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    Evaluation Criteria


    What's the Best One
    Exactly what makes a picture display (also known as "slide show") program "the best" depends upon what your needs are and what experience you've had so far. For example, during my review of these programs, I've seen users comment that a particular program was "the best out there of all I've tried". Later on that person admits he only tried several, and his picture display needs were minimal. For people like that, almost any of these picture display programs would be adequate, and this review would be of little help.

    But many of us have a growing volume of picture files that has real value to us and future generations. As with a physical photo album, we'd like to organize them, document them, and display them in a convenient and attractive manner, all with as little effort as possible.

    Things you do to a Picture Over Time
    There are several general steps most people take when processing a set of pictures. After acquiring them (typically from a digital camera, or by scanning photos), they typically are edited. This can involve cropping, color correction, brightness and contrast correction, lightening shadows, etc. All this editing, if done at all, is a one-time process. After that, descriptive information may be attached to the picture. Finally, these pictures are periodically viewed.

    Edit Once, View Periodically
    If your pictures are important to you, this editing process is a serious business. Many picture display programs include editing facilities within them, which on the surface seems like a good idea, but isn't. The reason is that few, if any, of these programs do a really good job of editing. They simply give you a few simple tools like brightness or contrast enhancement. On the other hand, professional picture editing software like Adobe Photoshop Elements specialize in editing tools. If you were to include a full set of picture editing tools within a program that also had a large set of display abilities, the program's visual interface would become confusing and difficult to learn and use.

    Separate Editing and Viewing
    This all leads up to our set of evaluation points. The assumption is that your picture editing will be done by software well suited to that job. In turn, program PicViewPlus and this document are both targeted toward the flexible display of a set of pictures. The consequence of this is that the design and operation of PicViewPlus is simplified, and the set of evaluation points is also reduced in size.

    Why these Evaluation Points?
    Exactly what constitutes a set of evaluation points for a picture display program is a topic that many would have strong opinions on. My choice is first based upon my scanning and processing of thousands of slides and pictures. My second influence is the set of features present in many of the dozens of picture display programs I've reviewed (referenced in this website). These evaluation points may evolve a bit over time. For example, the ability to print pictures wasn't initially considered important - until some family members started requesting them. I then found there was a large range of capability in this area. The result was that I tried to incorporate the best of these features into PicViewPlus.


    The following sections discuss the criteria that this website uses to evaluate picture display programs:


    Picture Selection - selecting the next picture to be displayed

    Simply put, you want to be able to choose which picture within a set of pictures should be shown next. In the simplest case, you have two buttons called Next and Previous. Virtually all slide show programs have these controls, both in browsing mode and in slide show mode.

    In addition, a good program should let you advance to the First or Last picture of the collection. One step up from this is the ability to Skip Forward or Skip Backward a certain number of pictures. Better still, you should be able to view a set of thumbnail-sized images (Thumbnails), giving you the ability to select a picture by it's appearance. About half can handle Thumbnails, many can handle moving to the First and Last picture, but very few can handle skipping.

    Instead of selecting a picture by position or appearance, some programs let you select pictures by their associated text. For example, out of several hundred pictures, you might want to display all those having the word "Erik" in the Picture Description tag. A minority of programs have this feature.


    Picture Ordering - changing the sequential display order

    Just like in a photo album, it's often important to be able to be able to specify the display order of a set of pictures. If a program allows you to change the picture order, they usually allow sorting the pictures by their file name, date taken, size, etc. There is often an option to sort forward or reverse. And sometimes there is even an option for randomly organizing the pictures!

    But there are times when no automatic sorting is appropriate. In that case some programs give you the capability to sort the pictures manually, by a technique such as dragging and dropping thumbnail images.

    About half offer automatic sorting, while only about a fourth offer manual sorting.


    Orientation Changes - the ability to rotate or flip the picture

    When browsing a newly arrived set of pictures, it's very possible that some of them have the wrong orientation. The viewing program should have the ability to rotate a picture left (counter-clockwise) or right(clockwise). It should also be able to flip a picture horizontally or vertically. In a sense, these aren't true picture edits, since these operations shouldn't affect the picture quality.

    When a rotate or flip is done, there should be the option of saving the updated picture back on itself so that the operation doesn't have to be done again.

    The vast majority support rotates and flips.


    Pan and Zoom - the ability to magnify (zoom) any part of the picture, and then to move that magnified view around (pan)

    Pictures often contain more detail than is casually visible when displaying the entire picture. This is especially true with the newer high-resolution digital cameras now coming on the market, although some older black and white photos also contain a lot of detail. Since some of this detail may be of interest, the ability to zoom into a specific part of the picture is important. Once zoomed in, it then also becomes useful to pan around the zoomed view. Of course you want to also have the ability to selectively zoom out again. And you want to be able to restore the view to your starting view.

