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Graphic Software Review  

Category Feature:
Helen's Images


Graphics' software has gone a long way in the last few years. The improvement in computer systems, CPU power, graphics' cards and monitors has been followed by newer and better software for making our desktops and web pages more attractive, the games we play more realistic and sharing our photos easier. Still, keep in mind that graphics' editing requires top end technology and computer power (and a lot of hard disk space or suitable removable media), otherwise many projects will be hopelessly slow or may not work at all. 

There are many people who have taken graphic editing as a hobby, others are looking to it as a necessity for a web page or a presentation or publishment, still others make a living of it.

Below, some of the leading graphics' software will be discussed. Since there is varying expertise in use of graphics among computer users (we all have to start somewhere) there is a rating system for ease of use: One star means it is almost as easy as MS Paint, that is included in Windows and five stars is the maximum for programs with a steep learning curve.

There is commercial, shareware and freeware software, depending on your needs. The cost is from free to "the sky's the limit"!

Commercial

In this category, there are few entries, although there is a lot of graphics' software in the market. This is because, for some commercial ones, there are more economical alternatives with the same features.

So, why would you need a commercial software for graphics?

Well, first of all to do your job, if you are a graphics' artist, or because you need the extra features they offer, and for professional artists, for their compatibility with the software used by publishing companies.

On to the list:

  • Adobe Photoshop (difficulty *****) and Adobe Illustrator (difficulty *****) are considered the top of commercial graphics' programs, with a price tag to match, though not so much as you would usually pay for some 3D graphics' suites.
     
    Why 2 programs instead of one? Photoshop makes raster graphics (so does MSPaint). These are files that have information for each pixel. The larger the size of the image, the larger the image file. If you try to enlarge a raster graphic, you will get pixelation. Raster graphics would be used for photos or backgrounds.
     
    On the other hand, Illustrator is for vector images. These are based in lines and curves (CAD programs make vector images). The actual files are quite small, but the images can be enlarged without loss in image quality. Vector graphics would be used for a diagram or a company logo.
    There are cases for the use of one or the other type of image.

     
  • Corel Draw is a suite of programs for both raster and vector images with a smaller price. (You might also be able to find older versions in shops for less than some shareware programs). It includes Photo Paint (difficulty *****) for raster images and Draw (difficulty ****) for vector images, plus other utilities that Corel sees fit to include with the program, depending on the version. For example version 7 had, among others, Dream 3d (a basic 3d graphics editor and modeler), CorelDepth (a 3d font effects' utility) and Kai's Power tools (special effect suite). Version 9 had Bitstream Font Navigator, an excellent font manager. Version 10 (the latest) includes Rave, a Flash editor.

      A stand alone version of Corel Photo Paint is available as freeware for Linux users.

     
  • Paintshop Pro (difficulty ***) is a favorite of many people for raster image editing, especially for its ease and price. This could be called shareware, but I would classify it in the commercial category.
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All of the above mentioned programs have available trial versions that are downloadable and work for a short time. (Some are huge files to download, if you don't have a very fast connection)

For those that cannot afford - and/or don't need - to buy a commercial program, there are many alternatives, available as freeware or shareware. Below, the freeware programs will be examined.

Freeware

These have been classified in categories for ease of navigation.

Image Viewers and Converters (3) - Texture makers (2) - Button Makers (1) - Landscapes (1) - 3D programs (1) - Complete Image Editors (7) - Icon Editors (1) - Cursor Editors (1) - Icon Changers (1) - Icon Collections (1) - Screen Saver Makers (1) - Wallpaper changers (1) - Fractal Programs (3)

Image viewers and converters

  • Irfanview (difficulty *) is a fast freeware image viewer and converter. It also has some image manipulating special effects. It fits into a floppy and is low on resources and disk space. There are many free viewers around, but most people think this is the best.
     
    It even supports an unlimited (contrary to the large paint programs which support a limited number) number of Photoshop compatible plugins (the ones ending in .8bf), of which there are a whole lot offered freeware in the Web. An example site for plug ins is: PC Resources for Photoshop - Plug-Ins - FF Galleries & Collections. You can also make a web page with thumbnails for all the images in a directory. It is very simple to use.

     
  • Another nice viewer is 20/20 (difficulty **). This is ad supported, but not spyware - to remove the ads, you must register it. Except for viewing and converting many formats, you can also apply a lot of special effects, including one hard to find: to make an image tile seamlessly.

