Price: free for non-commercial use
Reviewer: Michael J. Hammel
I've been following graphics tools on Linux now for a number of years. Graphics tools are the domain of the desktop user and, as such, have been slower in coming from both the open-source and corporate worlds than networking and server-side tools. Fortunately, this is a trend that's starting to change. The importance of Linux on the desktop was recognized by video-card companies with the advent of video games from Loki and high-end tools like Houdini from Side Effects Software. But there is much more to graphics on the Linux desktop than games, 3-D modelers and renderers.
One company that recognized early on the importance of Linux for graphics users is Photodex, a software development company focusing on graphics and digital-content management. Photodex, located in the heart of Texas' high-tech mecca, Austin, started porting work for their CompuPic product in early 1999, with a first public beta release in June of that year. Recently I was able to sit down with a registered version of CompuPic 4.6 to find out just what this product can do.
CompuPic is an X Window System-based digital-content management tool, which in layman's terms means it's designed to assist users in keeping track of graphical images, animations and sound files on disks and networks. Although tools like this are most useful to web developers and graphic artists, the average Linux user will also find significant value in products of this nature. Available for Windows, Macintosh and Solaris, CompuPic is currently available for only Intel x86 Linux, although support for Alpha and PowerPC users may be available in the future.
Once started, CompuPic opens a four-part window. The top part contains a traditional text menu system with an icon-based toolbar directly underneath. Below these are the Folder List and File List regions. Below the Folder List is a Preview Window. The Folder List looks and behaves much like File Explorer from Windows. The list starts from the root directory (i.e., “/”) and each directory is given a file folder icon in either the open or closed form. Opening a directory by clicking on it once will show all files and subdirectories inside.
The File List is a list of individual image, sound and animation files. This list can take a number of forms, from simple thumbnail/file name combinations to complex thumbnail, file name, type and size listings. These variations, along with multiple sort options, make finding files rather simple. What's truly interesting is that, although designed specifically for image, sound and animation files, the file lists and sorting options work with any file type. CompuPic is a powerful file management system no matter what type of files you happen to be working with.
CompuPic works extensively with thumbnails. The File List window has a number of user-configurable sizes for its listings. The Preview window also shows a thumbnail of full-size images, providing a more detailed view of the image file (if it is an image file, otherwise nothing is shown in the preview). Double-clicking on an entry in the File List window, or clicking once on the Preview, will give a full-screen display of the image. User preferences allow you to set the scaling used for the full-screen display. It's also possible to select multiple files from the File List.
Two important features of CompuPic, Slide Show and MaxiShow, make use of the full-screen display to show one or more selected images. The Slide Show will display images in the order selected from the File List, putting a user-configured delay between images. The MaxiShow is similar, except it can display multiple rows and columns of images, also with a user-configured delay. While in full-screen mode, you can get a menu of image-management options by moving the mouse to the top of the screen. Options include a small set of image manipulation tools (blur, sharpen, brighten, darken), image transforms (rotate, scale and so forth) and a few special features like adding balloon comments to images.
While playing with the MaxiShow feature, I discovered one of the most interesting features about CompuPic—it actually makes use of the PAUSE key. I've never seen an application use that key, after 20+ years of software development and computer use. Even more interesting, it actually causes the application to pause. You can use this incredibly intuitive (but fairly unexpected) feature to stop and restart a slide show.
CompuPic is full of very useful features. Unless you work for print publications, the film industry or somewhere else in the graphic arts industry, you might not think there are many things to do with graphic images. One handy feature is the quick picture indices, where a set of images is placed as thumbnails on a single page for printing. These are generally referred to as contact sheets by those in the business, but who cares what you call them? How incredibly handy it would be to have printed indices of your on-line photos from this year's family trip to Lake Whatchamacallit! You can then use another feature—e-mailing images and indices—to send the contact sheet to family members and let them pick the images they want. No more getting ten copies of entire rolls of film just so you can send a duplicate to everyone of that one picture of Uncle Ernie falling into the lake. If everyone likes it, Uncle Ernie's fame can live on in an electronic greeting card, which you format and e-mail right from CompuPic.
A recent addition to the beta and public releases of CompuPic are contracts with various on-line photo communities. Photodex includes options for connecting to four such communities: PhotoLoft.com, ofoto.com, PhotoIsland.com and PhotoPoint.com. The connection is weak—CompuPic will attempt to connect to the web site (a function that failed to do anything more than open a Netscape window on my box), but there didn't seem to be any way to do the uploads directly from CompuPic. In any case, each community offers limited web storage for your images, options for making greeting cards from those images and formatting the images into personal photo albums. Some of the sites also offer related articles, such as digital camera and scanner reviews. The value of such on-line sites is, of course, purely subjective.
