Packages help create art for Web pages

Users who only occasionally create Web graphics
will like Ulead PhotoImpact the best.





High on everyone’s hate list is the Program Shuffle.


The shuffle keeps Web graphics designers doing constant calisthenics. It goes something
like this: Create text along a path in Adobe Illustrator. Import it into Adobe Photoshop.
Whoops, not quite right, go back to Illustrator.


OK, looks great in Photoshop, now add a few more elements and let’s see what it
looks like in Netscape Navigator.


Pretty good, but it will take too long to download.


So export it to DeBabelizer from Equilibrium Technologies of Sausalito, Calif., then
optimize and you’re finally ready to go after running through several large, complex
programs.


There is a better way.


I took a look at two well-known work savers, Adobe Systems Inc.’s ImageReady and
Macromedia Inc.’s FireWorks, plus the less-known WebPainter from Totally Hip Software
Inc. and PhotoImpact 4 from Ulead Systems Inc.


I tested each one with several questions in mind:


Adobe Photoshop users will be in familiar territory with Adobe’s ImageReady 1.0.
The Photoshop interface is grafted on, and most but not all of its drawing and editing
tools are present.


At $199, ImageReady costs a small fraction as much as Photoshop, and it can import
multiple file types. It also has Photoshop 5.0’s history palette for multiple undo
levels.


Unlike some Photoshop versions, it can edit text already laid down. The optimization
tools are decent but not outstanding. Optimization choices include number of colors, type
of palette, palette colors, transparency, matte finish and interlacing.


One good feature is the way the software lets you save a particular optimization scheme
as a script droplet.


The standalone droplet can optimize other images later, independent of ImageReady.


A batch feature optimizes many graphics quickly.


ImageReady optimizes nicely, but it does not give you a side-by-side comparison of the
original graphic and the optimized one, so it’s difficult to judge exactly how much
quality is lost.


ImageReady has only a few Photoshop plug-ins; none are specifically for the Web.


Several macros are intended for the Web, however, for effects such as drop shadows and
beveled edges. ImageReady has a good slicing feature, a decent image map tool and a
good gif animation tool.


Though not as rich as a full-blown gif animation program, it is easy to use and has a
tweening feature for smoothness.


You can use ImageReady standalone, but its features are limited, compared to the other
programs in this review.


It uses only bitmap graphics, which are harder to edit and change than vector graphics.


Bitmap text also lacks the flexibility of vector text.


ImageReady is pretty much Photoshop Lite with a few Web features thrown in. Adobe could
easily have incorporated the Web features into Photoshop 5.0.


Ulead’s PhotoImpact 4.0 aims at a slightly different user: the occasional Web
graphics practitioner rather than the guru.


PhotoImpact’s strong points are its $99.95 price and its galleries of interesting
effects. Novices can make compelling graphics with a minimum of fuss.


The more than 100 effects include old favorites such as drop shadows, page curls, smoke
and many interesting borders. PhotoImpact has several brushes. The natural-medium crayon
and Chinese calligraphy brushes make especially good textures and shapes.


PhotoImpact’s text tool permits easy customization. The type tool makes it simple
to vary everything from font size and typeface to textures and 3-D effects. A background
designer forms tiled backgrounds.


The interface is less intuitive than ImageReady’s, but PhotoImpact does not take
long to learn.


Unlike the other programs reviewed, it has no layers. Selections turn into objects,
which can then be sorted or moved around the canvas.


This approach has advantages, but it is easier to work with layers.


PhotoImpact supports both vector and bitmap graphics, although the bitmap graphics are
better.


Ulead also throws in GIF Animator 2.0, one of the best gif animators on the market.
Overall, PhotoImpact is good for fast graphics that are not too complex.


Macromedia’s FireWorks 1.0, like ImageReady, is for graphics professionals who can
pay the $299 price tag.


Unlike ImageReady, FireWorks relies on vector graphics as much as on bitmaps. Vector
graphics are easy to make and edit. Text can be placed along paths and is editable
throughout the creation process.


Like PhotoImpact, FireWorks packs lots of natural-medium brushes, including charcoal
and watercolor.


You can experiment with textures such as mesh and oil slick, patterns such as tweed or
berber, opacity and line thickness. FireWorks makes it easy to change such properties.
Textures and patterns can mix into interesting combinations.


Like ImageReady, FireWorks does slicing and animation.


The animation feature just does the job, but the slicing function stands out.


It’s easy to make popular JavaScript rollover images, for example, using slicing
and multiple frames. When you export the graphic, FireWorks slices it and generates an
HTML file with all the JavaScript needed to cause the rollover.


Another area in which FireWorks excels is graphics optimization.


When a graphic is ready for export, the optimization screen compares different
optimization schemes side by side, showing the differences in quality and size.


I found minor problems with this program. As mentioned before, the gif animation tool
is limited compared to others, although it does do tweening.


There is no way to make the background transparent until you export the graphic.


In contrast, ImageReady keeps the background transparent throughout, which leads to
cleaner edges once the graphic is exported.


FireWorks’ textures, patterns and plug-ins are impressive but not numerous. 


Fortunately, you can use any Photoshop plug-in and add patterns and textures.


Overall, FireWorks is easiest to use and


the most effective of all the programs reviewed.


It was the only one of the four that could equal or even surpass Photoshop for Web
graphics work.


The newest program I reviewed, Totally Hip’s WebPainter 3.0, debuted at last
month’s MacWorld trade show to high praise.


So far it is available only for the Apple Macintosh, but a PC version should be out
soon.


Like PhotoImpact, WebPainter costs less than $100, and it includes the professional
version of Apple Computer Inc.’s QuickTime 3.0.


Like FireWorks, WebPainter can use vector and bitmap graphics, although they must be on
separate layers.


Working with vectors is fairly straightforward but without FireWorks’ flexibility.
The text tool can place only bitmap text, which you cannot correct once it is laid
down—you must recreate it from scratch.


Annoyingly, there is only one level of undo. But the program shines as a gif animator.
WebPainter has a number of transition effects such as cross-fade. The compression features
are above-average, and I found only one problem.


WebPainter lets you compare the original image to the optimized one as you change bit
depth, palette and file format.


But the program does not reveal how many bytes you are saving.


The whole purpose of compressing and optimizing is to get the highest possible quality
at the smallest file size, so clearly you need to know the number of bytes saved.


Overall, WebPainter gets the job done but not as easily or elegantly as FireWorks.


Macromedia FireWorks deserved the Reviewer’s Choice for the way it creates Web
graphics. Totally Hip’s WebPainter 3 came in a distant second because of its rough
edges.


Users who only occasionally create Web graphics will like Ulead PhotoImpact best. Adobe
ImageReady is the right choice for diehard Photoshop devotees because it adds sorely
needed Web-specific capabilities to their favorite package.  


Jason Hart is a webmaster and analyst at Advanced Management Technology Inc. in
Washington.

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