Given that reality, Photoshop 7.0 for Windows and Macintosh comes as a very pleasant surprise. While the new features are hardly radical, they're also considerably more than the minor tweaks that one has come to expect in programs like Microsoft Word. At $600, or $140 for an upgrade, Photoshop is far from cheap. But the program has earned the status that has, in some circles, turned "photoshop" into a verb meaning to alter a photo through digital editing.
The news is most important for Mac users. Finally, Photoshop has become a native OS X application. While Photoshop 6.0 ran fine under OS X, it did so only in the operating system's "classic" mode, which meant the earlier Photoshop couldn't take advantage of OS X's full power and stability. Now, the latest Photoshop also works properly with Apple's excellent iPhoto picture organizing software. If Photoshop is designated as the iPhoto image editor, double-clicking any picture in iPhoto opens it for editing in Photoshop.
THUMBNAILS PROVIDED. For Windows users, or Mac users who prefer not to use iPhoto, Photoshop has finally gained some picture-organizing ability of its own. In earlier versions, to open a file in Photoshop, you selected the "file/open" menu, navigated to a folder, and selected a file by names. If the folder contained images from a digital cameras, often all you had to go by was an unhelpful list of numbered photos -- unless you had already renamed all the numbered files downloaded from the camera.
Instead, Photoshop 7.0 provides a picture browser. When you navigate to a folder, the program opens thumbnail versions of all the images in that folder. In addition to allowing you to pick your pictures visually, the browser also displays all the "metadata," the descriptive information that was created by the digital camera or scanner for the selected image. The browser won't satisfy professional graphics artists, who need specialized software to handle large numbers of images and manage the rights and royalties associated with the picture. But it's a welcome addition.
Unlike Photoshop 6.0, version 7.0 doesn't make any dramatic changes in the familiar Photoshop interface, which is essentially the same in the Windows and Mac versions. But one new feature will be very useful for everyone from occasional users to graphics arts pros -- the "healing brush."
BLENDING MAGIC. Photoshop's much-imitated clone tool has long been one of the program's most useful features. It lets you arbitrarily transfer a bit of the image from one part of the picture to another. It's commonly used to clean up dust marks or scratches, or to remove distracting objects from a picture by painting over them.
The healing brush works much the same way as the clone. You alt-click to choose the area you want to take pixels from, and then you paint replacement pixels in. But the healing brush uses some computational magic to make the pixels you paint in blend smoothly with the image in place. It works best when painting onto a relatively even texture, and it takes some practice to get the hang of it. But when you do, the results can be truly amazing.
Other changes are more modest, including an improved system for creating customized brushes. Photoshop 6.0 was already a very good program, and if you're happy with it, the new version isn't an absolute must upgrade, especially for Windows users. But it's a welcome improvement and well worth considering. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online