Jasc just released a free "public beta" version of Paint Shop Pro 8.0. There is no charge to download and use this program -- which has all the features of the final version -- but the beta will expire in a month or so. If you like the product, you can purchase a final copy for about $99.
What I like about Paint Shop is that it has most of the high-end features that a professional or serious amateur photographer needs, yet has an interface that's easy enough for relative novices. It also has a feature that you don't typically find -- the ability to capture all or part of anything that appears on your PC screen. I used this extensively to produce screen shots for my recent book, "The Little PC Book: Windows XP Edition."
I'm no pro when it comes to photography or digital editing, but I do need software that lets me do the basics such as resizing, cropping, reducing red-eye and adding text to my digital photographs. Still, there are rare occasions when I want to do something more fancy, like adjust the lighting on all or part of a photo or add a drawing. My son, who's far more artistic than I, sometimes uses Photoshop to create original artwork or to mix in photos with other images.
I've always found Paint Shop to be a lot easier to use than Adobe's Photoshop and far more versatile than most of the consumer products.
Microsoft's Digital Image Pro ($85) is also quite easy to use and reasonably powerful but, in an apparent effort to make the product "user friendly," Microsoft actually hides some of the functions such as being able to highlight a specific section of a photograph. It can be done, but it's quite hard to figure out.
Paint Shop is less likely to make you hunt around for commands. Most of the things you might want to do are fairly evident from the menus or the toolbars. If you can't figure out what a toolbar icon does, you can drag the mouse cursor over it until text appears to tell you its function.
The new version of the product also comes with Quick Guides and a learning center to help you get started. Still, I have to fault it just a bit. The help system tells you what to do but doesn't always tell you exactly how to do it. For example, the instructions for cropping a photo tells you to "click Apply in the Tool Options bar" but doesn't tell you what the Tool Options bar is or where it's located. Also, I think that all programs should provide menu options along with icons. Icons are fine as long as you know where they are and what they look like, but menu options are often easier to locate if you know function and the menu name.
Chances are that most people won't use it, but the program's biggest enhancement is a scripting language that makes it possible to, in a sense, prerecord commonly used tasks so that you can play them back with a single click. This is especially useful for companies that employ graphics professionals because it allows them to automate tasks. It can also be useful for individual users who want to take the time to set up routines for later implementation.
My big complaint about Paint Shop Pro 7.0 was that the print quality was sometimes poor after resizing an image. There was a work-around, but it was complicated. The company revised the way it handles printing and resizing so now you don't have to implement any advanced features to get optimal print quality.
In addition to the new version of Paint Shop Pro, Jasc also has released a free public beta copy of Paint Shop Photo Album. This program is designed to help you locate photos on your hard drive and to do very basic editing and printing. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of Paint Shop Pro, but it may be sufficient for many users who simply want to resize, crop, remove red-eye and print. Like Paint Shop it allows you to print multiple images on a single sheet of paper and supports popular commercial paper from Avery and the various printer manufacturers. The beta version of Photo Album, which will eventually cost $49, can be downloaded at no cost but it will expire after about a month.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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