    For maximum viewing flexibility, a point-zoom, which zooms to a point within the picture you click on, and a box-zoom, which zooms to a box you drag with the mouse, should both be present. With regard to panning, there should be the ability to click a point on the picture and have the view panned so that point is in the middle of the display window (center-on-point). The ability to drag the zoomed view by clicking and dragging the left mouse button (drag-the-view) should also be available. Finally, the program should be able to fit the entire picture to the viewing window (fit-to-window).

    About half can do pan and zoom.


    Size and Positioning - the ability to change the size and location of the picture

    When we display a picture, we want to be able to control the size of the area that displays the pictures, and where this area is positioned on our screen. Ideally, we want two modes of operation. In the first, we want the picture to display in a resizable and movable window. In the second mode, we want the picture to fill the entire screen (full-screen).

    Full-screen mode raises some interesting issues: Should the window title bar or the task bar be present? And how do you place picture selection and other controls on the screen without obscuring the picture? There are various ways people have found to address these issues.

    About half can do full-screen mode. Fewer still can do that and also use a movable and resizable window.


    Picture Information - the ability to display ALL of the information within or associated with the picture (e.g, EXIF information, picture size)

    Many people place a high importance on identifying pictures and the circumstances under which they were taken. This descriptive information consists of text within different categories (e.g., date, description, photographer). Most good slide show programs provide for the recording of this annotation. The important issue is exactly how they do this, and there are generally two techniques used. One method is to gather this information and store it within a custom database maintained by the slide show program. The other technique stores picture annotation within the file itself. Most can handle annotation of some sort.

    Storing picture annotation within a database has several advantages. For one, the data is quickly accessible to the slide show program. Second, some types of picture files cannot include picture annotation data, so this annotation must be stored externally in a database designed for this purpose. Unfortunately, this technique also has some severe disadvantages. The major one is that many picture updates (such as renaming a file, or copying it to another file directory) must be done from within the slide show program. Second, since there is no industry standard for these database files, you are often locked into one picture display program vendor. If that vendor becomes unresponsive to support or goes out of business, you may lose all of your picture annotation! Therefore, the best scheme for adding annotation to your pictures is to embed it within the pictures. While this can't be done with all picture file formats, it can be done with the formats in popular use today - TIF, PNG, and JPG. Almost all digital cameras generate either TIF or JPG pictures. The standard for photos on the web is also JPG. Other formats can generally be converted to PNG or JPG format.

    Fortunately, TIF, PNG (an updated version of GIF), and JPG files all use a common annotation format referred to as EXIF. The individual pieces of annotation are referred to as tags. For example, Image Description is a tag holding the title of a picture. In fact, EXIF supports dozens and dozens of tags (e.g., ISO Speed), and is supported by such major camera makers as Sony and Canon. There are even tags for GPS data, so that you can record the precise latitude, longitude, and altitude a picture was taken at! A growing minority supports EXIF.

    Support for this EXIF information in slide show software varies widely. Some programs show you some tags, some show you more, and a very few show you all. Many, surprisingly, have some erroneous tag information. Of course, it also makes sense to be able to enter or change appropriate tag information, such as tag Image Description. A very small minority allow you to enter/change/update EXIF tags.


    Captioning - the ability to flexibly display selected picture information along with the picture

    Just as pictures in a photo album often have descriptive comments written on or near them, slide show pictures should also be able to display this picture annotation on or near them as they are being shown.

    In particular, you should be able to specify which information you want displayed, where you want it displayed, and how (i.e., font, color, size) you want it displayed. For example, you may want the block of information left, right, or center justified, on the picture near the top (or bottom), or you may want it completely above (or below) the picture.

    Unfortunately, almost no slide show programs support this.


    Picture Search - the selection of one or more pictures from the entire set of pictures, based upon the textual content of the picture

    When pictures have annotation, it then becomes possible to search for pictures based upon some annotation criteria. For example, out of a set of hundreds of pictures, you may want to view only those pictures that contain the word flower somewhere within the title of the picture. Optionally, you may want to restrict the search further by also having the word Jones within the photographer tag.

    While a picture search capability can be very useful, only about 10% of the slide show programs contain this feature.


    Transition Effects - the visual effects (e.g., wipes or fades) introducing the next picture

    When casually viewing a collection of pictures, the experience is sometimes enhanced if there is a visual transition effect leading from one picture to the next. There is a huge variety of these transition effects, including "wipes", "fades", and "dissolves". Many slide show programs allow you to add or omit these transitions. If you decide to include them, you sometimes have the option of enabling a selected set of transitions. There may also be an option to use a randomly selected set of transitions.

    About half support transitions. Of those, only about half give you any control over them.


    Sound/Audio - the playing of an audio file associated with the picture, when the picture shows as well as during the display of the entire set of pictures

    A slide show presentation can have greater impact if accompanied by sound from associated audio files. There are two ways to do this.