     
  • The larger number of file formats is supported by XNView (difficulty *), the best image file converter that can be found. It might be the only solution to open some unusual image. The menus are available in a multitude of languages, even some rare ones. You can also apply some special effects.
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Texture makers

  • Reptile (difficulty *), a freeware program for image manipulation; it is much fun!. It makes all sorts of (unreal) textures, - can be configured - based on mathematical calculations. You can save the whole image morphing sequence in video.

     
  • 'sTile 99 (difficulty **) is another program for making more traditional textures. The program has been very much improved from previous versions. It is also small and fast.

Button Makers

  • ZPaint (difficulty **) is an excellent simple program for making buttons for web pages, or 3d frames for images. Its output is high quality and the images can be configured in any way you wish. You can even make the (so popular) interfaces for your web pages, although you will next have to configure the image map links, which isn't the simpler thing in the world. You can also use textures for your buttons. You will need another graphic program to crop and convert your choices. This is why it got its second star in difficulty.

Landscape editors

  • Terragen (difficulty ***) is a landscape program from the UK (free for personal use, you must register to use it commercially). With it, you can make 3d landscapes, which are surprisingly photorealistic. It is easy to use and despite the small number of its version (still below 1.0) no bugs have been discovered. (If only it supported adding trees, buildings etc...). Like all 3d programs, rendering an image, especially if it is large and you have specified more details, might take quite a long time, so you must be patient. Also, don't make the mistake many people do the first time they use it: They don't notice the quality detail slider (which is both for the preview and the final image), so their first images don't look good.
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3D Image Editors

  • PovRay (difficulty *****) has become the standard, by which other 3D image editors are judged. Its images (renderings) are extremely clear and sharp, the shadows realistic and the quality is really high. This is, because it uses ray tracing. If you see some PovRay galleries, there is not much one can't do with it. There are versions for most operating systems.
    It is not used by as many people as one would expect. Maybe the reason is that it used to be quite difficult. What you do with PovRay, is write the image directions in a plain text file and run this text file to render your image. This can sound frightening to someone who hasn't done this before. But there is an extensive help file with examples. So, with some cut - and - paste, a beginner can make his first red ball (this seems to be the first thing almost everyone does on starting a 3d program) or box or cylinder and from there, you go on to planes, backgrounds, lights, textures, atmospheres etc.
    I found the new version easier to use than the previous ones (or maybe I am getting used to it ...).

Image Editors

All of the programs mentioned here are raster image editors; none of them is vector based. No satisfactory freeware or shareware vector editors could be found - most were quite basic.

  • GIMP (difficulty ****) is a Linux program ported into Windows.(Alternate site). This is a full featured graphics program (it has a strong resemblance to Adobe Photoshop in appearance) and free. I have read somewhere that GIMP was the stronger reason for some people to switch to Linux.
    It can be installed just like any other Windows program. Remember to set your screen at 1024 X 768 and 16 bit colors at least during the installation or you will get a warning (it is a quirk of the installation program; the program works later at 800 X 600 if you want, although a larger resolution will give you more space to move the various windows around). It does take some time to learn.
     
    Be sure to download from gimp.org the 2 help PDF files for Linux (their size is greater than the program) - they are worth it. Also, check back every month or so; there might be a new version. It also supports filter factory plug ins (the ones with a FFL extension, offered as freeware in the web), without need for any other special program.
     
    It is quoted as being still unstable, suitable for developers (a modest estimate), but I have not found it so unstable. Some filters (and it has the coolest filters I have ever seen - and quite a lot of them) might crash once in a while (not more often than Windows), but GIMP can continue. A few people, though, might have difficulty installing it.
     
    It may take some time to figure out how to save an image or do anything with it from the image window. The menu can be accessed -Linux style- with a right click on the image window or by pressing the small top left triangle of the image window.
     
    Be sure to follow exactly the installation instructions (for the latest release) at the website.
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  • Dogwaffle (difficulty ***) (used to be called Cyberoptics) is smaller and easier than GIMP with lots of features. It is also a full graphics program with mask support, layer editing, cool special effects, lots of brushes (including the very realistic ones of leaves and bubbles), gradients, palettes, paper textures etc. What it lacks: help files and support of other image formats except for Targa (.tga). The lack of help means you will have to experiment to test its functions; thankfully, it is not a difficult program. And Targa is a lossless format that can be read and converted by Irfanview and other image viewers. The latest release can import and export BMPs with special filters (included)

     
  • Satori PhotoXL V2.29 (difficulty *****) is an excellent advanced graphics editor. It is now freeware (you get the CD key with the download). It has everything you would expect a graphics program to have and then more: special effects, masks, mapping and much more. Like all graphic programs of its level, it takes some time to learn. Watch its Targa files; they are saved by default uncompressed and can't be read or may crash Irfanview.

