Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Software Soapbox III - Graphics

Graphic and 3D rendering software is among the most expensive - at least if you want good software - and complex on the market. The price is high for many of the same reasons as office packages: most companies cannot survive without graphic software capability of some sort or another; however, unlike Office software (which has been around for as long as personal computing), which has a number of competing entities in the marketplace, graphic software - a relative newcomer (at least compared to other programs) - has very few options. "Photoshopped" is a de facto verb anymore, a testament to the dominance of Adobe's $649 package.

Although Photoshop is by no means a poor program - unlike M$ Word, in order to take advantage of today's computing power, Photoshop has to be a massive RAM eater - the price is enormous, far more than most students or "commonfolks" can afford. It's also not alone. Here are some of the best graphic programs on the market, along with price:

Adobe - Illustrator - $499
Corel - DRAW - $399
- PaintShop - $199
Autodesk - Maya 3D - $1249 - no, not a typo

Where to turn if one is a poor college - or poor graduate - student? If, for some laughable reason, one doesn't have around seven hundred bucks to spend on a software package?

1 - GIMP - Availability - Mac (X11), Windows, Unix
GIMP is the open-source answer to Photoshop. Fully-featured, powerful, reliable, and customizable, GIMP runs in the X11 shell for Macintosh OS X and uses about the same amount of memory as a complete Photoshop build. I'm a graphic junkie, and spend probably twenty hours a week performing hard core graphic work that puts my poor iBook G4 through the wringer (hey, my Ph.D. program is in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media, after all). I've used Photoshop and GIMP for years, and I must say, GIMP does everything that Photoshop does and more. It's about a 90MB download, and uses as much RAM and processor as PS, but the cost beats all hell out of Adobe's latest expensive offering. GIMP is, simply put, the best open-source Photoshop competitor around. It is very stable: the only time I had it shut down while I was running it, I was working with five images, each of which averaged about 2000x1500 pixels, at 300dpi resolution (photographic quality - screen res is about 72 dpi). Basically, I ran out of memory (at the time, I only had 256 MB of RAM, I've since upgraded to 384, a basic requirement for high-end graphic work anymore). A full user's guide, screenshots, plugins, and support forum are available at the website. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND it to anyone who frequently works with images.

Download it and learn more at, the homepage of the GIMP community.

2 - Inkscape - Availability - Mac (X11), Windows, Unix.
Inkscape is a vector-based drawing program, the Adobe Illustrator & Corel Draw counterpart to GIMP. Whereas GIMP is strictly a graphic manipulator, similar in function to Photoshop, Inkscape is an artist's package, allowing users to draw vector and pixel-based graphics that can either stand alone or be incorporated into other graphic programs (the default file format is .svg). I've just begun using Inkscape, but as far as I've been able to tell, so far it is as powerful as its corporate counterparts. A simple example of what Inkscape does is seen in the ratings stars in each entry of this page. Supported features include shapes, paths, text, markers, clones, alpha blending, transforms, gradients, patterns, and grouping. Inkscape also supports Creative Commons metadata, node editing, layers, complex path operations, bitmap tracing, text-on-path, flowed text, direct XML editing, and more. It imports formats such as JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and others and exports PNG as well as multiple vector-based formats.

Inkscape is not quite as stable as I'd like, and the menus are somewhat confusing when one first starts using the software; however, it is an excellent offering, and there is a good deal of promise for future releases. It is relatively stable, but there are still a few bugs to be ironed out, especially in the X11 shell versions in which a restart of the shell is required when switching from Inkscape to GIMP. Still, I recommend it, and hope to see more from it in the future. The website offers screenshots, documentation, support forums, and downloads. Overall, I recommend it, and I'm sure that it will improve with time - and far outstrip it's corporate counterparts.

Download it and learn more about it at, the community's website.

3 - Blender - Availability - Mac, Windows, Linux.
Blender is the first and only fully integrated 3D graphics creation suite allowing modeling, animation, rendering, post-production, realtime interactive 3D and game creation and playback with cross-platform compatibility - all in one tidy, easily and free downloadable package! Blender is quickly being transformed from an impressive 3D creativity tool to a full-blown games and new media design application. The site offers amazing support, from tutorials to manuals, to a user forum. It runs in native format in Mac and Windows. This package is highly recommended. It demonstrates the power of the open source community and displays the talent of its developers quite well. The website offers incredible support, from tutorials to manuals to a user support forum, as well as an amazing art gallery that puts Blender's abilities to the test. Definitely give this one a shot.