4,096 Colors - At A Cost
BY ANDREW REESE
It's nice to finally see 4,096 colors on an Atari
monitor, but the gyrations necessary to produce
a picture with Canvas are probably more than the
average user will put up with.
A new graphics program for the ST? Why, thank you, Mr. Editor, of course I'd love to review it! After all, new graphics programs are what a graphics junkie lives for. But after spending some time with Canvas, Microdeal's 4,096-color graphics program for the ST and STE, I'm not nearly so grateful. It's a program that tries to do too much and falls short in the basic areas of simple design and user-friendliness.
The Manual That Isn't
The first thing I noticed about Canvas was that there was no manual; the program and all of its accompanying files came on one single-sided disk with only a short jewel-box paper liner giving instructions. So, I did what most people do when they get new software - I stuck the disk in my drive and booted it up. After all, the box liner said that "[m]ost options should be fairly obvious as to their operation." With the online help facility touted on the liner, I figured I would have no trouble at all. Well, I was wrong.
I usually love online help. When it's well done, it can be a godsend. But when it's used as a cheap way of avoiding "real" paper documentation - as here - it's lousy. It takes a certain creative mindset to develop online help with the proper balance of brevity and verbosity. Just taking any old ASCII file and making it available online is just not enough. Besides, have you ever tried to do tutorials while flipping back and forth from a program to its online help? Don't.
The "manual" (that's what it's called, so help me) consists of 37 loosely-organized chapters that are accessible at the press of the Help key. Unfortunately, I couldn't seem to persuade Canvas that I had it installed Ofl my hard disk; it continued to look for the manual on Drive A, not a good sign. And the table of contents was half off the screen in monochrome! After fighting with the online help for a few hours, I finally hit the bullet and booted up ST Writer Elite, merged together all of the chapters and reformatted the resulting 100K file from 40 to 80 columns. When I printed it out, at least I had a manual which I could actually use without cussing out loud.
3D draw and paint program
520ST, any rez
The fact that it takes advantage
Just A Pretty Face?
On reading through my new manual, I was actually pleasantly surprised at the attempted scope of the program. It runs in all three resolutions and can use the STE's 4,096 available colors. By switching palettes during the horizontal blank period every fourth scanline, Canvas can switch color palettes 50 times a screen and thus display all 4,096 colors on screen in a single image. Think about it, however: If you want to display all 4,096 colors, you have to set the palette switch-points (called HBLs in Canvas) and define up to 50 separate palettes for a single image. It takes planning and it takes labor - a lot of labor -and, frankly, the results are just not worth the effort.
Misusing such common and
filename extenders as .SEQ and .IMG is criminal.
I'd stay away from Canvas if for no other
reason than to avoid cluttering my hard drive
with files of dubious content and parentage.
Although Canvas was written to take advantage of the STE's color palette, it also runs on STs with their one-bit-smaller color palette. All of the features work on STs, but with just 512 colors available. Also, it crashes much more often on an ST than on an STE. I've been able to wander into modes where I have a cursor with no response to mouse or keyboard, and other modes where the cursor follows the keyboard into never-never land. I was never able to pinpoint the exact sequence of inputs that caused these crashes. But I would never trust my artwork (even such as it is) to Canvas without plenty of file saves.
Canvas resembles DEGAS Elite in basic structure, in that the main menu is a right-click away from the work screen and vice versa. But where DEGAS uses a variety of dialog boxes and GEM drop-down menus to set its options, Canvas swaps out a portion of its main menu for the same functions. It's purely a matter of preference.
Another difference between DEGAS and Canvas is that Canvas uses a series of unique input and control conventions and, while they're not bad, they're not always the best. Worse, they aren't intuitive, a cardinal sin among inventive interface designers. (For all of its faults, GEM is still a predictable and stable user interface. Once you learn how a dialog box or radio button works, it works the same in any application.)
You can have as many work screens in Canvas as will fit in memory. On a 1040STE without any accessories, I had 11 available, and on my trusty old 2.5MB ST I had 69 screens! That's far less overhead than with DEGAS. A major design flaw, however, lets you change screens only from within the Options special menu. Why? I don't know. And there are no keyboard alternatives for swapping screens, one of the design features that makes using DEGAS or Cyber Paint so easy.
On top of a reasonably capable set of basic commands, 16-year-old British designer John Gymer has grafted an animation toolset and a rudimentary 3D-object creation module. Taking the latter first, my best advice to users is to avoid this difficult and obscure command set. With Antic's Cyber Sculpt and CAD-3D 2.0 still the state of the art in Atari 3D-graphics programs, I don't understand anyone else producing second-rate competitors like Canvas. Canvas asks you to define each line individually, has no facilities for creating graphics primitives and then limits you (thankfully?) to eight, 256-line objects.
Moreover, the 3D functions in Canvas do not include shading or rendering. You can create wireframe objects, rotate, move and place them you wish, and then paste them into your 2D images. That's it. The animation facility is little better. You can set up a series of sprite cels on a single screen and then define the order, speed and sequence with which they are shown. It's helpful if you're creating a game, perhaps, but not for much else.
File This Away
My last major gripe about Canvas is that it creates a whole new set of filename extensions that are not used in any other program. While Canvas can load and save .PI? and .NEO files, it also uses .CPT (compact picture format), .CNV (Canvas picture format), .SEQ (sequence format - not Cyber Paint's SEQ compressed animation format), .1CP (one-color fill patterns), .PAT (16-color fill patterns), .LIN (line pattern), .SPR (sprite pattern), .3D (3D object - not compatible with CAD-3D 1.0), .HBL (horizontal blank color sets), .PAL (palette files) and .GRD (grid format). In addition, the GEM .IMG filename extension is used for a raw image file, hut without the GEM .IMG file header.
It takes a certain creative
mindset to develop
online help with the proper balance of
brevity and verbosity. Just taking any old
ASCII file and making it available online
is just not enough.
Creating all of these new file types is unnecessary. Misusing such common and established filename extenders as .SEQ and .IMG is criminal. I'd stay away from Canvas if for no other reason than to avoid cluttering my hard drive with files of dubious content and parentage.
The bottom line is obvious: I don't like Canvas and I don't recommend it. It's a very good first commercial effort for a 16-year-old programmer and shows the power of HiSoft's DevPac 2. It looks like a project under development that was modified for the STE and then rushed out the door to claim the title of the first 4,096-color paint program. Too bad, because, like Marion Brando, it "coulda been a contender."
Andrew Reese is the technical publications manager at a major graphics software company. He was the editor of START for two years.