ColorWorks V2- by Chris Wenham

"I'll be back" - ColorWorks 1.0

Graphics professionals might want to take a peek from behind their screens and look at a piece of software that has just entered into its second generation and could quite possibly offer OS/2 another "Killer App". The software is ColorWorks V2, hailed as "The Artist's Ultimate Power Program", it shows off some features and characteristics that made us blink in astonishment, quite frankly, as you'll soon read why.

SPG Inc., the makers of ColorWorks, are to innovative, compact and versatile software as Porsche is to fast cars. Its RAM footprint is only 1 megabyte, its in-use memory requirements can be halved by switching on DIMIC (Dynamic In-Memory Image Compression) and its speed can be boosted to high-end workstation levels by adding more CPUs. Its power and flexibility have no definite limit since any effect can be combined with others and "painted" to a canvas using any of the drawing tools (text, freehand, geometric shapes, floodfills and splines) and its photographer's-style masking power makes a "magic wand tool" look like a toy.

Strangely enough, those features were already in ColorWorks 1.0.

New in 2.0: Plug-ins

SPG has caught on to Adobe's trick of using plug-ins to extend the functionality of their product. A plug-in is a software module, usually supplied by a third party developer, that gives ColorWorks the ability to handle more file formats and supply more artistic effects. Plug-ins were popularized with the highly successful Kai's Power Tools (for Photoshop) on the Mac and Windows platforms. To help developers along, SPG has included a full developers kit on the ColorWorks V2 CD-ROM and made it, along with a free testbed program, available for download on their web site. Note that this does not mean you can take a Windows plug-in and use it with ColorWorks, even if you have Win-OS/2 support. It is up to developers to port their respective tools.

There is a limit to how far plug-ins can go though. They can not be added to the effects stack (explained below) so the artist must resort to using masks if he or she only wants part of the canvas altered.

Gradients

In ColorWorks, gradients (GIF 17.7k) are very nicely woven into the software. Gradients are simply a gradual change from one color to another to provide a smooth blended effect, but ColorWorks uses them to also control opacity, not just color. You get three basic gradient styles; linear (right-left or up-down), radial (circular), and square (also called "Star"). We missed not having a conical gradient style but the ability to rotate, invert and even adjust the mapping of the gradient was a great bonus. By adjusting the map of the gradient we could create interesting ripple effects and "sawtooth" patterns.

Anti-Aliasing, halfway on the mark

ColorWorks can use anti-aliasing (GIF 6.5k) when drawing with filled objects to smooth edges and get rid of jaggy lines. This is very important with web publishing because the resolution of most monitors is nowhere near the crispness of a high-quality printer. For the most part ColorWorks does a good job--except when it comes to text (GIF 7k). Large fonts may end up with funny looking bulges and small fonts may blur to unreadable. This doesn't stop it from being a whiz with fancy text effects though, as is demonstrated with SPG's "Killer Text Effects" tutorial available for free download from their web site.

Combining effects and painting with them

This is ColorWorks' main and most prominent feature even since version 1.0 and we haven't seen the like of it in any other graphics software package on any platform. Musicians may remember when the new breed of synthesizers came out that could combine different sounds and musical instruments together in near unlimited combinations, then play them through any key on the keyboard. Suddenly musicians could create their own "instruments" and sounds that were not already built into the synthesizer by combining existing ones and tweaking to their taste. This is what ColorWorks does for art. It comes with a complete stock of every effects filter an artist could need, the power to tweak each one individually, and the power to stack them together (JPG 29k) as a combination effect which can be painted to a canvas with any of the drawing tools.

In other high-end graphics software like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Photo-Paint you have single tools that do one dedicated task. You get one tool for dodge/burn, one tool for contrast, etc. If that tool only works in freehand style and you want to apply the effect with an ellipse then you're out of luck. Also, take the "magic wand" some users rave about, it's just a tool that selects an area of a similar color. If you want to select more than one area though, the program discards what you had just selected as soon as you try to use the tool a second time.

