Do you produce images for the Web but feel like you’re battling your image editing tools? Check out Jeff Carlson’s review of BoxTop Software’s PhotoGIF Photoshop plug-in, which offers extensive control over GIF files. In the news, we note the release of FireWire hard disks from VST, QuicKeys 4.0, a better Palm backup utility, and updates to StuffIt Expander and StuffIt Deluxe. Finally, we close the book on NetBITS, our Internet-oriented publication.
VST Ignites FireWire with New Drives — Need more hard disk space, but don’t have a free outlet to plug in a new hard drive’s power cord? If you own a FireWire-equipped Power Macintosh G3, you can now purchase FireWire drives from VST Technologies. Powered via the FireWire port, the new 2 GB, 4 GB, and 6 GB drives require no external power supply (unless two or more drives exist on the same chain; an optional AC adapter is available) and feature data transfer rates of up to 400 Mbps. Long-time owners of SCSI hard drives will envy the fact that FireWire drives require no device ID number or termination, and support hot plugging and unplugging. VST is currently shipping the drives, which sell for $300, $400, or $500 depending on the drive’s capacity. [JLC]
QuicKeys 4 Enhances Automation Power — CE Software is now shipping QuicKeys 4.0, the latest version of its utility for automating repetitive tasks on the Mac (see "Form, Function, and QuicKeys 3.5, Part 1" in TidBITS-347 for a review of the previous version). The upgrade adds Mac OS 8.5 compatibility, a revised QuicKeys Editor interface, and setup wizards to create new shortcuts easily, plus offers enhanced stability and performance (it also requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh). A set of ten new plug-ins add the capability to open a predetermined set of files related to a specific project, a method of storing encrypted passwords, and more. QuicKeys 4 sells for $100, or $90 if purchased from CE Software’s online store. Owners of QuicKeys 3.5 can upgrade for $36; upgrades from QuicKeys 3.0 or competing programs are available for $50. A 30-day demo version is also available as a 2.4 MB download. [JLC]
Help Translate TidBITS — We’d like to congratulate Heike Kurtz, who coordinates the volunteers who translate TidBITS into German each week, on the birth of her son, Martin. The German translation has been ably coordinated by Hartmut Greiser in Heike’s absence, but now that she’s back, she’s hoping to increase the size of the German translation team. If you’re interested in helping to make TidBITS available to the German-speaking world, check out the German Web page below for a description of what’s involved and how to get started. Other translations are looking for more volunteers as well, so if you’d like to help translate TidBITS into Chinese, Dutch, French, or Japanese, check out the links below. If you’re interested in translating TidBITS into other languages, contact me at <[email protected]> and we’ll see if we can put together the necessary translation team. [ACE]
StuffIt Deluxe 5.1 & Expander 5.1.3 — Aladdin Systems has released a free update to StuffIt Deluxe 5.0 that rolls in enhancements to DropStuff 5.1.2 and StuffIt Expander 5.1.2, plus fixes several bugs. The StuffIt Deluxe 5.1 Updater also improves file compression and decompression performance for those who have not already updated to DropStuff 5.1.2 (See "StuffIt Expander & DropStuff 5.1.2" in TidBITS-476).
