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Suite of dreams

Hugh John believes Microsoft's new low-budget image editor will have Adobe and Jasc looking to their laurels

Digital Image Suite 9Microsoft software for manipulating and organising digital photographs. On two CD-Roms for Windows PCs

Price: pound;70

Fitness for purpose *****

Ease of use ****

Design ****

Quality of output ****

Value for money *****

If Microsoft has released a more improved software application than Digital Image Suite this year they've kept it remarkably quiet. Originally intended for the novice digital photographer, it was never considered a serious rival to established programs such as Photoshop or PaintShop Pro. This wasn't a program that was going to give the software designers at Adobe or Jasc sleepless nights.

Version 9 of what Microsoft formerly called Digital Image Pro will, however, give them a prolonged bout of acute insomnia. It's a shrewd blend of innovation and value for money that should establish it as a benchmark for mid-price digital editing suites.

The Suite is now, effectively, two well-integrated applications - a much improved digital editing suite and Digital Image Library, a brand new cataloguing and archiving tool. It's this addition that really makes the difference. As memory cards become cheaper and more capacious it's possible to amass a huge collection of images in no time at all. Without dedicated software the only way to collate images is by arranging them into appropriate folders, hierarchical fashion, but this is less than satisfactory.

Digital Image Library lets users view their images in a variety of ways; as folders, as thumbnails, as tiles, by size, by date taken. The permutations are endless. Batch file renaming is a simple lasso and click operation and it's also possible to tag each file so that, for instance, not only could the Year 4 geography field trip be instantly called up, so could any student's work within the class. Images can have multiple tags which make this the sort of powerful and versatile tool teachers will surely find indispensable. Images can be burned on to CD or DVD and archived, freeing up space on the hard drive.

Some of the editing tools in Digital Image Suite may look strangely familiar - the Crop and Histogram functions, for example, are similar to Photoshop - but it now boasts some highly impressive tools of its own.

Red-eye removal is simplicity itself - just centre the bullseye on the offending pupils, click, and job done. But the most stunning addition is Smart Erase - the tool that no dictator should be without! Lasso the offending face, click the Fill In button and watch the Minister of Truth disappear, re-pixelated into the background. Less sinister uses would be removing unwanted things such as telephone poles or pylons from landscapes.

Throw in more than 200 filters, an automatic back-up feature that reminds you when to archive your images, a second CD with a huge collection of clip art, templates and high-resolution images and it's obvious that Microsoft has got itself a winner. Photoshop and PaintShop Pro users may find the Selection and Layer tools slightly less intuitive and will certainly lament the absence of History and Fade Filter tools but there's little else to criticise, especially as most of the third-party Photoshop plug-ins can be used with the Microsoft product. If you've already got these filters installed in a Photoshop or Paintshop Pro plug-in folder just browse across from the Suite and hook up. Nifty eh?

The manual is an excellent resource in its own right. The first half, which describes the main functions of Digital Image Suite's editing and cataloguing tools, is dotted with useful information presented, sidebar-style, in short, easily digestible chunks. Concepts such as anti-aliasing, feathering and compression are fully explained. The second half is a general guide to digital photography that encompasses topics like file size, resolution, calibration and compression. Unfortunately, Microsoft has skimped on production values at the printing press - low-definition black and white images printed on cheap, absorbent paper aren't the best way to illustrate colour tint or saturation.

Many of the automatic sequences work very well and when used in batch-edit mode can save a lot of time on "no-brainers" such as image rotation or red-eye removal. A word of caution here: powerful tools such as these should be treated with circumspection if not downright suspicion. Someone I know renamed all the images on his hard disk, more than a thousand of them.

It must have taken me, er, him, two hours to restore them.

This program deserves to be a huge success.

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