ColorWorks is different. Your dodge/burn is now an effect that can be painted with using any of the drawing tools, and your "magic wand" is actually the floodfill tool when ColorWorks is in mask mode. You can select multiple areas to your heart's content, invert them and "unpaint" any parts you don't want. When you're satisfied, you can save the mask and perform your operations on it.

Those who work with the same images during different sessions may be irritated by ColorWorks' inability to save its masks to disk though. This is not the case for its 8-bit masks which are used to control opacity when drawing to a canvas, nonetheless, you can't use an 8-bit mask for everything and we'd love being able build libraries of "Cookie Cutter" shapes if we could.

And yet more precision

On top of what we've already covered, ColorWorks has improved the user interface over other programs when it comes to actually drawing shapes or text or lines on the canvas. Since ColorWorks 1.0, users have been able to interactively zoom in and out on a canvas as they are drawing to it. Zoom in on one corner of a rectangle to get your positioning pixel-perfect, zoom out again for general sizing, then zoom back in to position the end corner exactly. And when applying text you have always been able to use the cursor keys to interactively adjust kerning, font size, height-only size and width-only size.

ColorWorks V2 also has a "one time" drawing feature previously only seen in Ron Scott's QFX (a $795 package): hold down the shift key after drawing an effect with freehand and ColorWorks won't reapply the effect on the area you have just drawn to. Say, for example, you drew freehand to the canvas with the "invert" filter to reverse the colors of an image, you don't want to accidentally re-invert them back to normal on the next pass if the brush strays over the area you had just drawn to on the first stroke.

Lastly, those who have invested in a pressure-sensitive digitizing tablet will be happy to know that ColorWorks will use that too, to vary any combination of opacity, palette color and brush size. You can adjust the way ColorWorks maps the responses as well to compensate for an imperfect tablet or different drawing needs.

But unfortunately...

The main user interface (GIF 16k) of ColorWorks is still not the easiest to work with. Too many of the most frequently used operations are tucked away in submenus without any shortcut keys. If you're trying to move quickly you'll be slowed down while you look for the right option. We had one artist remark that his fingers wanted to go to the PhotoShop key-assignments but they didn't work the same way under ColorWorks. Although unimportant to most of us, this could generate some frustration and curses from migrating artists.

SPG has admittedly made the interface a little better since the 1.0 version, but we find that the most common annoyances are still there:

Also, ColorWorks barely acknowledges the Workplace Shell. It can't even load a file that's passed to it as a command-line parameter (nor by drag-and-drop to its icon), or by associating the program with an image file format (although you can associate formats with ColorWorks, all that will happen is that the program will load, but not open the file for editing). This is a big disappointment since a desktop folder or a Light Table is infinitely easier to use than the standard File Open box. We wish ColorWorks would remember your last directory between sessions or disk drives too. After going to the CD-ROM to load a photo-CD image we found ourselves stuck back at the root directory when we wanted to open or save another file from the hard drive.

We've been told that there is a shareware thumbnail browser plug-in being developed which may help with the WPS deficiencies. SPG also tells us that version 3 will have more shortcut keys, a macro-recorder, and will remove the 100x100 pixel minimums.

Workstation speed?

SPG claims that with ColorWorks (any version), a multiprocessor machine and OS/2 SMP you can have workstation speed at a budget price. A system with two Pentium 150s or three Pentium 90s and ColorWorks will equal the speed of a $30,000, single RISC processor graphics workstation and Alias Sketch (a software package usually sold at $13,000 a pop). ColorWorks will divide the work of each drawing operation among the CPUs, whereas another program (like Alias Sketch) would simply submit the whole job to one CPU regardless of how many you actually have. If systems with more than two or three CPUs are available to you, then ColorWorks would, to put it bluntly, Kick Butt.