In addition, Aladdin has released StuffIt Expander 5.1.3, which, although essentially unchanged from Expander 5.1.2, offers a preference to control how StuffIt (.sit) and Private File (.pf) files are processed. The changes should help users of Microsoft Internet Explorer, which ignores Internet Config settings for post-processor applications and instead tries to open downloaded files based on their parent applications. As a result, downloaded files are opened in StuffIt Deluxe rather than StuffIt Expander, or not decoded at all. The StuffIt Expander 5.1.3 installer is a 743K download. [JLC]
New Buddy System for Mac Palm Users — Nearly every Palm organizer owner suffers from the terror of activating his or her handheld and discovering all its data has been wiped out. Devices are regularly dropped, submerged, sat on, and lost, so a good backup of your Palm data is just as important as a backup of your hard disk. BackupBuddy Software recently released a Macintosh version of BackupBuddy NG, a Palm conduit that preserves the essential data on your handheld more efficiently than the default backup conduit included with the Palm MacPac 2.1 software (see the recent TidBITS series "Palm Desktop 2.1"). Essentially, BackupBuddy records the active state of your Palm device properly, so restoring after a catastrophic data loss does not result in deleted applications being sent back to the Palm, which is a possibility with the default backup software. Retrieving data lost from your Palm device is just a matter of performing a new HotSync synchronization. BackupBuddy NG also preserves data that’s been stored in the flash ROM in Palm III and later models (you need TRG’s FlashPro or FlashBuilder utilities to access flash ROM as extra storage). You can purchase BackupBuddy NG 1.01 online for $20 from BackupBuddy Software (a 48K download). A trial version is also available. [JLC]
The time has come to close the book on NetBITS. For those who joined us recently, NetBITS was a TidBITS-like newsletter that we published between September of 1997 and February of 1998. Our goal with NetBITS was to break out Internet information that we would have published in TidBITS but that was only peripherally related to the Macintosh. We felt that NetBITS wouldn’t be too much more work since we had created so many procedures and so much automation over the years that we could reuse for NetBITS. Plus, a good friend of ours, Glenn Fleishman, was to act as editor in chief, since the rest of us were still busy with TidBITS every week along with our many other individual projects.
From the pure publishing standpoint, NetBITS was a big success. We published some great content (which has now been assimilated into the TidBITS article database so you don’t have to guess in which publication an article might have run) and by the end, our readership was over 20,000 people. But we were never able to attract enough advertisers to NetBITS to earn enough to account for the amount of time NetBITS required.
Then, in late January of 1998, the bomb dropped. Glenn was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer. All of his time and energy immediately had to go toward fighting the disease. The rest of us assembled a final issue and officially placed NetBITS on hiatus, hoping we would find someone to fill in for Glenn and to drum up advertisers for NetBITS. We also spent quite some time talking to other publishing companies about selling NetBITS, but we never found a match.
As the months passed, the likelihood of reviving NetBITS receded. I considered the logistics of making NetBITS a subscription-based newsletter, but I simply couldn’t convince myself that more than 10 percent of the readership would pay, say 50 cents per issue or $24 per year to subscribe. Assuming 2,000 readers at $24 per year, NetBITS would earn a total of $48,000, which sounds like a lot until you divide it by a four or five person staff, then take out a third each for taxes. None of us could justify the work for what would end up as about $500 per month. Plus, if we were charging a subscription fee, I wanted to pay authors for submissions, which complicated the numbers even further. Maybe someone else could have pulled it off, but it was beyond my comfort level.
The good news is that after months of chemotherapy, Glenn’s cancer went into complete remission. An experience like that changes you, and we understood completely when Glenn went on to work on other projects rather than spearheading a NetBITS revival. You can see what he’s been up to, including some writing for a little paper called the New York Times, at his Web site below.
We’ve learned some lessons from our experience with NetBITS, just as we did with our previous spin-off attempt, DealBITS.
Concentrate on what you do well, and play to your strengths. We may be good at publishing electronically, but with both DealBITS and NetBITS we failed to play to our strengths in the full TidBITS readership and our connections in the Macintosh community.
The phrase "If you build it, they will come" might apply to ghostly baseball players and readers, but it doesn’t work when trying to attract advertisers. Ad sales is hard work and requires a skilled professional, and NetBITS should have had that from the beginning.
Everything is more work than it seems. Since we’ve published TidBITS for so long, we’d forgotten how much work we really put into each issue, between writing and editing and distributing. NetBITS leveraged our technology well enough that our overall workload wasn’t twice as high, but we hadn’t anticipated how much work it would really entail.
