Photoshop finds a companion in xRes

Macromedia’s new image-editor xRes 2.0 can quickly cope with big files on small CPU’s and RAM, all in a Photoshop-like environment.

The problem with Adobe Photoshop is its speed when you’re working with high resolution print images. It’s seriously slow, to be precise. Macromedia seeks to exploit this shortcoming with its new image-editing application xRes 2.0.

The previous xRes was a powerful but idiosyncratic program developed by Fauve Software before it was bought by Macromedia. Think of xRes 2.0 as a desirable mix of Photoshop and Live Picture with a dash of Painter.

On screen it looks like a conventional pixel-based app, but its mechanics are quite different. xRes uses a post-processing system which looks similar to Live Picture (actually its underlying mechanism is quite different as well). Instead of re-rendering the whole image at full resolution every time you make a change, as in Photoshop, it renders a screen-quality preview and, behind the scenes, makes a list of the changes you have made. When you have finished editing the image you export it in any of the usual file formats. At this point it renders a full quality image while you have a cup of tea. In essence, it means that you can work on huge images in almost real-time and leave them rendering over lunch.

This idea isn’t new, but xRes’s unique selling point is that this process takes place transparently in a Photoshop-like environment. In fact, “Photoshop-like” is a bit of an understatement, as it’s about as close as you can get without the lawyers ringing up. The xRes menus are laid out differently and the dialogue boxes have different names, but those of you who use Photoshop will find it all eerily familiar.

xRes has its own file format, LRG, which means images have to be converted before you can edit them and they have to be exported at the end of a session.

There is, however, a batch-converting tool that allows it to convert bunches of images unattended. This format allows you to work in two modes, direct and xRes. Direct mode works in the same way as Photoshop, loading the image into RAM and rendering it as you work. xRes mode uses the aforesaid post-processing system.

Because less processing is done while you’re actually working on images, xRes isn’t as RAM- hungry as Photoshop. You can edit print-resolution files on a 16Mb machine with a large hard drive. Yes, 16 Meg.

This “preview and render” system means that brushes move in real-time, giving you far greater control, and you can apply filters almost instantly. It also gives you multiple undos, which means you don’t have to save countless versions of your work.

Despite initial appearances, an exact Photoshop clone it isn’t. It has, sadly for the open architecture dream, its own proprietary plug-ins, called Xtras. If you want to apply third party filters or use magic wand and paint bucket tools, you have to work in direct mode and then switch back to xRes mode. This is distinctly not an advantage over Photoshop.

In addition, you can’t expand and contract selections, and the interface has a Windows-like appearance which Mac afficionados may very well not appreciate.

But there are compensations. Because xRes 2.0 is partly based on Matisse, a natural media app similar to Painter, there is a very comprehensive and well-designed brush palette and many natural-media features such as painting with textures and cloning brushes. There’s also a cute floating preview window that shows the effects of filters as you move it across the image.

Macromedia has included some additional useful multimedia features. You can edit images in true 8-bit colour using system or adaptive palettes, with colour mattes for masking in Director, and there is also support for Net graphics formats.

It’s difficult to imagine anything replacing Photoshop in the near future simply because everyone uses it and there’s enormous inertia against change. Like Live Picture, xRes is probably something you’ll buy in addition to Photoshop rather than instead of it. But make no mistake, it’s going to attract a lot of interest because, GUI apart, it’s good and designers with machines with relatively modest CPUs and RAM can now cope with huge graphics files.

If, like most people, you’re a Photoshop user (or use Live Picture or Fractal Painter), the price is a snip at 160 – and that includes the special edition of Kai’s Power Tools 3.0, fonts, textures and a tutorial – better than the official price of 550, but not as good as the 80 charged to existing xRes and Matisse users.

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