     
  • Embelish (difficulty ***) - Home Page and download is another graphics editor with many fans. It is simpler and easier than either GIMP or Satori Photo XL. It used to be shareware, now freeware.

     
  • Bright (difficulty **) is one more graphics editor, at the same level as Embelish above, good for text effects and general image editing.

     
  • Image forge (difficulty **) is definitely a simpler program, nice but quite basic in many respects (although much better than MS Paint). The special thing about it is that you can paint with icons and ICL files (icon libraries, offered free all over the web) like the "stamps" in kids' painting programs. You can also change the color depth and apply some effects.

     
  • Pixia (difficulty ***) is a good image editor with a Japanese style; it supports tablets and pressure sensitive painting, brushes, effects, painting with patterns etc. Easy to learn with many special features.

Icon Editors

  • The Icon Maker (difficulty **) is the only freeware program I know that you can use to make desktop icons with 256 colors - and less if you want (there are a couple that can make 16 color icons only) and to a size of up to 48 pixels (for a large icons desktop display). It is also quite good. You can make high quality icons in 256 colors, use photos, even make a different icon for each resolution size. Tip: for transparency use the eraser. It can also be found on other simtelnet mirrors in the directory: win95/icon/imak05.zip.
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Cursor editors

  • Cursor dance (difficulty **) is a freeware program with which you can make animated cursors.

Icon Changers

  • To change your desktop icons with the new ones you have made (or maybe found in the web) there is ActivIcon (difficulty *). You can change the shortcut icons in all flavors of Windows. Also with Plus or Windows 98 or NT you can change a few more. But to change more icons, you need a special program. This is the only one I found that has no bugs for Windows NT. Still: use with caution!

Icon Collections

  • A very good icon collection is the iconcity collection (difficulty *) by Craig Blair. It has some thousands of icons in ICL files (can be opened by Windows Explorer: right click - shortcut - properties - change icon - browse - all files), arranged neatly in categories. It also includes some handy little programs (for those who hate messing up with the registry), like the one enabling Windows 95 without Plus! show icons in 256 colors.

Screen Saver Makers

I have yet to find a freeware program that will let you make SCR files, which when put into your Windows directory will be read as screensavers (there are commercial ones). Most of the free ones let you make a screen saver in your own computer. There are also others that let you make files that you can distribute to users of the same program or as EXE files. I have also heard, but not tested, that you can change the extension of one of these EXE files to SCR and they will work, although I would be reluctant to run an EXE file from an unknown source.

  • Pegasus Screen Saver (difficulty *) is a program for making your own personal screen saver. You choose the images and the transition effects and you can have a screensaver with your favorite photos (your family or your last trip?) or pictures. It is very good.

Wallpaper Changers

  • Wallmaster pro (difficulty *), a (shareware) wallpaper changing utility, that lets you change your wallpaper automatically, arrange your images in theme groups and also use all kinds of image files without converting. There is also the lighter Wallmaster standard, which is freeware (postcardware).

Fractal Programs

  • And, finally, some fractal programs. I have tried many and found most disappointing in results or too difficult.
     
    Those of the FRACTINT family are too difficult to learn and they are all paletted (only 256 colors - although with good use the results can be pretty) and the original Fractint only works in DOS.
     
    For those of us unfamiliar with fractal formulas and equations, the best I found are the following:
    • Graphzvizion (difficulty **)makes beautiful true color classical (Julia and Mandelbrot) fractals where you change the formulas and combinations by pointing and clicking at them (you have to type in the image dimensions).
    • Fractal ViZion (difficulty *) for really random fractals. Very easy to use. You press the remote control button and one of the buttons there. If you want to know what they do, you press the context help (the question mark:?). It makes paletted fractals of many kinds: Julias, Quaternions, Orbitals, Landscapes, Heightfields, Lsystems, IFS. All random with control over the final result - no math involved!
    • Dofozon (difficulty ***) for both random and formula editing - paletted and true color. Beautiful fractals of all kinds and many editing functions. Very good once you learn the fractal terms (or you might get lost in the menu items) - if you are starting from scratch, Fractal ViZion above is easier to learn.
      Caution: Dofozon occasionally crashes (maybe it finds some formulas it can't handle) and has to be restarted.
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