You can do only so much for free. At the end of the day, you have to be able to pay your bills and put food on the table. All of us work on a variety of projects that will never pay because they’re the right thing to do. But we have to maintain a balance between the paying and the non-paying or risk being forced to concentrate solely on tasks which generate income.
Although we’ve absorbed the Internet content that would otherwise have run in NetBITS back into TidBITS (my recent article about online grocery shopping, for instance, or Tara Calishain’s two-part article on searching for images online), we’re not totally killing NetBITS. Who knows, something might change in the future such that we want to revive it. But for now, we’ll take the advice Kenny Rogers offers in The Gambler – "You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em." We’re going to try to attract the NetBITS readers who aren’t also TidBITS readers to the TidBITS mailing list, but for now, NetBITS doesn’t have the cards, so we’ve folded its hand.
Web designers create heaps of graphics. I’m not referring to the image-heavy Web pages that load in the time it takes to get coffee or read a historical novel. Putting together even a modest Web site requires that a designer produce dozens or hundreds of image files that act as temporary placeholders, iterations of design ideas, and multiple attempts to compress an image to its smallest possible byte size. Doing so can take up vast quantities of time, making me wonder sometimes if I’m actually designing or just working on a Web production line.
When the Web first started to become popular, few companies recognized the need for a better way to create high-quality GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) images than the cumbersome default method offered by Adobe Photoshop. One of those few was BoxTop Software, which released a superior image cruncher and time saver. PhotoGIF is an Adobe Photoshop-compatible plug-in, meaning it works with Photoshop 3.0 or higher, as well as programs that can use Photoshop filters such as MetaCreations’ Painter. (The latest version, PhotoGIF 3.0.2, requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh.) In addition to compressing image data and saving it to the GIF89a format, PhotoGIF includes support for opening GIF animation files, plus an active preview of how its settings will affect the image before saving it to disk.
Chomping at the Bit — I prefer PhotoGIF over other similar utilities for several reasons. Although the market is now inundated with Web graphics programs such as Macromedia Fireworks and Adobe ImageReady, I still do most of my image manipulation in Photoshop (version 4, in fact), so a plug-in is handier than launching a separate application. (For background information about graphic file types and image compression, see "A Closer View of Web Graphics" in NetBITS-007.)
PhotoGIF also enables me to convert my images directly from RGB mode (Photoshop’s default color space) with all of my layers and masks intact; in contrast, Photoshop normally requires you to flatten images and convert them to indexed color before they can be saved as GIF files. That flexibility alone made early versions of PhotoGIF worth using, because it meant that I didn’t have to go through a series of steps each time just to make a single adjustment. Adobe’s free GIF89a Export plug-in also created GIFs from RGB images, but activating it involves choosing a hierarchical menu from the File menu – too much repetitious mouse work for my wrists. Instead, I can press Command-Option-S to activate Photoshop’s Save a Copy command, then choose BoxTop PhotoGIF from the Format pop-up menu, which gets me to the main PhotoGIF dialog.
What You See Is What You Crunch — PhotoGIF provides several options for tweaking compression settings applied to your image. The main dialog displays two preview areas that show the original image on the left, and the indexed version of the same image on the right. You can turn one or both of the previews off using checkboxes beside each box, which turns out to be a surprising benefit: the PhotoGIF documentation suggests viewing only the indexed image to focus more on making a better final image than one which just matches the original. If your source image is larger than the preview windows, you can click and hold on either one, then drag to reveal more of the image; both areas move in tandem.
The current file size of each image is listed beneath the preview areas. Unlike some utilities which offer a best-guess estimate of the final file size, PhotoGIF’s numbers truly reflect the size of the saved file. This is because PhotoGIF does all of the compression work right before your eyes, and updates its display whenever you change the settings. The only exception is if you plan on specifying transparent colors (see below), which can decrease the file size after saving.
