's histogram adjustments and technical filters.

In terms of new power the Prepare module sees four main enhancements. The first is the introduction of the Photo Sprayer tool. This is a pretty typical image hose used for spraying bitmap objects, such as flowers and butterflies, onto your image. Again the control on offer is surprisingly advanced with customisable size, spread and opacity and you can also create your own nozzles. The second is a reworking of the existing PhotoTapestry effect. This takes an image and recreates it as a series of tiles based on the collection of 30,000 supplied thumbnails. Now you can add your own image to the tile set or create a new set from scratch - though this is only practical if you have plenty of images and plenty of disk space!

Much the most impressive new feature is the complete overhaul of PhotoSuite's Stitching capabilities based on PhotoVista technology MGI acquired from LivePicture. Now you can create seamless panoramas simply by dragging up to 48 images onto the main image window, roughly positioning them and then selecting your camera lens type. You can even choose to create 360-degree immersive panoramas. Generally the process is simple and the results are impressive and you could easily expect to pay more for less powerful dedicated stitching software.

The Stitching feature is excellent for building up panoramas.

The fourth new editing advance is the improvement in what PhotoSuite calls its "cut-out" handling. Essentially a cut-out is any selection of the image that you make using the various marquee, magic wand and edge finder tools and then float above the underlying image. Now cut-outs can be stored by quickly sending them to the Library or by saving them to file. You can also now change the edge fading and the overall opacity of the cut-out to make it seem a more integral part of the underlying image.

This is undoubtedly a step forward but PhotoSuite definitely isn't the right program for producing advanced layer-based compositions. Instead its cut-outs are better seen as object-based props and indeed PhotoSuite provides a selection of props, such as hats and hair, for producing photo-based projects in its Compose module. The obvious use is for producing humorous cards and generally having a bit of fun but, amongst its selection of over 1200 templates, PhotoSuite also includes some high-resolution business options for producing calendars, posters, business cards and so on.

The Compose module offers thousands of photo-based projects.

Once you've finished preparing your photo or your project, the next step is to let others see it. The traditional approach to this is catered for with PhotoSuite's Print module. This offers a print preview in which you can size and position your image either automatically or interactively. Alternatively using the enhanced Print Multiple command you can print multiple copies of the same image on the same page - important when photo-quality paper is so expensive. As well as generic layouts PhotoSuite now provides layouts designed for Kodak and Avery stock, but there's still no option to create your own layout or to print different images on the same page.

Alternatively you can cut out the need for paper completely with the Share module. This lets you turn albums into slideshows complete with full control over timings and transitions. You can also add sound and PhotoSuite 4 now supports MP3. If the person you want to show your photos to isn't actually present you can use PhotoSuite's e-mail capability. This lets you send individual or multiple files and lets you automatically convert images to JPEG with the option of specifying a desired size. You can even choose to send slideshows complete with an embedded player. Alternatively for the widest possible access you can post your images to GatherRound.com.

The Share module lets you create advanced slideshows which can be sent as email.

Web access of this sort is increasingly important and PhotoSuite's Share module offers two new dedicated Web commands. The first is the Animated GIF command that lets you create and edit simple bitmap-based animations for inclusion on your Web page. Like the slideshow feature this is based on a storyline under the main image window where you can drag frames and set up transitions. This is effective for slideshow-style effects but useless for others such as motion-based animation. Here you have to edit individual frames and trying to swap between Share and Prepare modules soon becomes a major headache.

The second new command lets you output image albums or selected images as Web pages. This support is based on the use of pre-designed templates that you can customise to add your own titles, captions and dates. You can also add or delete any object on the page, which is just as well as the default designs are pretty awful with horrendous backgrounds and distracting animated GIFs. Once you've customised a template, however, the end results are generally impressive though I would have preferred some simpler templates based on a thumbnail index and full-size image pages rather than the combined slideshow pages.

Web templates can be customised - which is just as well.

All told PhotoSuite's Web capabilities are a mixed bag with advanced features in some areas and surprising weaknesses in others. In particular the omission of any serious JPEG and GIF optimisation control is bizarre - why would you want to produce animated GIFs but not ordinary optimised GIFs? Hopefully PhotoSuite 5 will include a dedicated Save for Web dialog with in-built preview and advanced JPEG and GIF control. In the meantime budget users for whom Web imaging is important might well want to hold off to see what the imminent release of the Web-oriented PhotoImpact 6 offers.

PhotoSuite's mixed Web-imaging capabilities are particularly strange as otherwise the program has completely embraced the Net. In particular PhotoSuite's final module, Browse, takes advantage of its underlying browser-based architecture to let you surf the Net from within the application! This lets you drag and drop images directly from the Web onto your library - copyright permitting. Via the dedicated PhotoSuite web site you can also access extra content, new project templates, additional filters, online tutorials and so on - all of which become a seamless part of the existing program.

This is impressive stuff and MGI is leading the way when it comes to merging computer and Web, application and content. There is a downside to PhotoSuite's browser-based approach, however, in that the program can sometimes seem unresponsive and really requires a speedy system to feel comfortable. Other possible reasons for looking elsewhere include the lack of advanced features such as vector, channel and layer-based editing.

It's certainly true that you get more all-round power with a traditional application like Paint Shop Pro, but in a way that's PhotoSuite's strength. PhotoSuite has chosen to target just the one area of PC Photography and within this field it provides everything you need from digital camera access, album-based organisation, easy image editing, panorama stitching, project creation and slideshow presentation through to print, email support and final Web upload. PhotoSuite 4 knows exactly what it's doing and does it well.

Features
4
Ease of Use
5
Value for Money
5
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

November 2000


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