    A picture file can have a sound file associated with it. This type of sound file is often called foreground sound. Most often, these sound files have a file type of WAV, MP3, or MIDI. For many slide show programs, "associated" means that the sound file has the same name as the picture file, but has a sound file extension. For example, picture file "Ted Laughing.jpg" might have the associated sound file "Ted Laughing.wav" in the same file directory. In other slide show programs, the files don't have to share the name, but you have to declare the sound file that is associated with a specific picture file. Either way, the slide show program should start playing the sound file when its picture file is displayed. Surprisingly, obvious operational details are often improperly handled. Specifically, the sound file should only play once, and it should be stopped immediately if the picture is advanced either manually or automatically. And if the picture advance is set to a time less than the length of the sound file, the picture display time should be extended so that the sound file doesn't get clipped.

    An alternative sound accompaniment has one or more sound files begin playing in sequence as soon as the first picture is displayed. This is sometimes referred to as background sound. These sound files serve as background music to the entire slide show. As an option, the sequence can then repeat.

    A small issue arises when both background and foreground sound are enabled. In that case the background sound can continue playing or be paused until the foreground sound finishes.

    Few slide show programs support either foreground or background sound, and only one or two support both.


    Wallpaper - often called "background", it is the the color or texture of the part of the entire picture display area that isn't covered by the picture

    When photos are placed on a surface for viewing, the surface is sometimes colored or textured in order to achieve a more pleasing appearance. Some picture display programs also have the ability to specify a colored or textured picture background. This background will only appear when zoomed out, or if the aspect ratio of the picture display area differs from the aspect ratio of the picture, e.g., a tall skinny picture within a square display window.

    Note that some programs have the option of setting the currently displayed picture as "desktop wallpaper", which is entirely different than what is covered here.

    About 10%-20% support the specification of a display area solid color, and only one or two allow you to specify a solid color or a tiled texture (or picture).


    Printing - the ability of print one or more selected pictures per page on your printer

    It's not at all unusual for someone to look at a pleasing picture or set of pictures and decide that they want them sent to their printer for a hard copy. Consequently, this ability is often contained within slide show programs.

    One type of capability is that of making a contact print, which is usually defined as a page filled with all the pictures sized as thumbnails. Another common capability is printing one picture per page.

    In the next level of sophistication, a series of Layouts is available to choose from. This enables, for example, the printing of two 5x7 inch prints per page. If the program is sophisticated enough, you can choose the content of these layout boxes - whether both pictures are the same or not.

    Further levels of sophistication involve having the choice of rotating a picture to better fit a layout box, along with the ability to selectively crop the ends a bit to make the picture fill out the layout box.

    Captioning is another issue. Ideally, the slide show picture caption should be used. If not, there should be an option to insert a caption.

    Sometimes there is the option of adding specified header or footer text.

    About 75% support printing, but only a minority of those feature truly flexible printing (e.g., page layouts).


    Simulated Frames - the ability to enclose your picture in a simulated picture frame

    Photos have long been displayed with attractive picture frames, which, when properly selected, complement and enhance a picture's appearance. Since the appearance of a simulated picture frame is so important, the program supporting this capability should offer a wide selection of designs. The choice should be able to be made visually, so that one can quickly try out a variety of frames to see which one is most appealing. Beyond that, there are many other frame options one should look for:

    • Once a frame is selected, it should be possible to vary the frame thickness to further enhance the picture's appearance.
    • The frame appearance should not significantly change with pictures having different aspect ratios.
    • It should be possible to add your own frames to those already defined.
    • It should be possible to attach a frame to a picture, so that whenever that picture shows, it shows with that frame.
    • The frame should not cover any part of the picture.
    • The Frame should not be combined with the picture, i.e., you should be able to easily change to a different frame.
    • When printing a picture, it should be possible to print the frame along with the picture.

    Only a very few offer picture frames, and only one offers a good selection of frames with all the abilities listed above.


    Slide Show - the automatic display of one picture after another

    There may be times when you want to display a set of pictures without having to explicitly advance from one picture to another. This method of automatic display is often referred to as slide show mode. All programs offer two basic features:

    1. the ability to set the length of time a picture is displayed (usually in seconds)
    2. the ability to continue looping through the display of all pictures instead of stopping after one pass
    Some programs require you to start at the first picture, while other programs let you start at any arbitrary picture.

    Beyond this, what else a slide show implies is up to the program doing it. For example, one program might do nothing else except the basics. Another program might automatically turn on transitions and set the display to full-screen mode. Some programs only display their picture captions during a slide show. Some programs allow you to display the pictures in reverse or random order.

    Almost all slide show programs offer the basic set of functionality. Most offer the ability to either loop once or continuously, and have a full-screen mode.


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