Adobe Photoshop 5.5

by Joe Gillespie — Oct 1, 1999

Until now, Photoshop has been singularly lacking in Web design tools. Sure, there are loads of plug-ins for optimising GIFs and JPEGs but the main application has only had the most rudimentary support for these formats.

With Photoshop 5.5, Adobe have bundled-in their Web graphics program, ImageReady. Rather than integrate it completely, the two programs stay separate but can pass files back and forward between each other at the click of a button. While not ideal from a Web design point of view, it does save non-Web designers from having to put up will all the extra bloat - and additional palettes.

The changes to Photoshop 5.5 from the earlier version are not great in number but are very significant from a usability point of view.

New erasing tools make it much easier to remove backgrounds, something that took expensive plug-ins to achieve in the past. The Background Eraser is like a combination of Select Color and Clear and the Magic Eraser is like a brush that paints with transparency. Both are very customisable in the way they work and make the process of separating a foreground and background very much easier than ever before.

But it's in the area of Web graphics that Photoshop 5.5 really scores. The 'Save For Web' feature puts the current graphic in a new window. Here you can examine how the graphic will look as a GIF, JPEG or PNG file and you can play with the colour depths and compression amounts to get the best balance between image quality and size. By choosing 2-up or 4-up, you can see variations in image quality and size much like you can with the Color Variations window.

For GIF files, you can choose 'Auto' and Photoshop will use the lowest bit-depth possible to display the file. You can choose a lower one manually to get the file even smaller. Dithering is now variable instead of just on or off so you can improve colour blends in parts of the picture without affecting the whole image. There is also an option called 'Lossy' which lets you reduce the colour depth by disposing of subtle, near identical colours - again totally variable.

JPEGs also benefit from the 2 and 4-up optimized views. A readout at the bottom of the window shows the file size achievable for different compression amounts along with an estimate of how long they will take to download at different modem speeds. You can also see what the pictures will look like in almost any computer/browser combination.

The PNG file format hasn't had much support until recently but Photoshop 5.5 can now save both 8-bit and 24-bit PNGs. Recent controversy over the licensing of the GIF file format, or, more accurately, the LZW compression that it is based upon, will push many designers into using PNGs. Although they aren't so well supported in older browsers, 8 and 24 bit PNGs have some advantages over their GIF and JPEG counterparts. They both support transparency for instance, but to counteract that, there are no animated PNGs.

Text handling in Photoshop 5.5 is much more useful for Web design. It now has ImageReady's multiple degrees of anti-aliasing - None, Crisp, Strong and Smooth. Depending on the size and weight of the typeface you are using, it is now possible to choose a more appropriate rendering than it was with just on and off. Strong, for instance, makes small or thin fonts slightly bolder to help keep the fine lines from breaking up. It's a shame that Adobe didn't dispense with the clumsy text entry box and allow direct typing onto the layer as with ImageReady.

I haven't said much about ImageReady - now called Version 2. It hasn't changed much apart from the linking with Photoshop. ImageReady takes over where Photoshop 5.5 leaves off handling the image slicing, GIF animation and auto-generation of JavaScript. It now gives 2 and 4-up optimised previews like Photoshop and handles the same file formats.

One thing I am very happy to see is that both Photoshop 5.5 and ImageReady 2 come with Bob Stein's 'Visibone' WebSafe palette as an option. I've been singing the praises of this palette for some time now and I know that Bob is very pleased that Adobe have adopted it.

So, Photoshop 5.5/ImageReady 2 is definitely a step in the right direction where Web designers are concerned. The only factor of major concern is the price. There are several very competent Web graphics programs at a fraction of the price of the Adobe bundle. Where it is a 'no contest' choice for professional designers, beginners and those on a low budget will find the cost a bit too steep. Acknowledging this, Adobe have now introduced a 'Light' version of Photoshop 5.5 for $99. Photoshop 5 LE loses a few of the more esoteric features of its big brother, including the colour management and will undoubtedly prove to be a useful stepping-stone in the future.

Adobe Photoshop 5.5
Features red bar95%
Ease of Use yellow bar90%
Value for Money green bar85%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar95%
Manufacturer Adobe
Price $609 for Windows or Mac. Upgrades $199.
Summary The best just got better!
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