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Were Adobe Photoshop locked in a death struggle for dominance with another image editor, the scope and quality of its latest upgrade would be less surprising. But considering the program hasn't had a serious competitor on the Mac in years, Photoshop 6.0 is much better than it needed to be. It offers a lot of new features, and it puts them in a more comprehensible user interface than ever. Photoshop celebrated its tenth birthday this year, and the new version shows a polish and maturity that younger applications simply can't attain. No matter how you use Photoshop, this is a must-have upgrade. If you haven't used Photoshop before, you'll be pleasantly surprised by its power and depth: it has something for everyone.
Photoshop isn't just about pixels anymore. New Shape tools let you create a huge variety of sharp-edged, editable, vector-based shapes, including text. And you can achieve startling effects using vector layers with attached Layer Effects such as glows, bevels, shadows, patterns, and gradients (now grouped together as Layer Styles you can save). Because vectors are much more memory-efficient than pixels, type effects that used to result in multimegabyte files now take only a couple hundred kilobytes.
But the real magic is in the many ways you can integrate vector- and pixel-based elements. Vector layer masks let you apply a clipping path to a layer rather than to the entire image, hiding the layer content that lies outside the path. You can clip layers with vector shapes, apply layer effects, and use Photoshop's blending modes to quickly make everything from chiseled type to 3-D buttons.
In the new version, you create type directly on the canvas instead of in a modal dialog box. The type remains editable and on its own layer; you can still use Photoshop's sophisticated typographic controls, including a new multiline composer for hyphenation and justification. In fact, Photoshop is now arguably the most typographically sophisticated of Adobe's applications: it lets you do anything with type that you can do with other vector elements, so the range of typographic treatments is enormous.
Layer It On
But Photoshop's forte is still image editing, and version 6's layer-management enhancements make creating complex, multilayered images much easier. The 99-layer limit is gone, and you can group layers into sets and treat them as a unit. You can also lock a layer's transparent pixels, its nontransparent pixels, and its position. For Web graphics, you can create slices - separate image regions that can have their own HTML code attached - directly in Photoshop. And the program can create slices based on layer content, making it easy to create rollovers, animations, and other Web effects. (You'll still want to use ImageReady to save slices as sets and to create rollover styles, however.)
Support for 16-bit channels got a shot in the arm: you can work in 16-bit-per-channel Lab color mode in addition to RGB, grayscale, and CMYK. The new Gradient Map feature, which is 16-bit enabled, gives you another way to produce custom grayscale conversions or create the kind of surreal landscapes Dave encountered in 2001: A Space Odyssey . Some filters - including Unsharp Mask, Gaussian Blur, Median, Dust and Scratches, Add Noise, and High Pass - now work on high-bit images, as do Resize Canvas and the History Brush.
Control the Power
Photoshop's interface continues to mature, letting you control both old and new features with a minimum of fuss. The most obvious new element is the Options bar, which appears by default under the menu bar and replaces the Options palette. It holds both the options for the currently selected tool and the palette well , where you can store palettes with a single click (though they disappear as soon as you click outside them).
Some improvements are subtler. When you use the crop tool, for example, the cropped area darkens, and you can control the color and opacity of that area. But my favorite is the clipping display in Levels - you simply hold down the option key as you move the black-and-white-input sliders to see exactly which pixels are being cropped, without introducing psychedelia to the rest of the screen.
Color Management Done Right
Adobe has completely revamped Photoshop's color architecture, but in a much less confusing way. For example, the color settings are now combined in a single dialog box. You can set the color behavior to emulate Photoshop 4 or 5 if you wish, but Photoshop 6 offers "per-document color," which leaves each image in its own color space. This frees you from having to convert all your images to a single working space, and forced color conversions become a thing of the past.
Photoshop 6 keeps track of your profiles and makes it nearly impossible to embed the wrong profile when you save an image. You can preview RGB and grayscale output as well as CMYK, a boon if you're outputting to a photorealistic ink-jet printer. You can even control which profiles show up in Color Settings when you work with the Advanced Mode checkbox turned off - no need to wade through dozens of irrelevant ones.
Short of Perfect
Photoshop 6 hasn't quite attained perfection. Its integration with ImageReady has improved, but the two still have some annoying interface discrepancies. Support for spot color is still dicey - the only way to tell how a spot color will appear in print is to print it. The documentation is inadequate; for basics such as making color and tonal adjustments, you're referred to the online help. Worse, that online help is in HTML form - you have to run a Web browser in addition to Photoshop, which can cause instability. If you already know Photoshop, the user interface enhancements will help you assimilate the new features pretty painlessly, but new users should prepare themselves for a learning curve.
Nonetheless, Photoshop's shortcomings are quite minor compared with its strengths. This is by far the best version of Photoshop we've seen.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Photoshop 6.0 is a superb upgrade to an application that was already tops in its class. Whether you use it for Web design, prepress production, digital photography, or fine art, you'll find dozens of new features in version 6 that will make you wonder how you managed without them. The best just got a whole lot better.Instant Options The new Options bar presents the options for the current tool -- in this case, the crop tool, with the cropped area darkened. The soft-proofing feature shows how this image will print on an Epson 1270 and on Macworld's press.Less and More You can create this image in Photoshop 5.5, but in 6.0 it's a two-layer, 160K file, and the text is still editable.