Although I referred to a NetBITS article about Web graphics above, it’s worth taking a moment to understand how GIF compression works. Instead of noting the color value for each individual pixel in an image, GIF algorithms scan each line and note the number of colors that are present, then note any patterns using a form of shorthand. Suppose that the first line of pixels in a small test image reads like this: blue, red, red, red, green, yellow. The GIF algorithm would express that as: one blue, three red, one green, and one yellow. We’ve gone from six points of data to four. Removing the redundant colors and replacing them by a description of the pattern results in a smaller file. Thus, the fewer colors in your image, the more compression you can expect to achieve. When you’re applying a GIF-optimization tool like PhotoGIF to an original image, you want to use as few colors as possible while still maintaining the quality of your image.
PhotoGIF includes a number of options for controlling the colors in an image:
Depth: Just because your image contains 256 shades of blue doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them all. The Depth pop-up menu enables you to choose the number of colors you want to appear. PhotoGIF’s color engine figures out the best combination of colors to fit within the number you specify, then redraws the altered image in the indexed preview window. This is where you can test varying degrees of compression and evaluate the image quality versus the file’s size. You can also type a number into the Colors field just below the Depth pop-up menu.
Dithering: The GIF format supports a maximum of 256 colors, so there’s bound to be a trade-off between achieving a small file size and staying true to the original image’s colors. Dithering is a process where a collection of colors are grouped in such a way that your eye is fooled into perceiving a color that doesn’t actually exist in the image – for example, blue and yellow pixels in a tight pattern might simulate green. PhotoGIF includes a sliding scale of one to ten to represent the amount of dithering you’d prefer; more dithering reduces the number of colors in your image but can make it appear grainy.
Palette: The lower third of the PhotoGIF main screen is occupied by the color palette, which shows a grid of every color present in the indexed version of your image. Clicking a color fills a larger square to the right that also displays the color’s RGB values in decimal notation on a scale of 0 to 255. The most important component of the color palette is the Palette pop-up menu, which allows you to specify which palette you want to use. Although GIFs can store values for up to 256 colors, there are only 216 colors that can be shared safely between Mac and Windows Web browsers – these colors are sometimes called the "Web-safe palette" or the "Netscape palette." If you want to ensure that your image will appear the same no matter which platform is being used to view it, select Netscape from this pop-up menu. Selecting Grayscale or System from the Palette pop-up menu forces the image into a grayscale palette or the Apple system palette, respectively. The Custom option builds a palette based on the colors present in the image; this palette will usually do the best job of representing the original image, but may not appear the same in all browsers. If you’ve created a custom palette for your entire page or site, or if you want to use the colors from another image, you can import another palette into PhotoGIF’s palette by clicking the Load button. If the GIF file you’re loading contains multiple palettes, PhotoGIF lets you choose one, with a preview appearing in the Load dialog box.
Base: PhotoGIF’s color engine might replace a color appearing infrequently in an image as it attempts to compress the data. If there are colors that you want to retain, you can choose a Base palette that protects those colors when they appear in an image. Like the Palette pop-up menu, you can choose between None, Custom, Netscape, Grayscale, System.
If you’ve never used PhotoGIF, you may be thinking that working with its main options must be like trying to decipher the controls in a jumbo jet’s cockpit. Fortunately, BoxTop has done an admirable job of maintaining a clean, understandable interface. Despite the number of color controls, their operation actually makes the optimization process go faster and smoother, with one exception: depending on the size and complexity of your original image, you’re forced to wait until PhotoGIF finishes its calculations before you can move onto the next step (the OK button is grayed out until PhotoGIF finishes). More about this later.
