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Ever agonized over whether to buy a new version of Adobe Photoshop? Then get ready for one of the easiest decisions you've made in years. If you're a Web designer, you'll want to purchase the new version as soon as possible; if not, don't bother. It really is that simple.
When it comes to masking, Photoshop has long provided only the bare essentials. Version 5.5 simultaneously addresses this oversight and ignores it: although three new tools make short work of separating complex subjects from their backgrounds, not one of them is capable of generating a mask. You can quickly isolate hair, leaves, and other intricate details, but Photoshop erases pixels instead of masking them, dramatically limiting your options for finessing the results.
The extraction tools vary wildly in utility. The first, optimistically dubbed the magic eraser, is the least useful of the three, erasing clumps of similarly colored pixels each time you click. Not only is it crude, but it's also redundantyou can accomplish the same feat by clicking with the magic wand and pressing delete. The prosaically named background eraser is actually more magical: as you trace an image, the tool samples and extracts the background color. The final option, the Extract command, calculates and eliminates the background automatically, based on a rough outline. Unfortunately, the controls in the Extract dialog box are far from intuitive. And because there's no undo function, you'll spend some time erasing your mistakes.
For my money, the background eraser does the best job of balancing ease of use, real-time feedback, and at least halfway-predictable results. But bear in mind that all three tools perform best with backgrounds of relatively homogeneous colors. If the foreground and background share similar hues or brightness values, you're better off creating a manual mask as in the old days.
I've yet to meet a professional Web designer who doesn't use Photoshopand hasn't grumbled about its shortcomings. Happily, Photoshop 5.5 tackles these complaints head-on. First, the type problems are 99 percent fixed. The underline style has been reinstated, and new antialiasing and kerning options make text more legible at small sizes. I'm frustrated that I still can't get 9-point Geneva and other system fonts to kern exactly as they do in the Finder, but small type looks much better than it did in the past. The new version also lets you preview the effects of JPEG compression before saving an image. And unlike JPEG previews produced by third-party plug-ins, Photoshop's previews are accurate.
But the GIF options are where 5.5 really shines. The Perceptual color-reduction option indexes GIF images to smaller sizes while allowing smoother transitions. You can specify a degree of dithering; matte translucent portions of a layer; preserve black, white, and Web-safe colors; and even apply lossy compression. When applying the Web-safe palette, Photoshop still has a penchant for saving colors you're not using, but there are plenty of workarounds.
Borrowing a page from ImageReady's playbook, Photoshop 5.5 lets you compare up to four GIF and JPEG settings side by side. The window lists file sizes, download times, and other pertinent details. You can also specify a target file size and let Photoshop generate the optimal GIF or JPEG settings automatically. With little effort, you can select an image that represents a perfect balance of bytes and beauty.
Photoshop 5.5 is packed with smaller changes that make life easier. It can open files in the PDF 1.3 format, a new effect can colorize a layer, you can fade brushstrokes and gradient fills, and the Contact Sheet command now adds captions. Creative types will appreciate the art-history brush, which draws impressionistic dollops of color from a source state in the History palette. Best of all, you can now undo a reversion, so you can confirm how an image looked when last saved, without losing any work.
Photoshop 5.5's extraction tools and minor enhancements add up to a worthwhile package, but they fall short of justifying the price of admission. What gives the update an edge is its Web capabilities. Web designers, here's the version you've been waiting for.
RATING: PROS: Background eraser isolates intricate details quickly; program offers greater control over color indexing and JPEG compression; includes ImageReady. CONS: New extraction tools can't generate masks; ImageReady's features would be better rolled into Photoshop. COMPANY: Adobe Systems (800/492-3623, http://www.adobe.com ). COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $609.
November 1999 page: 42