Image editing is no longer restricted to professionals, thanks to easy-to-use software programmes. PC Magazine put six packages to the test.

If you bought a PC for Christmas then you have probably been battling with how to set it up, install peripherals and hook up to the Internet. That done, it has no doubt become apparent that despite all the text you deal with there is an increasing amount of graphics and images, too.

Image editing is the process of altering an image to improve it's overall quality. This has traditionally been the domain of reproduction houses that use powerful drum scanners and technicians to alter images. That all changed in the Eighties when Adobe released Photoshop, a software package that allowed magazine staff to edit pictures themselves. But it was expensive and very complex, requiring many hours of training. Although a vast improvement, most people still sent their images to a professional to retouch them.

Today's PCs have more than enough power to deal with image editing, however, and many software companies have begun to develop cheap and easy-to-use editing programs that everyone can get to grips with. Most come with simple tools to eliminate red-eye, tidy up scratches and alter the colour balance and contrast.

This trend for low-cost, easy-to-use image editing software was started by Adobe, which took the basic tools of Photoshop, now retailing at pounds 150, and created a baby brother in Photo Deluxe, which sells for pounds 50 and has polarised this market - Photoshop competitors at one end, Photo Deluxe types at the other.

In its February edition, PC Magazine put the six entry-level packages through its usability labs - Photo Deluxe 2.0, Paint Shop Pro 4.12, Photo Paint 7 Plus, Photo Soap 1.0, PhotoSuite 8.0 and Picture Publisher 7.0. One of the first things to become apparent was that, because this software category is so new, there is no fixed set of design or feature rules. This led to major differences in how each product achieved the same end goal.

Photo Paint, for example, is more professional as it crams in many powerful features but has no automated tools for simple tasks such as removing red-eye. Picture Publisher is one step up from this, but is still not automated enough for the novice.

Some packages, like Adobe Photo Deluxe and Photo Soap by Metacreations, strayed from the conventions of a Windows user interface with both packages hiding much of the complexity in the background while still remaining powerful tools. But some testers felt that if they did not follow the logic of Photo Soap they had nothing to fall back on.

Photo Deluxe 2.0, however, struck the happiest medium between hand holding and powerful features, thus gaining it a PC Magazine Editor's Choice award and a Usability Seal of Approval.

PC Magazine