CompuPic is well-designed in a number of ways. First, the database of images is kept in a private directory in the user's home directory. This means users need not worry about making unwanted changes to an image directory on a web server. The database is relatively small, even for large images or a large number of them. Another good design is the interface—it's quite intuitive. Once you're familiar with the basic layout, it's easy to find more features. Changing file names, for example, required only clicking on the file name of the selected entry in the File List, then typing right over the old name.
Photodex offers some application-specific security within CompuPic by allowing users to provide user IDs and passwords for a given copy of the program. However, such protection isn't that helpful, since the actual files are still potentially accessible using normal Linux file access privileges. Photodex recommends proper file-system administration for true file security.
One design feature which deserves special recognition is the terrific Help system. It's a hyperlink-based system that includes plenty of images to accompany a fairly thorough and well-indexed text. The Help system is complete enough to make using CompuPic possible without printed documentation—something I can't say is true for many commercial applications.
Although the overall design and feature set is quite good, CompuPic has a number of problems. A minor one is how it requires you to be connected to the Internet in order to e-mail an image, even if you're e-mailing it to a user on the local system. I don't know why this is, but trying to send an image to myself without being connected to the Internet failed. The test was to send the mail to my local user ID without specifying a domain name. This should have been routed locally, which is what my normal Sendmail configuration does.
However, this is a modest problem. CompuPic has much larger problems—stability, for example. I ran CompuPic on two systems: a desktop box running Red Hat 5.2 with 256MB memory and the Xi Graphics Accelerated-X X server, and an IBM ThinkPad 1410 with 32MB memory and an XFree86 X server. I had numerous crashes on both boxes, although it was worse on the laptop. Photodex states the program had not been tested with Xi's X server. There were a few display problems with this server in the File List window—menus posted over this region were not always cleared completely. This didn't happen with the XFree86 server. Display problems were minor. The biggest problem was crashing.
On the laptop, I couldn't change directories in the Folder List without the program crashing unless I tried compacting the database first, and that let me change directories only once. This problem never showed up on the desktop system. Both systems had problems with rendering multi-line text in the Greeting Card feature, and the laptop version wasn't happy with changing virtual terminals. Upon returning to the X session, I had to hit the ENTER key to get CompuPic to respond. If I didn't do this, I couldn't do anything in the X session—CompuPic had taken keyboard and mouse focus to wait for that one key press. Photodex had most of these problems listed on their bug-tracking web page. One bug listed on that page was a crash at startup on Red Hat 5.2 systems. It appears there may be some stability problems for CompuPic when run on glibc 2.0 systems.
Other annoying issues include the About and Print options doing nothing. I wasn't able to print anything. I suspect this feature wasn't complete in the version I had (Version 5.0 Build 1032), which is still a beta release. The Help text, while an extremely useful feature, assumes a Windows or Mac platform in some places. This is an extremely minor issue, but attention to detail is what separates good programs from great ones.
Although the Help system talks about support for scanners and digital cameras, the associated menu option is missing in the Linux version. This is something PhotoDex will want to look into, as it's become a big issue for many Linux users.
CompuPic is offered in a free version to end users, while corporations need to register their copies. Red Hat was suitably impressed—they will be including the product with their next release. Regular users can download a copy from http://linux.compupic.photodex.com/.
As I told Jason Cohen at Photodex, I found the longer I used CompuPic, the stronger my love/hate relationship with it became. It has many very useful features, whether you are a home hobbyist or a professional photographer, and upcoming features, such as the macro-recording feature, will make it even more impressive. But the beta versions have many problems. Stability is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Crashes abound, though never were the images or any other files corrupted. Still, despite the numerous crashes, I found I could perform quite a bit of work with CompuPic. That's a pretty good start for PhotoDex.
Good feature set
Quick picture indices
Ability to e-mail images and images
On-line photo communities
Stability problems (frequent crashing)
Requires Internet connection for E-mail
About and Print options don't work
Missing menu items
Michael J. Hammel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graphic artist wannabe, a writer and a software developer. He wanders the planet aimlessly in search of adventure, quiet beaches and an escape from the computers that dominate his life.