I Can See Clearly Now — One significant advantage of the GIF format is that it supports transparency, so pixels marked as transparent won’t appear on a Web page. After clicking OK on the main dialog, you’re presented with PhotoGIF’s second dialog, where you can choose to apply transparency, select a background color that will be marked as the transparent color, add a comment to the file (such as a short copyright notice), and toggle interlacing (which makes a Web browser load the image in stages, rather than from top to bottom). It’s worth noting that if you’re saving a file that is already in Indexed Color mode when you initiate the PhotoGIF plug-in, you will go straight to this second dialog box.
Typically, transparency is defined by one or more colors. You can choose which color to use by using an eyedropper tool to point at the color in your image that should be marked transparent. Shift-clicking with the eyedropper selects multiple colors. There are also two tools for fine-tuning the image’s transparency on a pixel-by-pixel basis: with the paintbrush you can select pixels the way you would paint in any drawing program (memories of MacPaint inevitably rise up when I use this tool); the edger tool helps eliminate pixel halos that occur when an anti-aliased object partially blends with the color set to be invisible. Transparency can also be defined by an alpha channel if one was set up in the original file.
Moving from GIF Animation — PhotoGIF isn’t a tool for creating GIF animations, but it can be useful for pulling out and editing individual images. When opening an animated GIF, you’re presented with a dialog with four options: Edit single image, Edit in cell strip format, Extract single image, and Extract all images. The first two preserve the animation’s structure, so after you’ve made any changes the file is still an animated GIF when viewed in a Web browser. The last two options don’t actually open the original animated GIF, but create new files in Photoshop representing each embedded image.
Editing animated GIF cells in PhotoGIF enables you to modify the global color palette shared by all of the embedded images. If your changes introduce new colors to the palette, you can either force the image to adopt the existing color palette by choosing Force to Global from the Palette pop-up menu, or you can change the palette by selecting Adjust into Global from the pop-up menu.
PhotoGIF versus Photoshop — So how does PhotoGIF stack up against Photoshop’s built-in GIF tools? I’ll admit at the outset that I’m not truly obsessive about compressing every last little byte out of every image. In some limited testing, I took an anti-aliased image of a lizard created in Macromedia FreeHand measuring 85 by 105 pixels, and weighing in at 28,528 bytes. In the first test, I switched to Indexed Color mode using Photoshop’s Web palette option, then saved the file in CompuServe GIF format with interlacing turned on. The resulting GIF file ended up being 5,986 bytes, but had no background transparency (it’s not supported).
The second lizard was run through Adobe’s GIF89a Export filter using similar attributes (Netscape color palette, transparency, interlacing active), and ended up at 5,140 bytes.
The third lizard found himself at the mercy of PhotoGIF using similar attributes, but emerged as a 2,655 byte file. The only other modification I made from the default settings was to increase the diffusion setting from 5 to 7 to offset a green hue that crept into the gray background.
My Only Real Complaints — As is no doubt apparent, I like PhotoGIF and am very happy with its performance. My GIF files are small, the image quality is good, and for the most part it helps me work faster when I’m cranking on multiple iterations of images.
As I mentioned at the outset, producing many images takes a lot of time. But whenever I’m working with even a moderately sized image, I’m forced to wait while PhotoGIF calculates the effects of the current color settings. Probably the first 50 percent of images I create are drafts or tests, where I don’t care about file size. It would be nice to be able to turn off the compression calculations and speed through PhotoGIF’s dialogs with a few presses of the Enter key. In a similar vein, it would speed up my production to have the eyedropper tool automatically selected after I press the Color transparency button. Of course, I could use another GIF creation utility to work around these quibbles, but PhotoGIF’s suite of features more than makes up for my petty demands.
PhotoGIF 3.0.2 is $70, and available for purchase online (a 1.6 MB download) or by telephone from TidBITS sponsor Digital River (BoxTop Software’s distributor; 800/656-5443 or 612/253-8300). BoxTop also offers the free PhotoGIF Lite, which shares some, but not all, of PhotoGIF’s features. Among the features that are missing are color reduction capabilities (so PhotoGIF Lite can’t reduce the size of files) and support for animated GIFs.