Of tonal ranges and printing

SPG likes to do the job the "right way" the first time instead of trying to patch it later. A crucial flaw in Adobe Photoshop's treatment of images when it comes to printing is that it clips the tonal range short in order to make it "fit" the color depth of the printer. This method has the potential to shave off a lot of an image's color detail in the upper and lower tonal regions (shadows and highlights). ColorWorks, however, uses tonal compression to squeeze all of the color data into the range that the printer can handle, making sure none of the detail is lost.

ColorWorks is the photosetter's friend when it comes to printing too. It has an incredibly wide range of facilities for separating the CYMK layers of an image and for printing and, therefore, is used in print-shops everywhere.

The Manual

The Manual (capital "M") for ColorWorks V2 weighs about 4 pounds (we had to measure it on the bathroom scales) and stands 1 3/4 inches off the floor. It has been declared a lethal weapon in five states and has been used more than once to intimidate a mugger. This is The Unamanual. Built to the highest possible standards, it is printed cover to cover with 100lb coated glossy text, smythe sewn signatures with head and foot bands, reinforcement, and case bound using a .098 caliper binding board. Twenty-one out of the twenty-four signatures (each signature is 24 pages) are in color. Many have remarked that you could keep this book on the coffee table as a conversation piece (but hide it when the IRS comes to audit you).

It's more than just software documentation too, it's a tutorial on the computer art and photosetting trade. This is the book you use to learn not only what the heck the "Adjust Color Maps" effect is, for example, but how you can use it to compensate for a cheap scanner that gets all the colors wrong.

What's also remarkable about the book is that SPG is using it as the packaging for the software. The idea is that it sits on the shelf without any shrink-wrap so the customer can pick it up and leaf through, seeing if it can do the job he/she wants it to, and make an informed purchase. SPG calls this "Full Disclosure Packaging" and hopes the stores will like the idea because it means less returns of merchandise--the customer already knows that the program can do what he wants because he's had the chance to interrogate The Manual before purchase.

Even though the printed manual is a magnificent feat of engineering, I could still use a simple quick-reference pull out sheet for commonly used keystrokes. The Manual has such a reference in the appendix, but you can't exactly clip the monster to the side of your monitor. Keeping this book on the shelf brings back images of Fred Flintstone's infamous bowling-ball-in-the-closet. ("Creeeeeek... BAM!")

This book also adds about $100 to the purchase price, so ColorWorks V2 is available on CD-ROM only. In such a case you'd use the on-line "MegaManual", a VIEWable .inf file of more than 20 megabytes that contains just about everything that's in the printed version. The install program simply makes a pointer to the file on the CD so you're not using up valuable hard-disk space.

Should you buy it?

So is this a program for you? Let's get something clear right away: ColorWorks is not a toy. If you want a program for dabbling or sprucing up the family photos you'd be better off with something cheaper and simpler like Impos/2. But if you're a professional publisher or an artist, someone who eats because of the tools you use, then ColorWorks is worth its weight in gold (and considering the manual, that's some fortune). This is a product that is used by serious publishing professionals in the real world, both for the creativity power an artist needs and the output clarity a photosetter needs.

If you're looking for a product with a lot of support backing it up you've come to the right place too. SPG's website has a download area offering free demo versions of their products plus the tutorial section of the on-line MegaManual and Technique lessons for you to read (in .INF format). To encourage developers, SPG is also sponsoring a "Code Warrior" contest to find the best new plug-ins and they're offering to negotiate the rights to buy the best entries and make them available free for download.

And, of course, even more tips and tricks can be found in our new monthly column, "Chris' ColorWorks Power Tips", written by yours truly.

So, ColorWorks or PhotoShop? The first has a lot more raw power and artistic flexibility, the second is considered the "universal standard" and already has a lot of plug-ins available. But if you want to look good "out there" you'll want what we chose; ColorWorks.


 * ColorWorks V2
by SPG Inc.
MSRP: US$349 (w/ hard cover manual); US$249 (CD only)
Chris Wenham is a Team OS/2er in Binghamton, NY with a catchy-titled company--Wenham's Web Works. He has written comedy, sci-fi, HTML, Pascal, C++ and now writes software reviews.

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