Which one? Web-graphics round-up

Introduction

Because I work at Macworld, I’ve got an embarrassment of software riches piled around my desk. We receive just about every piece of Mac software under the sun to evaluate, and working the Web beat means that I have all the players installed on my hard drive and can use them with impunity. Now, I realize that not everybody gets the chance to use these tools. Things have changed a little bit in this regard – you can download a demo version of just about every major Web tool, which is a great way to get your feet wet. But a lot of people don’t take advantage of those demo programs, or are hesitant to download all of them – at several megabytes a pop – and put them through their paces. (Of course, as Macworld readers, you will have got most of them easily from our feature-packed cover-mounted CDs.) In the first of a series of comparative round-ups, we’ve collected together all the main contenders to see what each one is best used for, whom it’s appropriate for, and whether you should download the demo or buy the software. Since prices have changed since the original release (and review), we’ve had another look at them here – and given each an appropriate new rating. Go the the individual reviews in previous issues for more details. Shareware solution
Anyone who’s been working on the Web for a while has used shareware graphics tools such as Gifbuilder and GraphicConverter. But for people who design professionally for the Web with any real frequency at all, it’s probably best to leave the shareware behind and buy a commercially-developed software package. I don’t want to sound like a shill for big software companies, but the fact is that even when I was using those shareware programs, I was using Adobe Photoshop. I can’t envisage designing Web sites without using commercial software. Sure, you can do it – but in my opinion, it ain’t worth it. That said, let me also argue against using Photoshop as your only Web-graphics tool. If you already own Photoshop – especially version 5 – you can do some great tricks and create lots of attractive Web graphics. You may not think you need another tool. I have to disagree. Photoshop is woefully short on Web-relevant features – probably because Adobe’s packed all of that stuff into ImageReady, a separate product I’ll discuss in a jiffy.. If you own Photoshop and can’t envision buying another Web application, let me suggest that you at least consider GIF and JPEG Photoshop plug-ins. I still swear by PhotoGIF and ProJPEG from BoxTop Software (www.boxtopsoft.com). With these or similar plug-ins, you can get control over your final GIF and JPEG files that Photoshop’s built-in capabilities just can’t deliver. In fact, the Photoshop-BoxTop team was what processed almost every Web graphic I did up until about a year ago. But since Macromedia released Fireworks and Adobe released ImageReady, I’ve never looked back. Ready or not
The existence of Adobe’s ImageReady (see Reviews, September 1998) presents an interesting problem. Adobe is the leader when it comes to image-editing software. Everyone who’s anyone uses Photoshop. So what is Adobe to do? They can point their Photoshop programmers at the Web and let ‘er rip, but what would their print-publishing and TV people do when the latest version of Photoshop comes out and offers only Web stuff for the upgrade price? They wouldn’t buy it, that’s what. And Adobe would feel the pain. Adobe could’ve taken another stab at the Web, offering a different version of Photoshop – maybe with all the really print-oriented stuff taken out, and Web stuff added in – to its users who work on Web graphics. That would sell to the Web users, and the print people could stay on the other track. And Adobe could also offer a hybrid version – for more money – that provided both sets of features. What Adobe decided to do was to stop adding Web features to Photoshop altogether and build a side product, ImageReady, that was designed just for the Web. In effect, they crippled ImageReady so that anyone who’s serious about image editing will have to buy both it and Photoshop. Want to use the airbrush tool? Forget it – it’s not in ImageReady. How about the excellent, all-purpose, saviour-of-artists’-butts Rubber Stamp? Nope. Pony up for Photoshop. Word on the street is that the next version of Photoshop, due this summer, will include ImageReady functionality – keep your fingers crossed, and check next month’s Macworld for more details. Is ImageReady a bad tool? Not at all. It looks and acts – to a certain extent, as I said - like Photoshop. If you’re comfortable in Photoshop, you’ll be comfortable in ImageReady. ImageReady gives you solid control over the colours of your GIFs, lets you preview what your images will look like on Windows PCs with ease, and offers animation features that make it quite easy to create GIFs featuring moving text and fade-ins. If ImageReady were the only Web graphics tool out there, I’d advise you to pay Adobe’s toll and get both ImageReady and Photoshop. But I think there’s a better option. Ready, Aim, Fireworks
Version 1.0 of Macromedia’s Fireworks was just slightly better than ImageReady. Each had their strong points. Want to do GIF rollovers? Fireworks. Quick animations? ImageReady. Glowing text? Fireworks. Need ultimate control over your GIF colour palette? ImageReady. But while, as of this writing, ImageReady sits on version 1.0, Macromedia has released Fireworks 2 (see Reviews, May 1999), an update that tips the scales even more in Fireworks’ favour. This new version still can’t match ImageReady when it comes to quick animation using "tweening," but that’s about it. Macromedia has loaded Fireworks with great tools. The rubber stamp and airbrush are both here, for example. And since Fireworks is related to FreeHand, you can apply effects either in vector mode–meaning you can actually edit your brush strokes, drag them around, change their colour, whatever, any time you want – or in Photoshop-style pixel-by-pixel mode. It’s pretty easy to create rollover effects – you know, those images on Web pages that change when you put your mouse over them – in Fireworks, and the program will even generate the accompanying rollover JavaScript in an HTML file for your use. You can apply any or all of a number of special effects – glows, bevels, drop shadows – to any object as you see fit, making it really easy to create a glowing text item on a bevelled button, for example. Fireworks is a complete tool. If you don’t have Photoshop and can only buy one Web graphics tool, this is the one. Even if you do have Photoshop, this is probably still the one – by dint of how easy it is to create rollover effects, if nothing else. Doing it with Styler
But before you think I’m being unduly hard on Adobe, let me applaud that company for releasing a product that deserves much more appreciation than it’s received. That product is Adobe ImageStyler (see Reviews, January 1999). You may have missed this program, because it’s geared toward the PageMill crowd, and therefore hasn’t been advertised or covered as it should have been. For people who aren’t HTML and Photoshop whizzes, it’s a revelation. There’s no pixel editing involved at all – it’s all about shapes and text. ImageStyler comes with a library of shapes and you can draw your own using various shape tools and even a free-form drawing tool. Creating a rollover effect is a matter of a few mouse clicks. And it’s easy to create glowing text, drop shadows, button bevels, and any number of other effects, either via the program’s cornucopia of controls or via drag-&-drop from the dozens of preformatted styles in the Styles palette. On the minus side, ImageStyler doesn’t do animation and it can’t edit pixel-based images (though you can place them and resize them, you can’t edit the actual pixels). But if you’re using Photoshop for image editing and don’t need those animation features, ImageStyler will serve you just fine.
Find the best price