PSP Auditions for Larger Gigs
By Richard Koman
Long before Photoshop for Windows existed, an outfit called Jasc Software was producing a nifty little Windows app called Paint Shop Pro (PSP). In the past, PSP was strictly amateurville. No self-respecting Web producer would use anything but Adobe's Photoshop to produce Web graphics. That meant using a Mac because Photoshop didn't exist on Windows for many years, and even when it was released, the Windows version was decidedly substandard for some time.
PSP consistently added new features during those years. With the release of version 6.0which also includes a Web animation program, Animation Shop 2.0Jasc Software takes a serious shot at Photoshop, offering many features available in Photoshop 5 for a fraction of the price. (While PSP 7 has not yet been announced, you can reasonably expect it before 2001.)
PSP has increased its market share dramatically. Crowds of amateurs, office workers, and hobbyists have downloaded, used, and paid for PSP. But is PSP ready for the big time? Can serious Web designers and producers depend on it for the highest quality Web images?
|Paint Shop Pro 6
$99 ESD; $109 boxed
At First Glance
PSP is amazingly feature rich. It is virtually indispensable for taking screen shots on Windows. It offers excellent batch-processing features, interactive thumbnail views of folders, and the ability to use Photoshop filters. It includes a powerful type tool that creates editable type in either vector or raster mode, a nice vector drawing tool that makes it unnecessary to use a separate program, and handy wizards for adding effects like picture frames. The program reads and writes Photoshop files as well as most other graphics file formats. It supports adjustment layers. It also has superb support for digital camera input, with native support for some 200 digital camera modelsthat's an issue that will become increasingly important to the photographic and online service industries in the coming years.
However, PSP lacks the latest enhancements available in Photoshop. Actions, which are macros for recording and playing back repetitive actions, aren't available. It also lacks history brushes, which let you paint with a previous state of the file, or anything as interactive as the cool Save for Web module discussed later.
On the surface PSP looks like a great deal, with plenty of features, some nice interfaces, and handy wizards, all for around $100. There's little reason to spend $600 for Photoshop if PSP is just as good. But is it?
Trying It Out
To find out, I started at the tail end of the Web design process: exporting GIFs and JPEGs. The results were not encouraging. In the first test, I took a JPEG image of Mt. Ranier, laid it over a background of two color blocks, and reduced opacity to about 35 percent. To compare PSP and Photoshop, I ran the export modules with default settings: no transparency, 256 colors, standard dithering, and standard color indexes. Then I opened the resulting files in Netscape Navigator 4.0.
Figure 1 is the original image,
Figure 2 is the Photoshop version.
Figure 3 is the PSP version, which isn't a happy result. There's a ton of dithering, with especially egregious effect in the lighter green area. But the blue area is also heavily dithered, with discernable dot patterns. The difference is obvious and startling.
Figure 2, the dithering is subtle and smooth. The only problem with this image is the vertical artifacting just inside the blue border, which isn't apparent in the PSP version. But if you go back to the original you'll see that the problem is present in the original JPG file. So we can say that even in this regard, Photoshop did a better job than PSP of rendering the original.
Presumably, with all the tools PSP offers in its GIF Export module, I could tweak the numbers to get a better result than the default settings offer. Simply switching the color palette from standard/Web-safe to "optimized octree" improved things markedly, as you'll see in
Figure 4, but there are still some stray black dots on the left. These could probably be removed easily with a clone tool.
Also note that this file is almost 54KB, compared with 49KB for the Photoshop file. The dithered PSP file was smaller than 40KB but at too high a cost in quality. Of course, this is an image much better suited for JPEG than for GIF, but doing the "wrong" thing sometimes provides interesting information about software.
This image started with semitransparency, and of course GIFs handle only one level of transparency, so PSP offers many choices on how to handle the problem. You can use 50 percent as the cutoff, or choose a specific percentage below which semitransparent pixels will go opaque, or use a special dithering setting. You can also have translucent pixels blend with your Web page's background color, or use 100 percent values.
For exporting a transparent GIF, PSP includes two important export modules, one for transparent GIFs, one for JPEGs. These are akin to Photoshop's Save for Web module, which incorporates support for GIF, JPEG, and PNG. PSP supports transparency from a selection or a color.
As the dialog box shown in
Figure 5 demonstrates, you can control transparency similarly to the way you would in Photoshop: via a selection, through layer transparency, or by simple color. Other tabs let you control variable transparency (because GIFs have only one level of transparency), bit-depth, and approximate download times.
There's an interesting box called Tolerance associated with the color-based transparency option. This lets you expand the range of colors that turn transparent, which is ideal for defeating the troublesome halo effect that crops up when you apply transparency to antialiased text. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to defeat the white artifacts on the halo effect with this method.
Antialiasing and JPEG Quality
In antialiasing, the software smoothes the hard edges of bitmap graphics by adding pixels of related colors to approximate the smooth curves of circles. I found Photoshop's technique to be far subtler and smoother. PSP uses only a few extra colors to generate antialiasing; Photoshop uses many more for a much nicer smoothing of the stair-stepping common in raster graphics. (In fact, Photoshop 5.5 offers three levels of antialiasing: crisp, strong, and smooth.)
To test the programs' JPEG abilities, I set some identical type and saved the files as medium-quality JPEGs. Both programs use a 1-to-100 compression scale, so I used 50 for both. Type is inherently difficult to render in the JPEG format, as JPEG's perceptual encoding scheme isn't suited to sharp edges and smooth curves. JPEG does much better with photographic images.
In this test, a PSP-created JPEG features mangled type, variations in color and saturation, and some artifacting from the JPEG process. The Photoshop file showed some difficulty with the curves of e's and s's, and the W looks more bitmapped than is desirable, but you don't get the artifacting, color variation, and shape distortion that was apparent in the PSP file.
Lacking Rich Previews
One area in which Photoshop 5.5 excels over previous versions, and over PSP, is its Save for Web module that previews different settings in different formats all in one (giant) window. With four preview windows, the module lets you see how a graphic would look as an 8-bit GIF, a 7-bit GIF, a 6-bit GIF, and a JPEG, for instanceor a high-quality JPEG, medium-quality JPEG, low-quality JPEG, and a GIF (or PNG, for that matter.)
That's incredibly efficient and valuable to the serious Web producer, and there's nothing in PSP 6 that even comes close. PSP only offers a before and after view, as in
PSP boasts many features that make life easier and more convenient for the graphics professional. Interactive thumbnails and batch-processing, as well as the ability to edit different kinds of type, make PSP an attractive package. But my testing indicates that PSP simply can't offer consistently acceptable results in Web formats. Sometimes the results are very good; other times they fall down. In the "wrong choice" tests that I did (saving JPEGs as GIFs, using JPEG for type), Paint Shop faltered, sometimes seriously.
For amateurs and others on a shoestring budget, the capabilities in PSP 6 are welcome features. For Web professionals considering basing their public image or client relations on the quality of their graphics, the difference between Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop is $500 very well spent.
Richard is an editor at O'Reilly & Associates, where he specializes in books about Web design, graphics, and user interface. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.